Residential school placements: creating a soft landing for new pupils

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Professor Sandy Toogood discusses how transitions to and from residential schools can be made as easy as possible for children, parents and carers.

For some children a residential school placement will be the best or only option available in order to access formal education. However, placing a pupil locally is not always possible when a residential placement is needed, and occasionally a local solution may not even be desirable. Whether in area or out, every residential placement requires careful consideration of the pupil’s emotional and psychological wellbeing and his or her family members.

Pupils requiring residential placement include those with a traumatic background, perhaps with a history of multiple placements and placement failure, and those for whom rejection and exclusion are not a new experience. The needs of individual pupils are clearly very different from one another, and a significant level of individualised planning is required, together with robust transitional support for those needs to be met. Environments where pupils with special educational needs are able to learn, develop, and grow, are simply not possible without attending first to emotional and psychological wellbeing.

Most of us probably remember changing schools as a major event in our lives, associated perhaps with feelings of anxiety or even dread. How much greater might such an event be for pupils whose disabilities make communication and understanding of the world an everyday challenge; for whom changing school also means changing accommodation; where the people providing care and support, although caring and kind, are no longer familiar family members; and where the design and location of buildings called home are also new and unfamiliar. Add to this the worries, anxieties, and emotional responses of family members who are separated from their loved one, and the level and type of support needed begins to emerge.

While this does not entirely fall to residential schools, residential school providers are under a duty to do all that they can to ensure that every transition is as smooth and pain free as it can be for everyone involved. At Abbey School, we have come to think of this as facilitating a soft landing.

Preparing a soft landing

Preparing soft landings requires compassion, diligence, and commitment from staff. It demands a high level of ability in multiple areas of life and hard work that is done consistently and with care.

The aims, objectives, and points of principle for creating a soft landing are extensive and include taking into account a number of wellbeing, communication and spatial factors as well as having an in-depth awareness of the pupil and their background.

A foundation must be built on the basis of empathy, safety and respect for the pupil, family members, and all significant others equally. Achieving this includes:

• Putting the pupil’s needs first in all decisions and actions

• Involving family members – empowering them as far as is possible, reasonable, safe, and (in specific cases) desirable

• Being sensitive to pupil feelings and perspectives – a little empathy goes a long way

• Safeguarding – protecting everyone from harm and promoting their wellbeing.

Creating the right space is an important part of this, as it should provide an attractive, comfortable and safe environment both indoors and out. This space should also extend to the wider community and involve connecting life at home and in community areas with life in school in ways that strengthen learning and personal development. Becoming involved in the community and making use of local facilities will help with this, as it will pursue the twin goals of belonging and connection.

Getting to know the pupil by sharing time together and learning from others is vital to ensuring a soft landing. This understanding should be built up in a number of ways, such as:

• Establishing rapport – making frequent ‘deposits’ in the ‘trust account’, and building sufficient capital before making a ‘withdrawal’

• Discovering and building upon personal routines and following pupil preferences and ways of doing things

• Being sensitive to cultural beliefs and practices

• Creating autonomy and ceding control relative to pupil ability, age, and status

• Encouraging the development of pupil gifts and talents in as many aspects of life as possible.

For both the preparation and implementation of a soft landing, clear and effective communication between multiple parties must be established. To do this, the residential school’s placement staff must be able to hear the pupil’s voice individually and collectively and they should pursue speaking and listening skills while developing the pupil’s sense of self. Well-defined and consistent expectations of behaviour and conduct can then be put in place by providing reliable role models and by giving regular positive feedback as well as timely error correction. In addition, communication, unless otherwise indicated, must remain open between the pupil and their family and communities of origin through frequent and regular contact, with the use of modern communications technologies to maximum extent where possible.

Soft landings require planning and co-ordination, which in turn depend upon thorough pupil-centred pre- and within-placement assessment. They also require that a range of options are available with sufficient flexibility to address a diverse variety of pupil preferences and needs across numerous areas of life, and with a capability to schedule transitions from small incremental steps to total and immediate immersion. In the end, soft landings taper seamlessly to ongoing support, so that pupils and their families thrive with psychological and emotional security.

The next soft landing

Leaving school is another significant event where a soft landing may be needed. At the end of placement, pupils may return to their community of origin or choose to remain close to the residential school they attended. They may transition from a residential school to a day placement at the same school, or to a day or residential placement at another school. Older pupils may attend a residential or day college or supported employment scheme. Some will move into adult community living services or back to their family home.

Soft landing principles and practices apply just as much when leaving school as when joining. When a pupil leaves a residential school, the residential school placement staff will have come to know the pupil well, to understand his or her emotional, behavioural, and learning support needs, and have insight into his or her life conditions and ambitions for the future. The residential school has a responsibility to reach out and support the process of transition away from the school as well as into

it. Arranging a soft landing is likely to include participating in a range of assessments and developing support plans with the same level of care and compassion shown when joining. Preparation for a soft landing may have a long taper with a great deal of the groundwork for a smooth, end-of-placement transition being undertaken during the placement itself.

All transitions require planning, collaboration and sustained co-operation between parties. Pupil-focused approaches are well known, understood, and increasingly deployed in education settings. In addition, the emotional and psychological wellbeing of pupils and others is receiving increased attention from research and practitioner communities. The added value of adopting soft landings as a concept is that it binds all of our thoughts and actions to our core values, with particular emphasis on empathy and compassion, and in the context of the many additional challenges residential school placements pose for pupils and their families.

Prof Sandy Toogood
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Professor Sandy Toogood, BEM, is Honorary Professor at Bangor University, College of Human Sciences and leads on clinical and behavioural support at Abbey School for Exceptional Children.

https://abbeyschool.com T: @AbbeySchoolUK F: @abbeyschooluk

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