Out of the classroom learning offers a wealth of opportunities to challenge and engage young people with SEN.
As any teacher will tell you, nothing compares to the experience of watching something click inside a student’s head. Often, this is a specific skill learned in a lesson, but the moments are where a student demonstrates newfound confidence, a genuine belief that they can take on the task in front of them. For young people with SEN, the development of this self-esteem and the ability to adapt to new challenges is central to their education. In my teaching, I work to develop this confidence through a range of out of the classroom activities, from nature-based learning to sports and volunteering. These activities are instilled in the core of the school curriculum and have been further supported by the framework provided by offering The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award (DofE) to our Key Stage 4 and 5 students.
When I speak to my young people about the “work” we did today out in the garden, or in the gym, they tell me that they haven’t been working, as there were no textbooks or pens. I always ask them “Didn’t we discuss what we were going to be doing, didn’t you have to think closely about what you were doing, and think of what your answers would be?” They gradually embrace the fact that it is not only in highly structured lessons that they are learning.
Activities that we offer as part of the curriculum range from a horticultural programme to taking trips to the seaside. What each young person has to gain from outdoor experience varies entirely from one individual to the other, and it is the role of the educator to gauge what is most helpful to each student. For one young person, spending time outdoors may be a challenging experience, as they may be more used to the familiar environment of the indoor classroom. For another, digging in a vegetable garden may provide a comforting respite from the academic challenges of the classroom. By providing young people with a certain degree of challenge, and the support they need to tackle this challenge, we are able to diversify their range of experience. This diversification is essential. As special schools work so hard to provide a supportive environment, we also have to remind ourselves that our young people are soon to be young adults. By providing them only with familiarity for the seven years they are with us, we would be denying them the ability to adapt to the new circumstances of their adult lives. Instead, we must focus on broadening their horizons.
Experience has shown me that a minor negative experience can ultimately turn into a positive gain, as it gives the young person better knowledge of their own interests. For example, a young person who finds the activity of painting a garden mural to be dull has still gained the knowledge that this is not something they enjoy. As teachers, we have to facilitate environments that empower young people to learn about themselves in this way, and from there to make informed choices about their interests.
The goal of resilience is enshrined across the spectrum of education, but for young people with SEN, resilience is at the core of everything they do. Everyday activities that many people take for granted – such as speaking in a social group – can require bravery, strength of will and conscious effort for some young people. Young people with SEN have to be resilient throughout their lives as they confront and expand the limits of their abilities. We must remember the resilience they already show in their daily lives when considering new challenges to put before them.
I am a firm believer that sport can break down all kinds of barriers. There are some challenges to young people with SEN getting involved in sports; these might potentially including a dislike of physical contact or of competitive sports, trouble with coordination, visual or hearing impairments, or limited mobility. Yet there are a whole host of accessible and inclusive activities available to young people. Physical activity is essential to the healthy development of all young people, and young people with SEN deserve the right of full inclusion within that.
As a leader for sports in my establishment, we have had great success in offering a range of sports activities to our young people, some of whom will soon be heading off to the national Disability Gymnastics Finals in Cardiff. A young person with extremely limited mobility may play boccia seated and with the use of a ramp, using vocal direction to decide the aim of the ball. We have recently secured funding to offer fully inclusive wheelchair basketball, in which wheelchair users have the experience of being an advantage to their peers.
Sporting achievements, whether through official competitions and schemes, or simply through a young person’s understanding of gradual improvement over time, can give young people the confidence to better tackle the whole of their school experience. If they find that their academic studies cause frustration, and find it difficult to mark their gradual achievements in their studies, sport provides a positive reinforcement of the results of hard work and focus.
Sport’s social dynamic also provides a structure from which young people can understand team work and social boundaries. The strong individual support that special schools offer can lead to a young person’s main social contact coming from the teaching staff, rather than from their peers. Working together in a sports activity opens young people up to socialise with their peers, and to communicate with them as a team. This allows for role modelling, where one student having a very sociable attitude can lead to a more social dynamic for the whole group. For young people involved in sports that take them out of school, these activities can also help them find a place in the wider community.
Making a contribution
Getting involved in volunteering activities can further expand the boundaries of a young person’s experience. Again, the experience of a variety of activities is invaluable, as it empowers young people to make informed decisions on what they do or do not enjoy. Our school has been able to arrange a variety of volunteering opportunities, including being a volunteer at the local Rainbows group, helping at a local church group, and working locally with countryside management at Llyn Llech Owain Country Park.
Volunteering opportunities that involve taking part in a community, ensure that the groups of people that our students are exposed to are not limited only to our own school. Young people with SEN can be at risk of being isolated from communities, whether through lack of confidence to explore new opportunities, issues with access and mobility making it difficult to physically encounter new places, or from the challenge of socialising and communicating. Getting involved in volunteering with local community groups at a young age can give pupils a lifelong place within the community, and an understanding that their work can be of benefit to the community.
We are now hosting the local Rainbows group from within our own school classrooms, and our young people are taking pride in sharing their space with other young people. We know that volunteering has value to these young people as they continue to enjoy volunteering on a weekly basis.
The challenge of adventure
As part of The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, led by my colleague Liz Hopkins who has been teaching Key Stage 4 and 5 and SEN/ALN for 27 years, we were determined to enable our young people to fully participate in the DofE’s expedition experience. This involves two days of a pre-planned walk, and one night of camping. Our team included young people with cerebral palsy, a young person who is wheelchair bound with spina bifida, and another with Down’ syndrome. After much consideration, we were able to offer an expedition through The National Botanic Garden of Wales, which features a range of rough terrain as well as paved walkways.
By setting off in groups across a variety of mapped routes, each with their own coordinates and meeting points, the expedition was able to challenge each young person, whilst still being achievable by all. Some of our pupils with the most limited mobility were nonetheless the most eager to take on the challenge, and showed absolute determination in achieving their goals.
The highlight of the expedition was the camping, as the National Botanic Garden had arranged for us to stay in their Great Glasshouse, the largest single-span great glasshouse in the world. The young people played an active role in every element of the camping trip, from cooking their own dinner and breakfast to setting up the tents. For many of our young people, this was their first opportunity to go camping.
The combination of the excitement of an entirely new experience, the beautiful gardens and greenhouse, and the sense of achievement in what many had previously thought impossible, all added together to make it a highly valuable experience for our young people.
The enthusiasm felt by all was evident in the commitment of our teachers and teaching assistants, many of whom have their own children and family commitments, but all of whom rushed to give up their time to support our expedition.
The achievement of a Duke of Edinburgh’s Award by our young people demonstrates my personal belief in the capacity of young people of all abilities to rise to the challenges put before them, when offered appropriate support. Both larger adventures like the expedition and smaller daily adventures all contribute to a young person’s social, emotional and cognitive development. By taking education out of the classroom, and into the natural world, young people can be enriched by new challenges, gain a host of practical skills, and expand their horizons.
Anthony Wood has been teaching for 22 years, 15 of which have been spent in SEN education. He teaches Key Stage 3 at Canolfan Amanwy, a specialist SEN facility based on the site of Ysgol Dyffryn Aman, a comprehensive school in Ammanford, South Wales.
The author would like to acknowledge the substantial contribution of his colleague Liz Hopkins to the production of this article.
The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award (DofE) is a youth achievement award for 14- to 24-year-olds of all abilities, with an emphasis on outdoor and physical activities, amongst others: