The same high ambitions for all children

Posted on 8th Aug 2019 in Sensory impairment, School News

How do you create an educational environment where children who are deaf or have complex communication difficulties, sensory issues and autism spectrum conditions can succeed and what does that success look like? How can we help deaf children achieve in line with their hearing peers? Ann Bradbury, Head Teacher at St John’s Catholic School for the Deaf, explains how creating the correct learning and support environments is vital for supporting young people for whom mainstream school settings can be too challenging...

Young people who find it difficult to focus, who struggle to communicate or make themselves understood and those who may have sensory difficulties too often find the mainstream educational system does not meet their needs.

Classes are too large, too noisy and the child may experience sensory overload. Teachers have many children to support and peers may not always understand the additional needs the young person has. They may feel increasingly isolated and anxious. Their ability to learn effectively suffers, and their chances of achieving success academically, and indeed socially, shrink.

In 2018, deaf children were reported to be achieving more than a whole grade less at GCSE than their hearing peers. Further figures revealed that more than 55 per cent of young deaf people in England did not achieve more than one A-Level by the age of 19. It was a year when students with no SEN were shown to have opened up the biggest attainment gap – almost 25 per cent – over their deaf peers since 2012.

While deafness brings its own difficulties, it is not a learning disability and should not be treated as such. In principle, there are few, if any, reasons why, with the right support in place and understanding of their needs, a deaf young person could not achieve in line with a hearing child.

Here at St John’s we support young people who are deaf in our school, and weekly-boarding residential service, through offering an environment which benefits children for whom learning is a challenge due to their communication or sensory difficulties and for whom mainstream settings do not work.

When they come through our doors they find an environment which is spacious and peaceful, where teaching and care staff are used to finding bespoke communication methods to support children and where children learn, play and socialise with supportive and understanding peers each day.

Class sizes are small, classrooms are designed to create calm learning spaces and teachers and care team staff are specialists and experienced in supporting young people who may find learning difficult. This additional and specialist support – such as speech and language input, auditory equipment and support, note takers, transport or specialist placements in schools and sixth forms – is a key part of creating an environment where a child can succeed.

However, we must not underestimate the importance of other factors – mental health, a child’s self-confidence and sense of self and their environment are all crucial for young people to flourish.

Mental health support and understanding of emotional development is key. At the outset, all concerned need to recognise that these young people may be more vulnerable to experiencing mental health difficulties, before we look at what we can do to provide appropriate and timely assistance.

We all have a vital role to play in identifying early signs in the deaf child that they may be struggling with their mental health. Working with the local deaf child and adolescent mental health service (DCAMHS), creating a relationship with these services, is also extremely important, as is supporting families to understand the difficulties their child may be facing.

Creating this environment where the child can learn is the first step to helping them have good mental health. They need a place where they are part of a group of children with whom they can communicate. As with all children, they need a place where they can learn, play and feel safe and happy – where they can make friends and foster friendships.

Physical health is also a factor. Learning can be disrupted with physical health difficulties – some children who are deaf also have additional physical difficulties which can impact on their learning either due to mobility, discomfort or pain.

Just being aware of them as factors in a child’s ability to learn can make all the difference. Offering comfortable seating, regular breaks, note takers, phased transitions back to school, outreach and again, having a school nurse who understands the issues, can all help a child stay in school and be ready to learn.

We understand that success is not just passing exams (although our children do that, with each child achieving between 8 and 12 qualifications each and 100% going on to further education, training or employment) but that learning to be part of a group, gaining skills for independence and how to be resilient are all important too.

Perhaps most importantly of all, we are hugely ambitious for our young people. We know they can succeed, that they can achieve – no matter the difficulties they experience. We expect great things from them and for them – and when they come back to visit, we see they achieve all that we wish for them.

We should have the same high expectations for deaf children as we have for all children; if we believe they can succeed, they will believe it too and that really is the first step towards encouraging good mental health and to achievement which closes the gap.

St John’s, in Boston Spa, West Yorkshire, provides day and weekly-boarding placements for young people who are deaf and hearing impaired, those with complex multi-sensory impairment, those with communication and sensory difficulties and children with an autism spectrum condition. Our teaching approaches focus on producing confident communicators with both spoken and written communication skills.

Visits from parents, children and families are welcome. To make an appointment call 01937 842144.

This article first appeared in the 2019/20 edition of Which School? for Special Needs. The digital version can be viewed here: