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You cant learn to swim on dry land

avid (13) is unable to attempt any element of road safety tasks independently and is very nervous about using the road. He cannot correctly sequence the stages of crossing a road safely. In addition, he has gross motor difficulties due to dyspraxia. His parents are fearful about him taking part in road safety sessions. Tanya (14) is unable to manage any food preparation and cleaning up independently and needs oneto-one support to access this part of the curriculum. She finds the sequencing of the tasks difficult and is unable to use equipment such as knives safely. She is still heavily dependent on adults at home and school to help with basic skills of independent living, and is unable to identify the benefits of developing skills in these areas. The white paper, Valuing People, highlighted the inadequacies of the current transition process for children with special educational needs moving on from school into their adult lives. We think the problem lies not only within the transition process, but in the educational approach used in the years leading up to it. The national curriculum is particularly failing those with speech and language impairment, communication and interaction difficulties and learning difficulties, with many completing formal education without the necessary learning and consolidation of skills. This leaves them vulnerable to an increased risk of developing mental health problems, of acquiring a criminal record, and the inability to function independently, form a relationship or hold down a job (Agran et al, 1989; Clegg et al, 1999). Within our national curriculum, the learning of real skills for independent living (effective interaction skills, life skills and self-confidence) is often neglected. Even where the ethos intends to promote life skills, the emphasis is on inappropriate tasks that have no functional impact on day-to-day adult lives - for example learning about French cuisine in cooking. In other settings, life skills is treated as a secondary aim behind academic or vocational goals. Most mainstream students learn life skills incidentally, from interacting with their peers, teachers and families. Unfortunately, this cannot be assumed with students who have learning and communication difficulties. Despite efforts to differentiate programmes of study, the national curriculum does not meet their long-term needs because it:

Amy Duck and Sarah Weeks take issue with a national curriculum that leaves children with speech and language impairments and learning disabilities flailing like fish out of water. They call on us to dive in with a more holistic approach to developing functional communication and community living skills.

thus limiting their opportunity to see good social models or practise their own behaviours. They also tend to have a restricted social network and consequently a lack of emotional support. To this extent, the students with perhaps the greatest emotional needs are let down by the national curriculum. As stated by Gardner (1993), interpersonal and intrapersonal skills are as vital to healthy functioning as mathematical competence.

Understanding and responsibility

Personal social and health education at Key Stages Three and Four of the national curriculum aims to help pupils lead confident, healthy and responsible lives as individuals and members of society. Under knowledge, skills and understanding at Key Stage Three it states that pupils should be taught to reflect on and assess their strengths in relation to personality, work and leisure and, similarly, to recognise how others see them and be able to give and receive constructive feedback and praise. However, these two objectives are amongst a list of 26, and therefore cannot be given the time needed; we would need to focus on these alone to address the pupils particular difficulties. Instead, these objectives are only part of a wider personal social and health education syllabus - and this is only one of several subjects squashed into the fast-paced educational week. The curriculum should emphasise skills that are functionally and longitudinally relevant. Students need to develop skills that will enable them to live, work and interact in integrated community settings when they are adults (Morse & Schuster, 2000). Even the proposed changes for the 14-19 curriculum (DfES, 2003) with its work-related learning element do not allow enough flexibility or focus specifically on the basics. The outcome of the current situation for our students is that they: continue from Key Stage Three into Key Stage Four with only a few of the more able working towards accreditation in their preferred subjects have poor awareness of their own strengths and weaknesses, low confidence and greatly reduced independence in a range of daily living tasks have poor social skills and social competence great difficulty with adapting to unfamiliar environments and making and maintaining friendships have only two to four years left in education. Successfully trained adaptive behaviours that can

Amy Duck

Sarah Weeks

does not address the students learning style is too prescriptive does not give enough emphasis to improving social skills does not address the students emotional development. Consequently, the students cannot assimilate information readily, and cannot make connections between units of learning, or predict and understand the consequences of their actions. They do not have the language skills to access the mainly literature-based learning resources of the academic curriculum, nor do they have the communication skills to engage in interactive learning approaches used in the classroom. Furthermore, they often cannot keep pace with the breadth of information covered in the time-scales permitted. Their failure has a negative impact on their selfconfidence and their desire to succeed. In addition, they often have reduced exposure to social situations,




Figure 1 Pre- and post-assessment

For every topic we carry out a pre- and post-topic assessment, here relating to getting ready to go out 1. Students were informed they would be going out on Friday to do some Christmas shopping 2. For homework, they were asked to think about what they would need to take with them 3. Class-based assessment was carried out on the morning of the trip by observation of what students had brought (for example, coat, lunch, money, shopping list, watch, travel-pass, bag, sensible walking shoes) 4. This was recorded in detail for each pupil 5. The trip went ahead 6. After the trip the students were encouraged to reflect on and evaluate the success of the trip relative to them having the necessary items 7. The students comments fed into pre-topic pupils records. Outcomes included a student without a coat, a student without money, all but one student without a shopping list, no travel-passes, half the pupils expecting to have school dinners, no watches, one student without a bag, one student in high heels, only three Christmas presents were purchased amongst the whole group (10 students).

Over a period of 12 weeks we aimed to increase the students awareness of the tasks involved in planning and carrying out a shopping trip. Techniques included visual prompts (mind maps, symbols), self and peerevaluation within circle time, small individual targets, repetition of the task in a real-life community-based setting both in school time and as a part of their homework. The activities always went ahead regardless of the students level of preparation. This allowed them to begin to understand the consequences of their own actions (even to the point of standing at a bus stop letting four buses pass until a student thought to put his hand out to indicate that the bus should stop!) Intrinsic motivation was fostered in circle time through discussions about how the task directly related to the students aspirations for their futures, for example being able to buy a gift for a potential boyfriend or girlfriend.

lead to increased normalisation include eating, tooth brushing, grooming, dressing, toilet-training, housekeeping, shopping, phone conversations and prevention of home accidents (Matson et al, 1990). Some very successful programmes have been developed, including work experience, community service, rural environmental science, do-it-yourself, leisure and recreation, survival cookery, and environmental studies. However, we have several criticisms of these programmes. Firstly, they are aimed at a mainstream population, and access to the work is often prohibited due to language and literacy demands. Secondly, they do not provide a total curriculum - rather they offer the students a repertoire of practical skills. For example, a topic on shopping may teach how to buy three items, use a range of coins, get the right change and keep the receipt. However, it does not teach the personal value or the ability to adapt appropriately to the social context, for example how to ask for assistance, stand in a queue, obtain clarification and repair situations, be assertive (when receiving the wrong change), refrain from anti-social behaviour (handling produce). The life skills are taught in isolation without addressing the wider barriers to their learning. As Morse & Schuster (2000) say, pupils need more from their education than how to change a plug. In addition, these programmes typically feature as a lesson within a curriculum of many other traditional subjects, and therefore there is limited opportunity to reinforce and generalise the skills through repetition and consolidation in different settings, essential to meaningful learning. By contrast, we believe a holistic approach to the teaching of life skills is imperative. We therefore carried out some research with secondary aged students (13-16 years) in a special school. All had a statement of special educational needs, some with additional learning difficulties such as autistic spectrum disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Appropriate and relevant

Our intervention programme covers all areas of the curriculum and is designed to convince the pupils of the relevance of school work to their own life and needs. It uses life skills and communication across all curriculum areas so that literacy and, in particular, real life or functional literacy can be taught and experienced in all subjects. This curriculum model encourages teachers to attempt to put learning into a relevant context for students so that they can transfer skills in an appropriate and relevant manner. The main objectives are to: develop students functional literacy and numeracy skills develop practical life skills and aid the students ability to apply learning experiences to real life develop self-awareness skills and raise self-esteem develop functional communication skills and social competence return the initiative for learning, reasoning and decision-making back to the pupil improve confidence across a range of settings. There is a need for flexibility in structuring the sessions. However, all sessions include introducing a topic, classroom-based teaching, community-based learning and reflecting on performance. The aims and the pedagogical approaches are consistent as our students learn by repetition and reinforcement. Regarding their learning experiences, nothing can be taken for granted - our students do not learn incidentally. Everything must be explicit, and what might appear as lack of variation in approaches is in fact a deliberate teaching technique particularly relevant to these students. In contrast to other life skills programmes, our method of teaching encompasses three areas: 1. Social Competence: The fundamentals of interacting with a range of others 2. Social-Emotional Development: Owning their disability

Repetition of stages 1 to 7 with the focus on shopping for the end of term party. Outcomes included all students having appropriate attire, as well as bag, money and lunch, 9 out of 10 remembering to bring a shopping list and 6 out of 10 wearing a watch (only half of these could actually tell the time), one student had a travel-pass. In most cases the correct items were purchased with supervision, however two of the students continued to need a high level of adult support.




Awareness of their potential and limitations Wanting to influence their future Developing confidence and self-esteem Developing social networks 3. Life Skills: Personal hygiene Preparing food Personal safety Self-organisation. The programme was designed to address directly the students learning styles and counter the difficulties they face. The programme focuses on increasing the students participation within their environment or community, thus increasing their control over the events that affect them and fostering intrinsic motivation for self-development. Within the programme, students tackle any identified area of weakness such as getting about, using money, and applying for a job. They learn to increase their understanding of their strengths and weaknesses, and to gain insight into the challenges that face them - to appreciate the consequences of their current situation on their future hopes and dreams. This allows the students to own their individual problems, and can be translated into specific learning goals. The development of communication skills underpins all aspects of the class- and communitybased activities used in the programme, which is delivered by teacher and therapist simultaneously. It teaches social skills in context to enhance social performance, and works on language skills and communication strategies to improve daily functioning. We have developed and trialled a complete methodology to support this structure. Figure 1 shows a pre- and post-assessment example. Our method has entailed a deliberate move away from isolated lessons for individual subjects to a flexible, integrated approach to key skills that can be constantly reinforced in community activities through contextual learning. In our programme, a wide range of national curriculum subjects is covered to achieve breadth and balance, and the programme draws on key objectives from the literacy and numeracy strategies. However, the difference is that the content of all lessons is functional and meaningful to the students now and in their adult lives. The methodology encompasses many teaching techniques. For example: Baseline assessments, as it is essential to have an accurate picture of how the pupils perform in various settings to encourage meaningful learning, appropriate to the needs of each pupil. Consideration to the order in which particular skills are taught. When an area for development is selected on the basis of developing long-term independence, priority skills are identified for each pupil. For example, to cross the road, one student may need to learn the vocabulary for right and left and another the significance of indicators.

The students with perhaps the greatest emotional needs are let down by the national curriculum.

The broad topic area is introduced and a class aim decided on through student discussion facilitated by teaching staff. We produce short, medium and long- terms plans within the overall framework of the programme to allow for progression in terms of each students level of responsibility, readiness for involvement and development. Other techniques include the extensive use of circle time for self- and peer-review and the making of short, medium and long-term targets in conjunction with the student. We encourage self-rating to develop the students self-evaluation skills, and the recording of data in various mediums to help the student keep track of their progress. We use multi-sensory educational resources, visual tools such as mind maps and bullet point lists, and visual displays to aid learning and retention. In addition, the teaching of other curriculum areas such as information and communication technology and library skills is integrated into the above topics. We also work with parents to extend the learning outside the classroom and reinforce skills learnt within the school environment. We find that, through this functional curriculum, students gain skills that are immediately useful, enabling them to live a more autonomous life. David followed a programme including road safety sessions. We helped him understand the beneficial consequences of learning such a task as well as developing his ability to chunk the task into sequential stages. Following supported practice in context, and self-evaluation and praise for each small step achieved, David is now able to walk around the areas both near to school and local to where he lives. This was achieved in one year alongside various other elements of the programme. It has developed his confidence to participate in tasks independently and increased his motivation to accomplish other functional skills. Similar strategies were employed with Tanya for her food preparation and personal hygiene course, and considerable progress was witnessed in the course of the year. At Tanyas Annual Conference Review, her parents proudly reported that she now sets an alarm clock, wakes up the whole family, gets washed and dressed and ready for school, makes breakfast and clears away and then makes a packed lunch without any supervi-

The development of communication skills underpins all aspects of the classand communitybased activities used in the programme, which is delivered by teacher and therapist simultaneously.

sion. Tanya gained great pleasure and pride in these achievements and was motivated to set more personal goals and targets. The implications this has for her future are enormous and she has already been able to participate independently in a short work experience placement. For further information on the research or more details on the methodologies and teaching practices behind their approach, please contact the authors. Sarah Weeks ( is a senior teacher at Spring Common School, a special school in Cambridgeshire. As 14-19 manager her primary role is to develop the curriculum, oversee transition and prepare pupils for adult life. Sarah also has a sister with learning disabilities. Amy Duck ( is a senior specialist speech and language therapist working with adults with learning disabilities in Waltham Forest Primary Care Trust. She has previously worked in special schools with primary and secondary aged children. As a child her family fostered many children with social, communication, emotional and behavioural difficulties.


Agran, N., Martin, J.E. & Mithaug, D.E. (1989) Achieving transition through adaptability instruction. Teaching Exceptional Children 21 (2): 4-7. Clegg, J., Hollis, C. & Rutter, M. (1999) Life sentence. Bulletin of the Royal College of Speech & Language Therapists Nov: 16-18. DfES (2003) 14-19: opportunity and excellence. Available at Crown Copyright 2003. Department of Health (2001) Valuing People: a new strategy for learning disability for the 21st century. DH: London. Gardner, H. (1993) The Unschooled Mind: How Children Think and How Schools Should Teach. Basic Books. Matson, J., Taras, M., Sevin, J., Loves, S. & Fridley, D. (1990) Teaching self help skills to autistic mentally retarded children. Research in Developmental Disabilities 11: 361-378. Morse, T. & Schuster, J. (2000) Teaching elementary students with moderate intellectual disability how to shop for groceries. Exceptional Children 66 (2): 273-288.




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