Lucy Plunkett on writing for children with SEN.
Never more so than now, with reports that the number of referrals to mental health services for children and young people is almost double pre-pandemic levels, positively promoting wellbeing, diversity and inclusion should be at the heart of practice. Certainly, referrals to our Service have rocketed exponentially. A clear pattern is emerging: increased anxieties and Emotional Based School Avoidance (a term we much prefer to school ‘refusal’) – particularly for those on the delayed assessment pathway who have had to wait longer to understand themselves and access support. This, along with longer waiting times and stretched resources, has increased the pressure on families. And don’t get me started on the Department for Education’s persistent, anxiety-inducing ‘catch up’ rhetoric of missed opportunities, which was about as reassuring as the sound of nails being dragged down a blackboard. As a parent of a child with autism, anxiety and many other co-existing needs, this is particularly close to my heart.
My job is my life, or perhaps my life is my job? I spent fifteen years as a Teacher and Special Educational Needs Coordinator (SENCo) before moving on to my current role as a Specialist Advisory Teacher for Speech, Language, Communication and Autism needs in Hertfordshire. As a SEN parent, whose work is supporting children and young people with SEN, I don’t switch off. But what carer of a SEN child does? I’m sure this will resonate with many of you; my child has slept through the night once in her life. Once. As I write this, that is one night out of 12 years, 9 months and 30 days. One night out of 153 months or 670 weeks or 4688 days. One out of 4688. Sensory needs and anxieties affect both the onset and maintenance of her sleep. Every day is a challenge for her at school, including the build up to getting there, and she feels isolated from her peers. So, when I speak with the families and, my favourite part, meet the pupils and capture their views, I’m truly empathetic; I get it.
In my role, I’m often asked to recommend resources to support our pupils with an aspect of their needs. I’m happy to do so as books and stories have always been my passion; when a story resonates with you, all that exists are those magnificent words that free you to lose yourself and find yourself too. And when you meet characters you can relate to, it’s like ‘coming home’. I spend hours of my free time researching texts that could help my pupils to experience this feeling of belonging and to understand themselves. I meet so many children who are fearful of their diagnosis or feel that they don’t fit in anywhere. While there is a wealth of wonderful material out there, I’ve found that many of my pupils (and my daughter) needed a more subtle approach so, when I couldn’t find what I was looking for, I wrote my own gently relatable, inclusive stories with positive narratives and diverse characters. The short rhyming stories focus on a different dog’s time at WAG Club (We Are Great), a weekly training club, and involve them experiencing a difficulty relating to their needs. With adjustments, support and understanding, the dog leaves feeling positive. The stories are purposely subtle in their message and address needs in a gentle way, providing a safe starting point for discussion.
Each story has been inspired by my daughter and the pupils I’ve supported, who expressed feeling: ‘Naughty; too different to have friends; bad at everything; worried about everything.’ So many children just need a safe platform to open discussions and understand themselves and others. Although my stories are neither illustrated nor published, I’ve shared them with many pupils with positive feedback and outcomes. For example, when sharing with a pupil the story of Walter the whippet, which addresses emotional and sensory regulation linked to autism, he commented, ‘That’s just like me!’ We created a mindmap of ways we could help Walter and, as the pupil decided those strategies would also work for him, they are now part of his provision at school. Staff had previously been unable to gain pupil voice before this or support him to engage with adjustments. It was music to my ears.
I have written eight WAG Club stories in total, which address: sensory and emotional regulation, anxiety, physical difference, food aversion, attention and focus, selective mutism, tics and Tourettes and phobia of germs. With an increase of referrals requesting support regarding gender dysphoria, I’m currently writing the ninth one.
I’ve also written a fiction story to introduce the benefits of having a School/Therapy Dog for supporting the diverse school community. When searching for fictional texts to share with his staff, families and governors to introduce the idea of having a School Dog, my husband struggled to find any that encapsulated the empathy, friendship, kindness, love, positivity, respect, responsibility and trust that having a School/Therapy Dog can promote. I wrote ‘Dexter the School Dog’ for this reason.
I hope these synopses provide a little more insight into my stories:
‘WAG Club: Roll Over, Doodles!’
Doodles the Dachshund loves learning new skills at WAG Club. With his long, sausage back he is finding today’s roll-over trick very tricky indeed! Doodles’ friends help him to realise that everyone is different and so he finds a different way to succeed.
‘WAG Club: Change Feels Strange for Walter’
Walter the Whippet really enjoys the routine of WAG Club; it’s what Thursdays are all about! Today though, WAG Club is different and Walter feels that Thursday is ruined. That is, until the others help him to see that change can be good, even if it feels strange.
‘Dexter the School Dog’
Dexter the School Dog is ready for another day at Skywood School doing what he loves best, helping others. Today, Dexter helps the children to come to school, be brave, feel calm, persevere and talk about their emotions. Every day at Skywood School is as unique as its pupils.
For now, I’m an unillustrated, unpublished novice and am actively seeking representation and publication so that my stories can realise their potential and help children and families in a wider capacity. It’s been my longest ambition to be a published author (and I’ve come a long way from writing stories about my grumpy dachshund on my childhood, third-hand typewriter) so if you’re reading this and can help me on my journey, please get in touch! A wise friend once reminded me that there are so many parenting books to choose from because one size does not fit all. Just like the many parenting books that weren’t right for my family, not every story will work for, or appeal to, every person; that’s the beauty of being unique individuals. My stories may not be right for everyone, but I’m hoping that they can be a source of joy and help for some. I’ll keep writing to address the needs of the children I support, trying to raise awareness and make a positive difference, one
word at a time.
Exciting Development: I am currently liaising with an independent publisher who creates inclusive and accessible picture books that reflect the diversity and challenges faced by children today. We have set up a Crowdfunder to help realise my dream to start the publishing journey and help children, families and settings far and wide! Further details can be found here: SEN Children’s Book Series: Dexter the School Dog! – a Publishing crowdfunding project in Warwick by Lucy Plunkett (crowdfunder.co.uk)