Specialist or Mainstream School? – Our experience

Specialist or Mainstream School? – Our experience

At 7+ my husband and I spent a huge amount of time researching the various schools in our area to find a mainstream school that would be supportive of Jasmine’s special education needs.

We settled on a wonderful school with a Christian ethos, a nurturing and pastoral approach and most importantly, an in-house Learning Support team comprising 4 full-time support teachers. We felt this would be the right environment for her and best of all, she would have access to a team of specialist teachers that can help her.

The school was indeed lovely and Jasmine made some great friends however, the reality was that the school taught classes in a style that was appropriate for 90% of the class but Jasmine, as the only dyslexic child in her class, struggled with.

The underlying assumption is that by Year 3, all the children can read so every subject required reading passages of text either from the board or from handouts and books. This of course was a struggle for Jasmine. In addition, she found it difficult to keep up with the pace of the maths, her handwriting though greatly improved was still labored and she found it difficult to complete her in-class assignments within the allotted time. Furthermore, she felt stigmatized when withdrawn from class for specialist teaching.

The specialist 1 to 1 tuition that she was given amounted to 60 minutes of extra support per week, which did not seem to have any impact at all. In addition to this extra help in school, I supplemented outside of school with extra therapies to help the combination of symptoms that dyslexia and dyspraxia bring. This meant that Jasmine was having 3, 4 sometimes 5 extra sessions of occupational therapy, vision therapy, handwriting etc. A HUGE amount for a 7 year old.

Jasmine was very aware of the fact that she was bottom set in all subjects, that she was given “easier homework” and that she needed extra “special classes” and would often comment on how sad she felt being different to everyone else. In this time we witnessed Jasmine’s confidence and self-esteem plummet and she began to complain about stomach pains. After several tests and hospital referrals, we were told she was experiencing anxiety symptoms.

Talking to other parents who are further along on their journey, I’ve come to understand that the gap between the dyslexic child and other children in terms of results in a mainstream school tends to widen as each year passes and school becomes more and more difficult. My husband and I decided to see what other options there were.

Our paths have led us to a wonderful specialist school called Fairley House. The children are taught in a completely multi-sensory way and all of their additional therapeutic needs are incorporated into their school day.

Jasmine started there last week. She has an extremely customized individual education plan and all her therapies are included into her plan. We do not have to do anything else outside school.

Its early days but she comes home excited to do her homework, she regales me with tales of how they were taught maths by making pizzas and how it’s wonderful that she is “just like everyone else”.

I hope this is the right place for her.

I hope she will be happy.

I hope that her confidence will return.

I hope she will come to understand that she is special.

I hope.

More about our experiences at the specialist school to come.

In the meantime, checkout this very interesting article about making the choice between mainstream or specialist schools.

http://independentschoolparent.com/choosing-a-school/special-needs-mainstream-or-specialist-school

Image

A confidence boosting extra-curricular activity

From the age of 3, I signed Jasmine up for various activities that I thought she should do – activities her friends were doing, activities I was convinced she would love and indeed excel at.

So she did ballet, gymnastics, Tennis and violin lessons.

I had many reports from the teachers about day dreaming, lack of concentration and a lack of interest. Her gymnastics teacher phoned specifically to talk to me about her poor balance and coordination. At tennis lessons, she would sit in the corner and act out. My husband would spend minutes trying to cajole, negotiate and ultimately bribe her to take part. After 2 years of violin classes at school, she was still only really capable of playing a few notes.

We endured many Saturday mornings of screaming and shouting that she did not want to go to the planned activity, even though she had agreed to do the class at the start of term.

At the time we could not really understand what the issue was – these were classes that many of her friends and peers were either doing or talking about doing and in some instances, she had asked to do them. We concluded that she was simply naughty and acting out.

Its only now that I understand that these classes required a level of coordination and concentration that she just found too hard. Tennis, gymnastics, ballet and violin all require a tremendous amount of hand-eye coordination, balance, sequential thinking and concentration. All things dyspraxic and dyslexic children struggle with. Unable to articulate her frustrations, she resorted to acting out.

Now I am totally guided by her interests in choosing activities. I want her to enjoy her classes and to feel that she is able to excel (by her definition of excellence not mine).

This new direction has been fascinating. I have come to realize that Jasmine is a great story teller (although she struggles to write them down), a confident singer, a fast runner but above all, absolutely loves fashion design. I (and all our family and friends) have nurtured this love of fashion wholeheartedly with wonderful fashion themed birthday and Xmas presents. There are so many amazing fashion design toys, sketch books, apps and kits available now – its amazing.

In addition, she does a fashion class for 2 hours every Saturday where she has been taught to use a sewing machine and to make simple designs from patterns. I’ve been so delighted to see her come home with cushions, blouses, skirts and Xmas stockings that she has designed and made from scratch. I’m currently planning a fashion themed 8th birthday party for her on her insistence.

It is interesting – its absolutely common sense that we should be guided by our children’s interests and strengths however, the reality is many of us have our own vision of what our children should be good at, what they should do with their time and later on, what they should do with their lives. I was so so guilty of this.

Letting this all go, and choosing to be guided by Jasmine has been fascinating. I’m so very curious to see where our journey will lead.

Jasmine with her sewing machine and tools.

FullSizeRender

Comorbidity

Comorbidity

I learned a new term this week – comorbidity.

Officially the term means co-occurence of two or more different disorders in the same individual. With regards to specific learning difficulties, this often means that children with dyslexia may have symptoms or characteristics of other learning difficulties that are related such as dyspraxia, dyscalcula and ADHD.

There is a lot of research out there about this and essentially the overriding conclusion is that about 1/2 of children with dyslexia will experience comorbid deficits. The diagram below shows the typical comorbid overlaps. Comorbidity is apparently the norm rather than an exception!

Screen Shot 2015-11-03 at 19.12.42

Jasmine has a mix of dyslexia and dyspraxia (also known as DCD) symptoms, some characteristics are very dyspraxic in nature such as her working memory challenges, her anxiety and phobias and her coordination and sequencing challenges; whilst others are very dyslexic in nature such as her reading and decoding challenges.

What has become abundantly clear in all this, is that applying a “standard” dyslexia learning solution for Jasmine will just not work given her interesting blend of dyslexia and dyspraxia (and lets not forget the ASD type characteristics!).

This is all very fascinating indeed however, I still come back to the question that keeps me up at night: what is the optimal blend of learning strategies for her?? And linked to this, should this be delivered in a mainstream school, specialist school or mixture of the two?

I can’t say I know the answer to this.

The quest continues.

See below a link to a very interesting and simple video about comorbidity.

http://www.dystalk.com/talks/57-dyslexia-dyspraxia-amp-overlapping-learning-difficulties

What a difference 8 weeks can make.

What a difference 8 weeks can make.

Ever since Jasmine started school, she really struggled with handwriting. The development of the fine motor skills required for a good pencil grip and consequently good writing were quite delayed. Consequently, she has had pretty poor writing: letters poorly formed, poor spacing between words and inappropriate use of the lines on the paper.

Given all the other challenges we were contending with, I left the handwriting to one side as I figured that soon she will learn how to touch type and the need for beautiful handwriting will gradually fade away.

I did not really appreciate how important handwriting is in the early stages of learning. On visiting her classroom, I saw the beautiful handwriting of other kids proudly displayed on the walls and was shocked at how poor Jasmine’s was by comparison. Again, I did nothing about it as I felt it was important to prioritise her reading skills instead.

Towards the end of Year 2, Jasmine really started to complain about her handwriting – she felt (and it was indeed very true) that her handwriting was the worst in the class, that her work was never displayed up on the walls and that she felt “stupid” for not being able to write as well as others. It was when she started to talk about being “stupid” that I really began to appreciate the impact this had on her already fragile self-confidence.

I’d heard of a handwriting specialist that lived not far from us and over the summer, decided to tackle Jasmine’s handwriting.

Jasmine went twice a week for 45 minutes and did about 10 minutes of practice a day. She was initially excited, then rapidly moved onto complaining that it was “too hard” and the teacher was “too strict”. We persevered and she has just finished the 30 stage course.

Her writing bears absolutely no resemblance to how it was 8 weeks ago and she is delighted that she can write pretty much the same as other kids in her class. Her handwriting specialist took a photo of her “before” and “after” and put it on twitter and Jasmine was delighted to be, in her words, “famous on the world wide web”.

The reality is that Jasmine will learn to touch type as soon as is feasibly possible, but working on improving her handwriting now, has meant that she feels “normal” on this dimension, and it is one less thing undermining her confidence. The smile on her face when she achieved her handwriting certificate was the biggest ever and the consequent boost in her confidence is priceless. Money well spent.

Before and after pictures below.

http://www.magiclinkhandwriting.com

 

Jasmine handwriting before and after FINAL

My “go to” item

My “go to” item

I’ve found having a “go to” item, created by Jasmine to be very therapeutic.

When I am having a low period when nothing seems to be improving or we suffer some sort of set-back on our dyslexia journey, I “go to” a little poem that Jasmine wrote at the end of year 2.

I attach 2 photos of the text. Its called “Love is”

IMG_2902 IMG_2901

The words are not well aligned or particularly well formed and the spelling is all over the place, but I just LOVE what she has written – the thoughts and the sentiment blow me away every time. Masked as it is with the imperfections that come with dyslexia and dyspraxia, what I still can see clearly is her thoughtfulness, her sense of appreciation and a way with words that is just lovely.

Reading my “go to” poem cheers me up no end and is just what I need when I am feeling a tiny bit low. Its pretty well thumbed now so my next task is to get it framed until I can replace it with the next “go to” item.

I look forward to whatever treat Jasmine has in store for me.

ASD – our realisation

ASD – our realisation

So the latest revelation is that Jasmine has mild ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder).

Apparently many people with Specific Learning Difficulties such as dyslexia, dyspraxia and ADHD are on the Autism Spectrum.

In Jasmine’s case, her understanding of social situations, specifically reading and understanding non-verbal cues (mannerisms, facial expressions, tone of voice, social dynamics) is a bit off and as a result, her natural responses and behavior in these situations is oftentimes inadequate or inappropriate.

At school where there is structure, routine and indeed expectations of behavior in the classroom and on the playground, she is absolutely fine however, outside of these structures, she sometimes (not always) seems not to know how to behave, or indeed adjust her behavior in response to social cues.

So how does this manifest itself?

In groups she does not seem to be able to pick up when it’s appropriate to speak, laugh or be quiet. She is often the one speaking too loud, or still laughing at a joke when everyone has stopped and are silent. She also does not seem to understand that she should not talk loudly in certain places like a museum or in church. She does not recognize the change in pitch of her voice nor does she understand the disapproving looks people give her. She often laughs at inappropriate times or at things that are not funny.

What I find most difficult is when this interaction is with adults. Given her inability to regulate her tone of voice, often the questions she asks or comments she makes appear really pointed, direct and rude. She finds it difficult to make proper eye contact when speaking and often will turn her back or walk away halfway through an interaction. She literally seems oblivious to the offense she has caused. This behavior can be quite shocking to observe and appears plain rude.

Now that she is 7, this behavior is all the more embarrassing because of course at this stage, our expectation is that children should understand the norms of social behavior.

I get so angry with her – I’ve talked at length about social behavior; I’ve bought books about manners; we have manners star charts; in the car on our way to a party, play date or to visit friends, we role play what she should say [“good morning”, “very well thank you, how are you?” etc etc.] but then when we arrive she will have forgotten and would need prompting. I put her on timeouts or shout at her, but she just does not seem to get it.

The last straw came when my father in law passed away and we went to pay our condolences. The house was full of well-wishers, church friends and extended family. Her interaction was awful – she walked through the living room squeezing past groups of people without so much as a “Good Afternoon”, she avoided eye contact and responded to questions she was asked whilst looking in the other direction, she spoke at the top of her voice when a small group were saying a prayer and would not lower her voice even after being prompted five or six times, she walked away mid sentence when someone spoke to her and when it was time to leave, she did not say goodbye to anyone but rather walked out (stumbling over coats and handbags) with a slight flick of her hand with her back turned.

I was so so angry, I screamed at her when we got into the car and when she said “but Mummy what did I do wrong?” with such sincerity, I was so exasperated; I just resorted to crying the rest of the way home.

My emotions were all over the place. Initially I felt anger and shame – anger because I’ve worked so hard trying to teach her manners to no avail and shame because of the way her behavior reflected on me, people would think I cannot teach my child simple values. After I got over the anger and shame, I started to worry. I worried that people would start to exclude her (from party invites, play dates etc.), that she would be labeled, but also how this behavior if left unchecked, could undermine all her other strengths as she gets older.

I went looking for answers and sought help.

On speaking to experts, they’ve explained she has mild ASD and that the behavior described above is symptomatic.

So what now? Well, apparently in mild cases such as Jasmine’s, social skills can be learned through role-play and repetition. We are going to start group sessions soon.

My special child continues to challenge me. I pray for patience, I pray for help and I pray for understanding. Most importantly, I pray for the ability to focus on the positive in the face of my frustration because of course, it could be so much worse.

I’m only human – it’s not easy.

I will write again soon about how this aspect is going.

Confidence Building

Confidence Building

“I’m no good at reading”

“I’m in the special group at school”

I’m just stupid – everyone is smarter than me”

These are just some of the comments my daughter makes on a relatively frequent basis and she is only 7.

Officially a formal assessment for learning differences is not recommended until children are 7, but the reality is that many children who will eventually be diagnosed with learning difficulties, can sense they are different a couple of years before this.

Since my daughter was in year 1, she was aware that she could not read or write as well as many of her peers and friends. On moving to year 2, she was acutely aware of the fact that she had been put into what she felt was a special group for “stupid kids”. I’m not qualified to fully understand how her brain interpreted this, but it is very clear to me that her confidence is taking a real battering as a result. Its heart breaking to hear to talk about it and it is heart breaking to observe.

Finding opportunities to boost her confidence has become so important to me now.

My daughter fortunately is quite a fast runner and loves to sing. In parents meetings, I talked with the school about finding opportunities for her to shine. At Christmas she was given the opportunity to sing quite a complicated solo at the Christmas play which she did in front of the whole school, parents and teachers. She practiced really hard, memorised 5 verses of the song and performed beautifully. She was so proud of her achievement and was even prouder when parents came up to congratulate her. She was on an absolute high.

On reflecting on the event afterwards with my daughter, we made a real point of highlighting that not many kids would have been able to do what she did. Just as she can stand and sing in front of many where others struggle, others can read easily whilst she struggles.

We do not have these opportunities often but when we do, we take full advantage as the positive effect of this huge boost in confidence carries her for many days. For a little while she believes she can achieve anything – and of course, she can.

If you read only ONE book…

If you read only ONE book…

If there is only one book to read on dyslexia, its this one. Its amazing!

I read this book on holiday shortly after my daughter was diagnosed and it literally changed everything for me.

It breaks down the traditional view that “dyslexia is simply a reading impairment” but goes on to explain that its “a different pattern of brain organisation and information processing that creates strengths as well as challenges”.

I understand with greater clarity all of my daughter’s challenges that simply baffled me previously – her quick understanding of concepts but even quicker ability to forget them, her ability to read a word correctly at the start of a page and not recognize it at all at the bottom of a page, her struggles with writing and the disparity between her spoken word and comprehension and her reading, to mention a few. This book explains them all!

The book gives a very honest and truthful account of the challenges and realities of dyslexia which can seem daunting, especially as there are chapters on every stage of life from early education right through to dealing with dyslexia as an adult (just proving that this is a lifelong thing). For every stage though, there are practical tips, tools and ideas on how to provide support.

What is most encouraging though is the underlying positive message – that the dyslexic brain has many many advantages. It explains that there are four areas of dyslexic reasoning: Material; Interconnected; Narrative and Dynamic, MIND, that enables dyslexics to excel in various fields to amazing effect. It encourages you to observe and identify these strengths early and to support them.

I love that the back of the book has this caption: “What links Winston Churchill, Alan Sugar, Richard Branson, Keira Knightley, Jamie Oliver, David Bailey, Will Smith and countless other high achievers in a huge range of fields?”

Having read the book I understand better what dyslexia is and I appreciate that it will be a challenging journey. What I was not expecting to feel after reading the book is excitement. I am encouraged that there is light at the end of the tunnel and I’m excited about the possibility that if I can just see beyond the bad spelling and handwriting, that I may indeed spot an emerging talent waiting to break free.

How amazing is that?

If you’ve not read this book – run out and get it. You will read it and may even feel a tad jealous that you are not dyslexic!