A healthy education


PSHE should lie at the heart of the curriculum for children with special needs

It should be impossible for a school to be judged outstanding by Ofsted if it is not mindful of the value and importance of PSHE in delivering the statutory aims for the curriculum. Few would argue that this area of learning should not be at the centre of the special school curriculum in responding to the unique needs of pupils in special education.

All our young people, regardless of ability, should be supported in being physically, emotionally and socially healthy, with motivating aspirations. They should be learning in physically, emotionally and socially safe learning environments in order that they can enjoy and achieve.

The physical and emotional wellbeing of children and raising achievement are part of the same agenda. Learning is a physical activity; when we learn our brains physically change and we know that anxious or malnourished children simply can’t learn.

Whilst we may have the responsibility to create an environment within which children are healthy and safe, we have to recognise that we need to provide children with the knowledge, skills, language, strategies and dispositions to gradually share and eventually take over these responsibilities for themselves, to whatever extent possible. Some children may never be able to take complete responsibility for their lives. However, this does not mean that they do not have a right to learn and understand as much as they are able about the issues covered within PSHE. So many of our choices in life are driven by our feelings, but following our feelings without knowledge and understanding can be highly risky.

Embedding PSHE in the school

Children respond well if they know their opinions are valued.Consider an issue such as bullying. Our anti-bullying policies should focus first on how we model and teach young people the values, language, strategies and skills to develop the supportive relationships that are essential for a physically and emotionally safe learning culture. Second, they should consider how we teach the strategies and skills young people need to ask for help for themselves or others, and third, how we manage the bullying incidents that inevitably arise from time to time. One way of putting it all together could be:

  • our schools aims, objectives or mission – what we stand for, believe in and what make us unique
  • the “healthy school” – establishing a school ethos and climate that recognises that every single experience children have, from the largest to the smallest, can support or undermine their well-being
  • our individual school policies – how our core values shape how we do things
  • personal development of children – all the collective learning opportunities the school provides that contribute to students’ personal development, which should be recognised as a whole curriculum responsibility
  • PSHE education programme – the curriculum time we provide when PSHE education is explicitly explored and taught.

A comprehensive, progressive PSHE education programme is at the heart of the statutory duty on schools to promote wellbeing and should be the entitlement of every child, especially our most vulnerable. In January 2012, Ofsted published subject specific grade descriptors for the inspection of PSHE education that help to define what constitutes outstanding PSHE education provision.

Building on children’s experience

There are a number of core principles that underpin effective practice in PSHE education.  These principles link with broader concepts including “the classroom as a community of enquiry”, “teachers as researchers” and “distributed leadership”. Good practice in PSHE education is as much about our children learning the thinking and interpersonal skills to make sense of and gradually manage the world around them as it is about us learning how our children already, using their own wonderful “child logic”, are making sense of their world, so that we can plan our teaching and inform our own school’s improvement.

The needs of children in special education schools are widely diverse. The key principle therefore is to start from where children are. Before we can plan our programme or even teach a lesson we need to know the language, concepts and understanding our children bring to the classroom. If we don’t do this we risk our teaching being irrelevant or insensitive. Children’s brains are designed to learn, which is not necessarily the same as being designed to learn what we need to teach. In the first few years of their lives, they do something amazing: they acquire language principally by listening and observing.  If they can achieve this, we should not be surprised at how much also they have absorbed from the rest of their experience. This is the generation that can have the world brought to them in high definition and surround sound on televisions the size of windows. Research nationally has shown that we significantly underestimate how much meaning children of all ages and abilities are constructing from what they see, hear and experience. They are already trying to make sense of the adult world that they are constantly watching and hearing.

The late Noreen Wetton from the University of Southampton, one of the leaders in the field of PSHE, suggested three new “Rs” for education:

  • Research – research what young people bring to the classroom
  • Respect – respect what they tell us
  • Reflect – reflect this in our planning

We need to find out what:

  • our children already know and understand – their language and strategies that are correct or helpful and that we can celebrate and build on
  • our children have misunderstood and that we need to unpick, often by children sticking together their observations and overheard ideas using powerful child logic to create explanations that are non-sense but never nonsense
  • is almost there that we can “nudge”
  • is missing, and if this is okay or needs teaching?
  • is wrong that we need to gently challenge, perhaps by asking the question “if that were true, what would the world be like?”

Once we have this information, we can begin to build a spiral programme where core themes are revisited each year, gradually building in more comprehensive learning. One of the deceptively simple ways of carrying out this type of research, pioneered by Noreen, is known as “draw and write”. This technique is inclusive because we can allow children a spelling holiday or provide a scribe to help record their thoughts. With younger or less able children a similar technique called “draw and tell” invites pupils first to draw and then talk to you about their drawings. Splodges and squiggles all mean something – often very complex things to children.

PSHE in action

The following illustration uses bullying as an example of how we can understand and use children’s understanding of the world in PSHE. It can be adapted to suit different classes and situations and can be used with children of all ages.

Imagine a young person of about your age is being bullied. Draw a picture of them. Imagine someone asked you to describe them; what words would you use? What is happening to them when they are being bullied? How do you think they feel when they are being bullied? If you were their friend, what would you feel, say and do?

You could try the same process only starting with the sentence: Imagine a young person of about your age bullies others.

A next stage could be to expand your children’s concept of what bulling could include:

How do people who are being bullied feel? What else do people say and do that might make others feel like this? Could these people be bullying?

We can now take this forward by exploring ideas such as:

If we thought someone was being bullied or felt like they were being bullied, what we would say and do? Who would we tell?  How could we attract their attention? What would we say? What do we think they would do?’

One school developed this into a giant whole school wall display under these headings:

  • We thought people who bullied looked like this…
  • We thought they were…
  • We thought bullies did these things…
  • We think children who are being bullied feel like this…
  • Now we think bullying could be…so perhaps we could all be bullies sometimes.
  • We are going to try…
  • If our friends or someone in our school was being bullied, we would feel…
  • This is what we would say and do…
  • This is who we would tell….

The school then worked together to produce three posters:

  • If I feel I am being bullied, I have a right to…
  • If I think someone feels they are being bullied, I have a responsibility to…
  • If I tell an adult, I know they will…

The PSHE programme explored concepts such as “rights and responsibilities” and developed the skills to enable children to ask for help for themselves and others. This is just a snap-shot from a programme that included taking the children’s work to both parents and governors leading to a whole school policy.

These techniques have been used by teachers to explore health issues, including:

  • how their children are already trying to make sense of living in a drug using world
  • how they feel about growing up and their bodies changing
  • how they keep themselves safe and what they believe they need to keep safe from
  • how they feel about coming to school, what makes them feel good to learn and what gets in the way.

They demonstrate to our children that we really value their opinions, beliefs, good and not so good feelings, as well as their achievements, and that we respect them so much that this is informing our planning and our school’s improvement. It is, in short, enabling our ability and capacity to support children’s physical, emotional and social development and wellbeing.

Be warned, though: this is type of classroom action research is fun and highly addictive.

Further information

Nick Boddington is Subject Adviser, PSHE Education at the PSHE Association:

Nick Boddington
Author: Nick Boddington

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