Naomi Fisher looks at how children with SEND can thrive with self-directed learning
Alice wasn’t happy. She was meant to do remote learning, but her difficulties with reading made the worksheets sent home impossible without help, and her parents had little time between their work and caring for her 3-year-old brother. Everyone seemed to be pressured all the time, and Alice felt like there was no fun in her life anymore. ‘I can’t learn anything,’ she sobbed one evening to her mother. ‘I’m so stupid’. Her mother wasn’t sure what to do. Even with lots of help, Alice found the worksheets unexciting and difficult, and she never did them well. She seemed to have lost her zest for life.
Juggling different needs in lockdown
Lockdown hasn’t been easy for anyone, but it’s been particularly hard for families with children with SEND. With children at home, their parents have been expected to support remote learning. For many families this has been a constant struggle.
Parents are left juggling the needs of different children with ever-increasing amounts of schoolwork. That’s before taking into account how many parents are also trying to keep their own jobs whilst helping and caring for their children.
It’s not surprising that surveys show that a high percentage of children with SEND are not completing the work sent home and many are completely disengaged – and a high percentage of parents are feeling burnt out.
When this happens, no one is happy. Parents feel frustrated and children feel like failures. Each day is a battleground, and relationships in the family become focused on getting that home-school work done, before anything else. Parents become worried that their children don’t seem to enjoy anything they do, and that the curiosity they had when they were younger is ebbing away.
There is another way
Dismayed by the impact that trying to make children complete school work has on their family, some are taking the brave decision to take an unconventional route to learning. Based on decades of research into motivation, self-directed learning puts a child’s autonomy at the centre of their education. This means that the child, not the teacher, decides what they will learn. The idea is that motivation and engagement is more important than any specific content. For when a child is interested, learning flows.
We all know motivation matters in learning. When I personally am interested, I learn quickly, but when I’m bored, it takes me forever just to finish one page in a book. Children are the same. When many of their experiences of learning are negative, they end up feeling that they can’t learn at all. Children with SEND are particularly vulnerable here, and this can affect their self-esteem – which can last a lifetime.
What is self-directed learning?
In self-directed learning the learner chooses what to learn, and the learner can choose when to stop. They are autonomous. For this to work, it has to start with the child’s interests. These may be very far from what school is trying to teach. But when a child is not engaged with the school curriculum, what do you really have to lose? Spending a few months focusing on regaining a love of learning has to be better than spending months fighting about maths.
Autonomy – the ability to make meaningful choices about your life – is not the same as independence. It’s about knowing that your decisions about your life matter and will be taken seriously. Autonomy can be supported in people who do not yet have the skills to be independent. For this reason, it’s particularly important for children with SEND who need to know that they can make choices about their life, whatever their academic abilities.
It’s an education in empowerment, something which children with SEND need more than anything else. They need to know that their choices matter, and that they are the drivers of their own lives.
Self-directed learning can look like many things. It could look like watching a video about the ocean or playing a game. It might look like making models with clay, or going for a walk and noticing the world around you. It often looks like conversation, answering questions and wondering about the world. Most of us have experience of interacting with our children in this way from their earliest years, before they went to school. Young children are brilliant at self-directed learning. They zero in on what they find most interesting and then persuade their parents to come along for the ride. As children get older their interests become more sophisticated, but the fundamentals are the same. When they are interested, they learn best. Self-directed learning takes advantage of this simple fact.
One of the joys of self-directed learning with children with SEND is that it allows you to focus on their strengths. So much of what children with SEND do at school is focused on their weaknesses in an effort to help them catch up, but this can mean that they never get a chance to feel good about themselves and their learning. Yet the research shows that by focusing on strengths, weaker areas improve too – and it’s a lot more fun.
This of course means that their strengths may look like nothing which is valued by school. Playing Minecraft or drawing pictures could be a strength. Playing with Lego, chatting, making bread – these are all the foundations of a self-directed education. It starts with what the child enjoys and what is important to them.
The parent’s role is to be curious and supportive, and to offer new opportunities to do more of whatever they love. If they love playing Minecraft alone, perhaps they’d enjoy playing with others, for example. Or if they like drawing, perhaps they’d like to experiment with paint pens or watch some drawing tutorials together on Youtube.
Self-directed learners need a supportive adult and an environment of opportunity. That adult needs to be ready to support but not to control – a tricky balance for many parents.
It means valuing whatever the child wants to learn about and helping them find out more – rather as we did when they were small. Interested in diggers? Okay, let’s go to the building site!
Let’s look up pictures online and Youtube videos. Let’s draw diggers and look at catalogues.
In this way, the child’s learning follows their interest, and so they are motivated and learn to think of themselves as autonomous and capable people. And this is surely what we want for our children with SEND, that whatever their ability, they know that their choices matter.
Alice’s mother decided that something had to change, and so she stopped the pressure to do worksheets. Instead, she noticed that Alice was interested in cats. They went for a walk around the neighbourhood and stopped to talk to the cats they met on the way. Back at home, Alice and her brother drew pictures of cats. Her mother drew cats too but they weren’t as characterful. ‘‘Never mind’’ said Alice. ‘‘You can copy mine if you want’’. Alice wrote ‘cat cat cat’ spontaneously and then said ‘if you change a letter, it’s just like hat’! They drew cats with hats. Then it was time for tea. That evening Alice said ‘I like cats. Can we do that again tomorrow?’. And her mother said ‘Yes’.
Five Ways to Bring Self-directed Learning into your home
1. Watch your child. What do they do when they have free choice? What are they drawn to? What makes them come alive? Those are the places to start.
2. Drop the battles. Many children react to pressure with resistance – and therefore it’s entirely unproductive. Stop the pressure and instead use the energy to engage with them doing the things they love.
3. Join your child doing what they enjoy. Sit with them whilst they watch YouTube videos. Learn to play Minecraft. Draw pictures. By being involved, you can introduce new ideas when they are ready.
4. Trust your instincts. Most parents have a very good idea of their child’s ability level. Forget what school tells you that they should be doing, and instead find the things you know they’ll enjoy. It’s fine if they still like playing with playdough or watching Peppa Pig at age nine. Life isn’t a race. Find books you think they’ll enjoy rather than books you think they should be reading.
5. Just for a while, focus on doing the things they do best rather than the things which need work. Do they love riding their bicycle? Do that together. Do they enjoy chatting to new people? Go and try that on your next outing (socially distanced, of course). Is messy play really their passion? Find new ways to get messy!
Naomi Fisher is a clinical psychologist and author. Her book on self-directed learning, Changing Our Minds: How Children Can Take Control of Their Own Learning, is out now, published by Robinson.