Saturday, 9 June 2012

Things I've Learned Recently....

One thing I already knew was that each child I work with is very, very different.  Since September I have had a new little charge, a lively four year old - and I mean lively!  Whilst the core basics of teaching a child with Down's Syndrone in infant school remain the same, tactics and strategies change and evolve with each child, all depending on what works and what doesn't.

This little boy has a lot of difficulty with his speech, so a good deal of the day is spent on activities to promote and improve his oral skills and understanding, as without speech the rest of the school curriculum becomes very hard to cover indeed.  We try not to make these into  formal 'work' sessions - the first thing I have learnt is to avoid the 'W' word as telling him we are going to do some work incurs a refusal to cooperate!  Instead, we try to make activities fun, and if it descends into silliness on both our parts that is OK as long as he is making sounds and attempting to communicate.

I have learnt that many of the set exercises for development of the mouth and tongue muscles are very, very boring to a four year old and some are totally incomprehensible.  If I was him, I wouldn't want to do them either.  So instead of slogging our way through a dire story about Mr. Tongue with unfathomable illustrations, we get out the yoghurty raisins and have a laugh getting the little boy to try and catch the raisin (his very favourite snack) with his tongue - on his top lip, on his chin, and either cheek.  We pretend to lick ice lollies and waggle our tongues at each other making silly noises.  We sing lots of songs that involve 'lalalala' and 'bababa' etc., even if they are pure nonsense.  We make sound effects for just about everything; we play with all sorts of blowing toys - bubbles, floating ball toys, making feathers float, etc.

I have learnt that if I am having problems with his concentration and behaviour and a firm telling off has not worked, the best thing to do is totally ignore him.  He cannot bear not to be the centre of my attention and either turning his chair or mine away and refusing to pay him any mind until he settles down and cooperates works like a charm.  The trick is no eye contact, no talking other than to say 'I don't want to play with you until you are nice/kind/good'.  Usually (I'm not saying it works every time - we all have our bad days!) after a few minutes of this, he is ready to join in with the activity once again in a sensible manner.

I have learnt that when all else fails during an activity, singing beings it back from the brink.  We sing as we walk down the corridor, we sing as we wash and dry our hands, we sing as we use a pencil  - you get the idea!  My main difficulty with this particular little boy is getting him to show an interest in mark making - his fine motor skills are still poor, so to him there is not much fun in aimless uncontrolled scribbling on paper.  It is a bit of a vicious circle, as unless he uses these skills, they won't improve as fast.  However, Ihave found that if I draw a bus with no wheels and sing a rousing chorus of 'The Wheels on the Bus', he will then start to fill in the wheels on the 'round and round' part of the song - this can then be used in other writing tasks, just by changing the words to cover the subject and also varying round and round to up and down, side to side, etc.

After many months of cajoling, waiting, running of taps, singing, the best way of approaching toilet training (for this little boy - I'm not saying it will work for a different child) has been the matter-of-fact this-is-what-is going-to-happen method.  I have had major success by having set times when I take him to the toilet (twice in a school morning)  and we walk straight there, put him on the loo and say in a firm voice while backing it up with Makaton signing 'It is time to do a wee in the toilet now.'  Nothing else, no explaining, no cajoling, just repeating that one sentence, several times if necessary.  Occasionally I will add 'and then we can go back and play' but I feel that is adding too many words - very small children tend to hear the last word of an instruction and act on that rather than taking in the whole sentence.  Then - and this may not be easy for some LSA's - you have to be vigilant and as soon as the first droplets of urine fall, give him a round of applause and lots of praise.  It has to be while the child is actually going to the toilet - no use looking down the loo afterwards and cheering, as far as the child is concerned you are then just cheering a bowl of water. Since Easter, this way of dealing with the toilet has worked very well and he will usually 'perform' within the first couple of minutes - no more sitting there for twenty minutes at a time!  It is now a rare occasion when I have to change his nappy.  However, we have yet to crack the problem of getting him to sign when he needs a 'poo' - unfortunately, this tends to occur after lunch when my job share takes over - lucky for me!

I have learnt that you have to find the key to unlock a child's learning - by this I mean something that spurs them on to join in and work.  We have found that the yoghurt raisins work like a charm - they can be used for tongue exercises, counting tasks, even as rewards for getting reading right.  Obviously they have to be rationed - not a good idea to get through packets of the things in the course of one day!  But between us, my job share and I use one packet a day - which would have been his snack anayway as this child is not keen on fruit - and there are enough there to be used for many different activities.  Other keys are family photos - words make more sense if they apply to a recogniseable family member rather than some obscure drawing in a book.  Toys are also a great tool - we spend a lot of time chatting about Postman Pat and what he is doing or describing what the wind-up chicken is up to today!

I have learnt to keep up a constant narration of what we are up to, using simple phrases.  We have a gem of a speech therapist, and I have learned so much from her.  It is quite hard to actually narrate without using questioning - I'm still trying to get the hang of it.  But it works in that you are patterning sentence formation and using relevant vocabulary which hopefully one day will be used back at you.

I have learnt when to give up.  We all have our off days, when we are tired or not feelling too well and we know that trying to get a lot of work done on those days is nigh on impossible.  There is no point in forcing the issue  - we are able to tell other people how we are feeling and they will understand and give us a break.  Imagine how it must feel if you are really tired because you have to work twice as hard to keep up as everyone else, but you are unable to tell anyone around you.  If they continued to make you work when all you want to do is have a lie down and rest, you'd get angry and frustrated and non-cooperative too.  Many times the 'stubborness' and 'bad behaviour' witnessed in children and adults with Down's is due to sheer frustration at not being able to get their meaning across to the adults trying to make them do something that they either don't understand or really don't feel like doing. As an LSA you have to be able to recognise when the child is not 'naughty' but is genuinely unable to concentrate or do what you are asking of them.  At these times there is nothing wrong with stopping 'work' and either letting the child just play or even sit quietly in your lap while you look at a book or sing.  Over the years we see the pattern - the last couple of weeks of each half term are always tricky.  All of the children in infant school are tired by then, particularly if there has been a lot going on such as the run up to Christmas.  The world will not come to an end if you give the child a day off - you can still accomplish an awful lot through play.

I have learned to 'chill out' - all children learn at their own pace, it cannot be hurried only helped along.  The knack is to see just what has been achieved over the past months and not worry about the things that have not.  You will probably be surprised at just how much has been mastered when you sit down and add it all up.  There is no point in comparing one child's progress with another's, each one is an individual with their own strengths.

I have also learned that to volunteer to get in the swimming pool at my age with a lively four year old who doesn't seem to be able to stay upright and keep his head out of the water was possibly not the best of ideas...

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