Thursday, 20 December 2012

Technology & SEN - the good, the bad and the light

I've read two articles recently that are worth sharing. The first is an interesting article about a piece of software / app to coach students with autistic-type difficulties in recognising emotion in others. It is called 'Training Faces' - designed by blogger Therese Wantuch with help from her son Jack, who has autism. What I think is appealing about it is the fact it is designed as a questing game, which as Sue Palmer notes in '21st Century Boys', is a big motivator for boys. The app has a Facebook page and a demonstration video can be viewed on Youtube - it is also available for download on the major app sharing sites.

In terms of technology for supporting literacy, particularly those students with dyslexic-type difficulties, in my setting we use both 'Word Shark' and 'Lexia' as a part of our intervention programmes. Again, these are appealing to students because they take on aspects of more traditional gaming with them having to complete timed tasks, progress through levels etc.

However, with any of these new technologies, we need to be careful they do not become the intervention out of a belief that 'computers = undying interest'. My experience of working with students on these programmes is they will persist with it for 20 - 30min sessions once or twice a week. And they will often be exhausted after it due to the intensity of working in front of a screen for this length of time. Anything more than this and they generally start to view it as a chore, and in turn will disengage over the longer-term.

Also, we should not get too seduced by the apparent cost-effectiveness of these programmes. Comparing a Toe-by-Toe or Paired Reading intervention which typically involves 1-to-1 tuition with a Lexia intervention where you can have a 1-to-25 staff-student ratio (and perhaps even more, I guess) might lead us into buying into the Lexia proclamation that they truly are "The Future of Reading Education". Particularly so during times of reduced funding. However, it is my belief students continue to require connection and interaction - a human relationship - with a teacher or mentor, not just a computerised voice. This principle goes right back to the Orton-Gillingham approach which emphasises the emotional aspect of learning.

This then leads to a second article I found interesting and informative this week about the detrimental impact of low-energy lighting on some people. Having recently completed training in Irlen Syndrome (also known as Visual Perceptual Difficulties or Scoptopic Sensitivity), I have become far more aware of and in-tune to the needs of a significant proportion of our students. These are typically students who have struggled to acquire reading and writing skills at the same rate of their peers, often carrying an official diagnosis of ADHD or reports of 'dyslexic tendencies'. My main teaching classroom has two sets of lights, so you can switch one set off to dim the room slightly. I've surveyed a number of 'lower ability' classes over the past few weeks on whether they prefer this and the response is an overwhelming yes. And in turn, I've noticed concentration improves, and irritability with one another decreases, in a slightly dimmed classroom that tends to mimic natural light more closely.

This sensitivity to light also appears to be linked in with computer screens with a number of students I work with often asking for the lights to be dimmed when they are using the computers - I question whether this again is them subconsciously trying to cope with the artificial light.

Fortunately, and what I found really encouraging, is that something such as sensitivity to light - which appears to have complex roots in the microscopic labrynth of nerve structures in the eye and brain - can be solved quite simply through use of coloured overlays and a basic level of teacher awareness.

At the end of a long term, I keep reminding myself of this - special educational needs is complicated in terms of causes, but often relatively simple in terms of solutions. To use one of my favourite Einstein quotes, "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler."

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

A Note on Sandy Hook and Autism

Autism has been in the news recently following the tragic events at Sandy Hook Elementary School with early reports in all the major news outlets stating that the perpetrator of the massacre had a diagnosis of the condition. With very little other details of the perpetrator's background, the danger in this reporting is that autism (ASD / Asperger's Syndrome) becomes mistakenly viewed as the primary cause.

Bonnie Rochman, writing for Time Magazine, has written a well thought out commentary - "Guilt by Association: Troubling Legacy of Sandy Hook May Be Backlash Against Children with Autism" - which draws attention to the upsurge in anxiety amongst young people with autism and their parents following the event. There is also a short video here discounting any link between premeditated violence and Autism which is worth passing on:

On a similar note, the University of Manchester today published a press release on research by Dr Judith Hebron highlighting some of the common experiences of students with Autism within the school setting. A statistic highlighted was 59.1% of students with autism demonstrate clinical levels of anxiety - sometimes because they are the victims of bullying, including physical violence, by peers hostile to their difference. The key quote for me came at the end, which has been borne out by some of the constructive work we've undertaken recently in school around this particular issue;

"This is a difficult problem to address as it is often hidden... But as children experiencing chronic stress and anxiety are more likely to suffer from mental health problems in the future, it’s vitally important we are aware of these issues and intervene early in order to minimise the risk.

...Many mainstream schools are doing excellent work in supporting and including young people on the autistic spectrum: there are ways to moderate their anxiety... It is also possible teach tolerance of difference to other children, but we hope this study will offer support for existing strategies and provide exploratory ideas for new ones.”

Monday, 10 December 2012

What's it like to have ADHD?

This is a fascinating website I happened upon late last night - ADHD Voices. The creators have interviewed 150 young people between 9 - 14 years about their experiences of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and then used their recordings as the narration / dialogue for a series of animated videos.

I recently heard a fellow SEN Coordinator say they have found that students identified as having ADHD are commonly 'more one than the other' in terms of the low attention, daydreaming aspect and the hyperactivity, impulsivity aspect - and that maybe the term should be split up. I'm not sure what position to take on this, because I simply don't know enough about it, but this video does seem to reflect this twofold difference in experience of the condition.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Automaticity, Darwin and Spiral Schools

We use a variety of literacy interventions at Thornleigh Salesian College - Toe-by-Toe, Lexia, Sounds-Write, paired reading primarily using Barrington Stoke books plus various other bespoke programmes. These are more often than not used with students who have 'dyslexic tendencies', commonly combined with a history of speech and language needs.

Much of these address issues with phonological awareness - which in very basic terms means the sounds and structures of spoken words. Phonological awareness is developed via the following broad stages:

However, reviewing a student's formative assessment findings this past week has re-tuned me into the fact phonological awareness is sometimes not the priority when seeking to address persistent basic literacy difficulties. The use of a rapid naming test, from the CTOPP assessment kit, demonstrated that for some students the priority is addressing issues around processing. In basic terms and in relation to literacy, processing refers to the speed and accuracy with which the brain thinks of or sees / hears a word, breaks it down into discrete sounds, and then associate each sound with the visual representations (letters) that make up the word. 

For students who experience difficulty with both phonological awareness and processing, this is often referred to as a 'double deficit' - a classic theoretical model of what lies behind the more severe dyslexic-type difficulties.

For those wanting to find out more, the processing aspect is associated with the 'phonological loop' - even more so when language and/or numeracy difficulties are also evident.

Attempts to address processing deficits / difficulties centre around two key concepts within education - automaticity and overlearning.

Automaticity refers to the concept of undertaking an action with little thought. There are some things we humans are pre-programmed to do with automaticity - breathing probably being the first one! But from there, skills like feeding, non-verbal communication, walking, speech all develop quite naturally in most children, so long as they are within a nurturing environment. This is a result of evolution - we have evolved to do these things quickly and with automaticity as part of our survival plan.

There are other things - such as riding a bike, swimming, driving a car -  that, generally speaking, our minds and bodies are also coincidentally built to learn with automaticity. The same could also be said of literacy skills. However, as Maryanne Wolf put quite strikingly in Proust and the Squid;
"We were never born to read. Human beings invented reading only a few thousand years ago. And with this invention, we rearranged the very organization of our brain, which in turn expanded the ways we were able to think, which altered the intellectual evoltuon of our species. Reading is one of the single most remarkable inventions in history; the ability to record history is one of its consequences. Our ancestors’ invention could come about only because of the human brain’s extraordinary ability to make new connections amongst its existing structures, a process made possible by the brain’s ability to be shaped by experience. This plasticity at the heart of the brain’s design forms the basis for much of who we are, and who we might become."
The key point here is that this is dependent on existing 'neurotypical' structures - but for those humans who are not 'neurotypical', the predisposition is less obvious, less conducive, less easily adapted to reading and writing. They can usually be coached and cajoled into developing these skills but it takes longer and requires a less typical approach.

So, returning to practical matters, how can we address problems with processing - and in turn develop automaticity - amongst learners struggling to acquire literacy skills? The short answer is another key concept in education - overlearning. Overlearning refers to the continued practising or study of a skill or concept long after it has seemingly been learnt, so that it becomes to an extent mastered. In many ways I think it is best represented by a forward moving spiral growing in size, or more simply, a spiral staircase.

In terms of basic literacy, the Active Literacy Kit has automaticity built into it throughout with timed activities used as a matter of routine. We have recently purchased this and I will be doing some training with the team to get them au fait with it, ahead of using it with those students for whom rapid naming is a specific difficulty. In many ways, this is the 'medical model' approach in action with us actively seeking to 'cure' or 'fix' a difficulty experienced by individuals. It is an approach frowned upon in some circles but if we look at some of the new science of learning and the research around the teenage brain, there is good argument that some students can to an extent be 're-wired'.

But there is also the need for 'social model' responses, in terms of how we shape our everyday curriculum to embody automaticity as a key principle, with sufficient opportunities for overlearning throughout. There is a well-reasoned and long-standing argument that a school culture centred only on targets restricts time for consolidation and enrichment - as one teacher put it, "It's as if a train is leaving the station at the end of every lesson, and every time some of the children are being left behind." If we are to genuinely effect positive change within young people, then room needs to be made for students to learn - and then re-learn - and then re-learn again to the point of mastery.