Promoting healthy relationships

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How to provide effective and appropriate sex and relationship education for young people with SEN

We want to ensure that children are happy and safe. This is a surely a basic intention of everyone who works with children with SEN. Families want services which can help their children to learn the skills and knowledge they need to live positive lives, have healthy relationships, recognise difficulties, understand risks and learn how to keep themselves safe.

Where better to focus this work than in sex and relationships education (SRE)? However, while this is a core element of any school, it is still in a state of limbo – with no broad curriculum of statutory sex education, no requirement of academies to teach the subject and so many of our children missing out on fundamental learning which could benefit their whole development.

Schools have a statutory duty to promote pupil wellbeing and, since September 2015, Ofsted has given a useful lead on the importance of safeguarding in every school, highlighting this area as a core priority; only when this is excellent will a school achieve the “Outstanding” accolade.

Key tools in effective safeguarding are exactly the skills development and knowledge capture that SRE can deliver. I hope this requirement from Ofsted will encourage schools to reassess their SRE programmes and provide appropriate opportunities for their pupils.

Facilitating SRE

Teachers are often convinced of the need for this work and many ensure that the wellbeing of their pupils is extended by delivering good SRE. However, it is a sensitive subject and not every teacher feels comfortable to deliver it. I would argue that SRE specialists within a school are best placed to support this area of work. These teachers are interested in the subject and have not had it foisted upon them. They can team teach and support each other, creating a forum where some of the sensitive issues that arise in delivering good SRE can be discussed.

So not only do teachers need to understand SRE, we are also asking them to bring their expertise in working with children with SEN into the mix. Sometimes a teacher will say: “I could never do this”, but when I ask them how they manage their classroom with all their pupils’ feelings, behaviours and relationships, it seems to me that they are already effectively managing practical SRE in the day-to-day learning environment; it is only a small step for them to feel a bit more confident in delivering formal SRE, given appropriate resources and methods.

Not everything about SRE has to happen at once; in fact, this is the last thing we want. The joy of a planned, steady and relevant programme throughout the school means that both teachers and pupils can take the time they need.

Working together

Staff training can be very beneficial, when led by organisations that understand the joys and challenges of making this area of work accessible for pupils with a wide range of needs and abilities. Specialist resources are essential for pupils with SEN with clear and sometimes explicit images to ensure their understanding.

SRE provides schools with a positive opportunity to invite parents and carers to be partners in the process. A classroom lesson, however excellent, is an isolated occurrence and needs to be supported by consistent messages throughout the school and at home. A child with SEN will benefit greatly in their understanding of privacy, for example, if the family bathroom and toilet are identified as private spaces which everyone respects. Inappropriate touching is easier to deal with if children know the correct names for body parts and understand the key phrases, or can indicate with a gesture that something is private. Parents can recognise these concepts and support their child to use them appropriately.

Although parents have the right to withdraw their child from SRE, in my experience they are usually pleased that this area of work is being addressed. They may be looking for help to deal with it and are appreciative of clear SRE that addresses the realities of their children’s lives and value staff who “tell it like it is” and do not shy away from practical teaching and solutions.

It is vital that we recognise the physical realities of the situation; for example, puberty happens whatever the level of disability. How much kinder and simpler it is if young people understand how their bodies will change, how to deal with the practical facts of menstruation or increased attention to hygiene as teenage bodies sweat more, how their feelings may be in flux, and how suddenly they may experience new sexual feelings that are natural and common to young people.

Making a difference

I have been working for 30 years to find methods, images, stories and activities to explain such topics. It is possible for children and young people with SEN to learn about this. When a parent looks ahead for their child and asks “How can I help him stay safe?” or a teacher asks “How can I help her learn this?”, we can reassure them that though it may not always be simple and it may require a consistent partnership approach, there are techniques that will work.

It is crucial to recognise the importance of maintaining safe boundaries to deliver the lessons and children should not be asked to reveal any personal information. Stories and character work can be very effective ways of distancing the material from the personal, while interactive, engaging techniques can ensure the topics are delivered clearly and age appropriately.

I believe that SRE can start when a child begins school; foundation work about gender, public and private, and appropriate behaviour lay the building blocks for later development. We know that for many children with SEN repetition is important, consistency of language and attitudes is helpful and a matter-of-fact approach builds their confidence.

As children grow up, appropriate topics can be introduced, respecting the child’s development and needs. It is important to discuss positive friendships, practising social skills and understanding about consent. Assertion skills can be practised at every level.

Understanding the real world

For our teenagers, the Internet can be a wonderful place to contact others, learn about social behaviours and gain understanding and knowledge. However, in SRE we can work to ensure that they also understand the risks, the importance of privacy settings and how people can indeed lie online and not be a gorgeous fellow teen but a middle aged adult grooming a vulnerable young person.

In time, if appropriate, the nature of intimate relationships can be addressed and the consequences of a sexual relationship or behaviour can be part of a good SRE programme. Young people with SEN have a right to know about these matters if their development and understanding make them relevant.

SRE is a crucial area of work for children and young people with SEN. I believe that the support of effective and enjoyable SRE will help young people to grow up cheerfully and with optimism, understanding risks but confident in their skills.

SRE is sometimes difficult to address and asks us to consider sensitive and complex topics. But my overwhelming experience is that it is a positive, creative and cooperative endeavour and it can be at the heart of teaching and learning for pupils with SEN.

Further information

Lesley Kerr-Edwards is the author of the Talking Together… series (published by www.fpa.org.uk) and is Director of Image in Action, a non-profit making organisation which runs training, consultation and direct work on SRE for people with SEN and disabilities:
www.imageinaction.org

Links to SRE organisations and resources can be found at:
www.sexeducationforum.org.uk

Lesley KerrEdwards
Author: Lesley KerrEdwards

PSHE Image in Action

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