Your Role as Your Child’s Advocate

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves are co-authors of Parents Have the Power to Make Special Education Work: An Insider Guide, and are the parents of a son with learning disabilities who is about to graduate from college. They live in Massachusetts.

As the parent of a child with special needs, one of your most9781849059701 important jobs is to be an advocate for your child in the school setting. You are vital to the success of your child’s education. You cannot be a passive observer; you need to be involved.

Here are some reasons why:

You Are the Only Permanent Member of Your Child’s Team

You are the only permanent member of the Team that decides what services and accommodations go into your child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP). New people who do not know you or your child will join the Team each fall and leave it the following spring. Occasionally a Team member might stay on for more than one school year, but most do not.

Schools Think Short Term, You Think Long Term

You and the school see your child’s education from different perspectives. In a way, this is natural since school personnel are focused on the current school year. You, on the other hand, are looking ahead to when your child becomes an adult. These different timelines can result in a source of conflict as you may want services that will help your child acquire skills needed in later years, but the school may only want to provide services that will meet more immediate needs.

As an example, students today are not given much instruction in handwriting and instead are taught keyboarding. But functional handwriting has not disappeared from the adult world. Our adult children will still have to fill out job applications or medical forms legibly by hand. Most of us are aware of other basic skills that may not have an immediate application in the classroom but which we know our children will need in later life. We have to be patient but persistent advocates for teaching these skills.

Skills Not Learned in School Have a Lasting Effect

Take the role as your child’s advocate seriously, because eventually your child will leave the public school. If he or she does not receive an appropriate education, who will help your child in a post-high school setting to balance a checkbook or fill out a job application? Many children who do not receive an appropriate education will need to take remedial courses after high school to learn skills they missed when they were younger.

What Parents Can Do

To become a better advocate for your child’s education, we recommend the following:

  • Periodically study your child’s special education documents in chronological order to better understand the progression of your child’s education. Trends will become apparent as you study the details and analyze the data over time. You must do this since Team members are transient and they don’t see the “big picture” that you can see. This exercise will show you the areas where your child has made progress or areas where he or she hasn’t.
  • Compare your child’s goals from year to year. If some goals never change, that means that either the goals aren’t appropriate or that your child isn’t making effective progress. Also compare the service delivery grid for each goal. Are the frequency and duration of services adequate to achieve the goal? If you notice that services are being decreased and the goal hasn’t been accomplished, you will want to discuss this with your Team.
  • Keep a notebook in which you record the important details of conversations you have with school personnel. If there are any action items, make them the subject of a follow-up letter or email to that person. If there are any misunderstandings about what was agreed to, this will help correct them before too much time and too many opportunities have passed. This improves positive communication with the school.
  • Keep a parent journal of your observations of your child’s experience. Record details about progress or lack of progress, and be sure to date your entries. Write in this journal on a regular basis and review it periodically. Progress almost always happens gradually, and you will only begin to see it when reviewing entries from past weeks, months, or even years.
  • Review your child’s IEP progress reports as you receive them. Compare the reports with the IEP goals and make sure these progress reports reflect your own observations as recorded in your parent journal. If these reports do not accurately describe your own observations, be sure to question these reports in writing to your child’s special education liaison. This will document your concerns.
  • Realize that every year of your child’s education matters. Time is essential in special education. If there are too many delays getting services, your child may fall behind. Each new year builds on the skills learned the previous year. It is remarkable how quickly a school year can go by and how the academic demands intensify as students advance in the grades.

Being your child’s special education advocate is an additional job for you on top of all the other things you are already doing. But it can be one of the most rewarding jobs you will ever have. Giving your child an appropriate education is an essential foundation for a productive future.

Learn more strategies for success in the Graves’ book, Parents Have the Power to Make Special Education Work: An Insider Guide. You can also discover more resources and check out their blog at their website.

Dyslexia, self-harm and attempted suicide

 Research shows that at least 5% of schoolchildren are likely to have dyslexia.  Children sometimes lack the maturity to ask for help and things can go sour when they’re left to fend for themselves. With the aim to assist both parents and educational practitioners to recognise the emotional turmoil that young dyslexics face in life, Neil Alexander-Passe explains the link between dyslexia, self-harm and attempted suicide. The author’s new book Dyslexia and Mental Health: Helping people identify destructive behaviours and find positive ways to cope is out now.




School – legally enforced torture

If you were forced to attend school in Japan without the aptitude to understand the language nor pens and pencils to record what is required, you might not mind if it were only for one day. However, imagine you were legally forced to go five days a week for eight hours a day for ten or more years. Is this fair? I’m sure you would agree not. Well this is exactly how a dyslexic feels. They lack the skills and tools to understand school, and are marked poorly by the lack of such abilities. Everywhere they turn, they see books, and the ability to read and write are valued above all other skills. You can appreciate that they could feel helpless and lacked of control in their lives.

To make matters worse, most teachers lack the skills and aptitude to recognise a struggling learner in their classrooms. It must be said that dyslexic children begin to develop self-protecting strategies to camouflage themselves from showing up their lack of skills, especially amongst their able-bodied peers. Such strategies can include: hiding in class, being the class clown to cover up for the lack of abilities, being the class helper to avoid writing tasks, forgetting homework on purpose, and calling in sick to avoid lessons when there are spelling tests or they need to give in homework. They develop sensitive antennas for situations that might highlight their difficulties, and quickly put in place back-up plans to avoid trouble.

It should also be recognised that children sometimes lack the maturity to ask for help from teachers, and get bored waiting in a long line for help. Calling out in class is sometimes seen ‘bad behaviour’ but in reality it is the child asking for help, albeit not in the way the teacher would prefer.


Regaining control in a world they can’t control

When dyslexics feel that they have no control over their life at home and at school, and feel like failures at everything they try to achieve, they begin to look for ways to feel better.

We all can recognise comfort eating; maybe a chocolate bar when you feel sad – but self-harm goes beyond this. Food, if taken to extremes can give an individual some control in a world they feel is uncontrollable. They are forced to go to school each day; even though they hate it and are taught in ways they can’t learn. Over-eating and becoming obese can protect them from social situations that might require them to read or write (e.g. reading the bus timetable; reading numbers on a bus to meet up with friends; reading the name of the film being shown at the cinema; reading a timetable etc.). They might take the other extreme and think if they didn’t eat they would be so small and thin that no one would recognise and take note of them.

Others see that drugs are a way to escape the harsh world they believe they live in, so sniffing glue or taking drugs will bring a high that allows them a respite/escape even for minutes from the pain they feel at school and home, being socially excluded or by them not having a job.

Self-harm through cutting allows a sense of control in their lives, it also gives an adrenaline high to the body. It allows an individual to regain control of some aspect of their life, however it can become more dangerous in their pursuit of this natural high. Easy to hide at first but harder as time goes by with constant cutting.

In the extreme, the need for an escape through risk-taking can lead to putting one’s life in even more dangerous situations (e.g. playing on train lines, getting into fights), however it is with attempted suicide that can be shocking in young dyslexics from a very young age of seven years old. They want to escape a world they feel excluded from, they also see the pain and anguish they are putting their parents through and want to save them from further pain. Sadly many dyslexics do take their lives but such deaths are unrecorded as they haven’t left a suicide note, as that would require writing, a task they feel is very hard and they want an escape from.

It is interesting to note that some dyslexics get into fights to break bones, especially arms and hands to avoid writing tests. Such calculated lengths to avoid taking tests should be recognised, along with unrecognised dyslexic children forcing themselves to be sick just before a test to avoid being judged badly in front of peers. The lengths some dyslexics go to preserve what self-esteem they have can be remarkable.


What can be done?

  • Schools need to screen and put in place interventions to help dyslexic and other struggling learners.
  • Schools need to provide counsellors for children who experience difficulty learning at school, as the emotional effects of failure can lead to social exclusion, depression and self-harming.
  • Teachers need to recognise the avoidance by children, ask themselves why, and act to question if there is a learning difficulty or another barrier to their learning e.g. avoiding reading and writing.
  • Teachers need to read through secondary behavioural manifestations in pupils and look to understand their primary learning needs. What is bad behaviour covering up? Are they lost in class? Have they missed vital stepping stones to learning? Are they using bad behaviour to cover up for their struggle to understand what is required?
  • Parents need to recognise the signs of self-harm and depression in their children, so that they can refer them to specialist teams for help.
  • Parents need to praise the effort, not the end result, and support their children to focus on strengths not weaknesses.


Neil Alexander-Passe is the Head of Learning Support (SENCO) at Mill Hill School in London, UK, as well as being a special needs teacher and researcher. He has taught in mainstream state, independent and special education sector schools, and also several pupil referral units. He specialises in students with dyslexia, emotional and behavioural difficulties, ADHD and autism. Neil has written extensively on the subject of dyslexia and emotional coping and, being dyslexic himself, brings empathy and an alternative perspective to the field. Find out more about Neil’s work here.

Learn more about Dyslexia and Mental Health here.

Read Neil’s other blog post: The lifelong social and emotional effects of dyslexia

The lifelong social and emotional effects of dyslexia

With the aim to assist both parents and educational practitioners to recognise the emotional turmoil that both young and older dyslexics face in life, Neil Alexander-Passe illustrates the lifelong social and emotional effects of dyslexia. The author’s new book Dyslexia and Mental Health: Helping people identify destructive behaviours and find positive ways to cope is out now.



What is dyslexia?

To most, dyslexia is the difficulty with words, but in truth the term is misleading. The true effects of dyslexia go well beyond having a difficulty with words and spelling, as it also affects the ability to remember names and facts, balance and the ability to tie shoe laces and tying ties, misreading and misunderstanding the relevance of numbers, to write neatly, and to recall facts once learnt (even from two minutes ago).


The young dyslexic

The effects of dyslexia are widespread, and in mainstream education everything the dyslexic has difficulty with is valued highly by teachers and their peers. Can they read fast and write neatly? Well, no. Can they remember spellings for a test? Well, no. Can they recall enough facts to write an essay? Well, no. So a young dyslexic will see their friends and peers perform at ‘normal’ rates and progress smoothly through school, and each year the gap widens. Unless teachers have knowledge of special needs and/or dyslexia, it is unlikely that the young dyslexic will be identified as having learning difficulties or differences.

Studies of teacher training courses and the knowledge-bases of teachers support the argument that most teachers are unqualified to recognise a dyslexic child in their midst. So what happens? The dyslexic child begins to see themselves as ‘abnormal’ and ‘stupid’, which is exactly what they are told, either openly by teachers or by their friends, or indirectly by being put on the ‘stupid’ table with the other ‘slow’ kids. Children know who the clever and not-so-clever ones are very fast, and no matter how teachers dress up mixed-ability classrooms, kids know! In the playground the clever kids mix within their own circles, excluding all the others as misfits.

Each year the dyslexic child falls even further behind their peers, and their common reaction is to give up even trying in class, as no matter how hard they try, they always seem to get the lowest marks. No matter how hard they revise spellings or facts, within minutes or hours such facts or spellings are lost like grains of sand.

Emotionally such failure on a daily or hourly basis is harsh. What can the dyslexic child do in such a hostile environment? Well, many withdraw and develop depressive symptoms to cope, as it’s easier that way.


The adult dyslexic

After ‘surviving’ school, maybe without any qualifications to their name, dyslexic young adults are faced with finding a job, or going to college to gain the qualifications they need to start an apprenticeship. They see their peers leave school with 8-10 GCSEs, and all they have is one or two qualifications in unvalued subjects, such as Art or Drama. They see their peers go to university or train up to any career that takes their fancy, but what can the dyslexic do? Do they have a choice? Not with the lack of qualifications they have. Their dreams of being lawyers or doctors are just that, dreams.

Do they either start on a low-level college course to develop their basic skills, take a job in manual labour, or be unemployed – they begin to question their place in society. Can they take their place, or are they excluded from a society that highly values those who can read and write? Once again, they see that withdrawal is a good option to protect their self-esteem, and again depression looms. Many find completing application forms so exhausting that they give up even applying for jobs or benefits, and some even turn to crime to make ends meet.


Dyslexics and their families

Parents of young dyslexics are bemused by their child who can orally seem intelligent but just cannot seem to cope at school. They know they work hard but nothing seems to stick. They know that no matter how long they work at writing an essay, it looks messy and rushed. Compared to their non-dyslexic children, they can see their dyslexic child starting to give up, and beginning to withdraw into a shell-like existence.

The dyslexic child begins to question their place in their family; it is almost like they don’t fit in. They begin to question if they were adopted, and many have been known to write ‘help me’ on signs in their bedroom windows, or even run away from home, as they feel trapped by a family that they don’t feel a part of. What does running away achieve? It manifests their anxiety about fitting in. It says to them that it’s better to leave as they don’t fit in, and that their parents and siblings do not understand them. Many keep a packed bag under their beds, even from an age as young as seven, so when the pressure gets too much, they can flee at a moment’s notice. Where do they go? Anywhere, as it must be better than a home that feels more like a prison.


What can be done?

  • Schools need to train teachers to recognise dyslexics in their classes. Research suggests that 20% of all school-aged children will have a learning difficulty at some point in their education, and dyslexia is the single most common difficulty. Seen severely in 5% of schoolchildren and another 5-10% more mildly, that’s at least one to two dyslexic children in each classroom.
  • Teacher training needs to teach recognition of learning difficulties.
  • All teachers are required by the UK government to be qualified to teach all children with special educational needs in their classrooms, but most lack this ability, so additional training is urgently required for them to ‘differentiate’ their lessons effectively.
  • Schools need to identify early and provide specialist teaching to children with special educational needs.
  • Schools need to provide counsellors for children who experience difficulty learning at school, as the emotional effects of failure can lead to social exclusion, depression and self-harm.
  • Teachers need to recognise the avoidance by children, ask themselves why, and act to question if there is a learning difficulty or another barrier to their learning e.g. avoiding reading and writing.
  • Parents need to praise the effort not the end result, and support their children to focus on strengths not weaknesses.


But don’t some dyslexics survive school and succeed in life?

Whilst it is true that some dyslexics do well in life (e.g. Richard Branson, Keira Knightley, Mollie King, Jamie Oliver, Tom Cruise), researching them you hear the same thing. School was hell and they left as soon as possible. They also highlight that they found something they were good at early on, maybe not school subjects such as English, Maths or Science, but vocational skills such as selling, persuading, acting, cooking, art and design, etc. This allowed them to balance the negativity at school with their ability to out shine their peers outside school. Ongoing research in dyslexia and success has found that each successful dyslexic has a ‘chip on their shoulder’ to prove everyone who ever doubted their ability wrong, to prove that they are not ‘stupid and thick’. They are driven by their school failure and humiliation to do well in life. Even returning to school for their own children is hard for them, they can have symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder when seeing small chairs, smelling sickly floor cleaner, or seeing drawings pinned up on walls, as theirs were not deemed good enough for presentation.


Dyslexics, unless diagnosed and helped early on in their school career, will suffer from varying levels of emotional pain. Be it low self-esteem, self-doubt; withdrawal or running away from home. It is important to recognise that secondary bad behaviour is commonly covering up for primary difficulties, but most teachers are just satisfied by mislabelling pupils as troublemakers and try to move such needy pupils to a different teacher.


Neil Alexander-Passe is the Head of Learning Support (SENCO) at Mill Hill School in London, UK, as well as being a special needs teacher and researcher. He has taught in mainstream state, independent and special education sector schools, and also several pupil referral units. He specialises in students with dyslexia, emotional and behavioural difficulties, ADHD and autism. Neil has written extensively on the subject of dyslexia and emotional coping and, being dyslexic himself, brings empathy and an alternative perspective to the field. Find out more about Neil’s work here.

Learn more about Dyslexia and Mental Health here.

Read Neil’s other blog post: Dyslexia, self-harm and attempted suicide

Browse our latest collection of Special Educational Needs and Pastoral Education books for 2015

For more information on any of the books inside, simply click the title or book cover to view the full book page.  

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Driving Change through Simple Acts of Kindness

Celebrating the 30th anniversary of the anti-bullying national charity Kidscape, 12 charities come together in How to Create Kind Schools to offer an insight on their specific projects and techniques, but who all share a single hope – that no child at school feels scared, isolated or excluded. In this interview, Jenny Hulme offers her insights on the importance of introducing kindness through projects at school and the drive for positive change by creating a more successful setting for children.


Why do wHulme-Knights_How-to-Create-K_978-1-84905-591-8_colourjpg-webe need to learn to be kind?

We encourage children to treat others as they’d like to be treated, and trust they’ll do the right thing. Life is complicated, though, and if the culture of our school or workplace is inequitable, we can find the things we value (kindness, security, opportunity, friendship) in conflict with each other. Children who turn to Kidscape for help are often as bewildered by the bystanders as they are by the bullies; bystanders being those children who they thought were kind, or considered friends, but who do nothing to stand up for them when the bullying starts. When that happens, children who are bullied often blame themselves and that knocks their confidence even more.


Why is this so important in schools now?

This is where the learning can come in, driving change by providing the information, skills and confidence children need – we all need – to be able to live our values, follow our better instincts.


Did you have a favourite project from the 12?

They were all mesmerising in different ways, and every school I visited taught me something new. I think if I had to direct teachers to one chapter first from How to Create Kind Schools, it might be the peer mentoring chapter, if only because it answers questions a lot of teachers posed to me. They often see play times as the ‘hardest lesson’ of the day for children, and also – sometimes – one that is in some way out of their control. They are, naturally, reluctant to ‘force children to play together’ and quite rightly want to see children developing social skills and friendships in free time.

This chapter also very simply answers some concerns teachers have about finding the time to do anything else in their over-packed day. The chapter illustrates that – while there was some investment of time to set up the scheme – it paid back in so many ways, including enhancing teaching time, reducing time dealing with upsets or bullying, improving attendance and attainment. All the projects in this book had the same positive impact on schools, but I think the peer mentoring scheme might open hearts and minds to just how positive that impact could be.


What do you hope schools will take from How to Create Kind Schools?

How to Create Kind Schools highlights the idea that it is the children themselves who can drive change, and become the greatest ambassadors for inclusion, diversity and kindness. But that only happens when they’re given the skills and education, environment and support to empower them to make a difference.

I also hope it will raise awareness of the phenomenal work Kidscape does – and the tools and training they can provide to help every teacher in the UK make their anti-bullying policy more effective.


What makes How to Create Kind Schools different?

It is wonderful to have 12 charities in one book, all working to the same end. I hope that it provides a meeting place for parents and teachers to quickly and easily share the successes they’ve had and the lessons they’ve learned, and also to signpost others to the charities that helped them make a positive change.


How can our experience with kindness or unkindness at school impact us as adults?

So many adults I speak to say they are only learning now, in their adulthood, how kindness can enrich their lives, as they work and live alongside people from different social and religious backgrounds, of all abilities and disabilities.

I have heard from schools how the impact of kindness at schools on later life can be undervalued. In some schools there is still a feeling that bullying is part and parcel of growing up, preparing children for adulthood in some way.

It’s clear, though, that bullying brings no benefits at all, to the bully or the bullied. It can, instead, trigger a cycle of victimization that can last a lifetime. Studies have shown victims of bullying, including children who are very able, stand a much lower chance of doing well at school and are more likely to experience depression, anxiety and poor physical health as adults.


So how do we teach kindness?

Research into the phenomenon of bystanding demonstrates that groups who are given a seminar on compassion, or a better understanding of an  issue were, indeed, more likely to go against the majority and help someone in need.  However, the schools and charities I visited illustrated how complicated bullying is and how much more children require than an instruction to be kind. Children really do know that they should be kind and that bullying is wrong, but they often lack the understanding and skills to do anything about it.

Out of this comes a realization that lessons in kindness and schools’ anti-bullying policies have to break down barriers and create opportunities for children to better understand their peers (perhaps via mentoring or lunch clubs or visiting role models), and to feel how much they can benefit from that process.

The idea is not to single out or patronize children, but to help classes understand each other (their disability, family situation, sexual orientation or religion) and nurture friendships in a more proactive way. Marginalized children then rediscover their confidence and value and place in the group, while the children who had misunderstood them are given the chance to come out of their comfort zone or clique and learn about their differences.


A version of this interview appeared in Psychologies Magazine (April edition).

Jenny Hulme is a freelance journalist, writer and PR consultant. For more information on Jenny Hulme’s book How to Create Kind Schools visit and about the work of Kidscape visit; or let her know your views and the projects you’re involved with on Twitter at @hulmejenny.




Autism Spectrum Disorder de-escalation strategies: Creating safe spaces

 Brown9781849055031In his third entry for the JKP blog Steve Brown offers another short practical insight into how professionals working with children that have an autism spectrum disorder can create the most comfortable learning environment possible and de-escalate situations that can lead to volatile meltdowns. Today Steve covers the importance of creating a safe space to learn and how one goes about doing just that. Steve Brown is the author of Autism Spectrum Disorder & De-Escalation Strategies: A Practical Guide to Positive Behavioural Interventions for Children and Young People – for more information on the book visit the JKP website

Creating safe spaces

Where do you prefer to go to when you feel anxious, angry or embarrassed?

Picture yourself in one of these states complete with an audience. As a means of protecting yourself I imagine you would ideally like to take yourself to a place that makes you feel comfortable and calm.

08-autism-afpgtThis is a major problem faced by a number of children with ASD – the acting out, the confrontation, the aggressive incidents are the result of them feeling great stress in the class environment and not being able to find that comfortable and calm space. One of the things that we as professionals should be doing is creating safe, calm places for children to feel good, learn and thrive in.

5 ways to create calmer spaces for children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder.

  • You can define any ‘safe’ area by giving it boarders. You can use a carpet tile, coloured spot or taped floor area to let the child know where to sit or stay provided this will help them feel safe.
  • You can introduce big bean-bags in classrooms or corridors for children to sit on when they need to calm down or have time to think. Bean-bags are flexible enough for the child to relax into, don’t pose a great deal of threat when thrown and are portable.
  • Set up a separate workstation (table and chair facing blank wall – low stimulation) inside or outside the classroom. This is a simple idea to allow the child to be slightly detached but still involved in lessons and work activities (not a punishment – just a safe space for them to be alone).
  • Comfortable chairs located in quieter areas for children to sit in or lean against help them to concentrate on what is bothering them or what they need to do next, rather than uncomfortable seats in busy areas which can provoke agitation and distract the rest of the class.
  • Designate a specific room that offers privacy and protection. In that room have slogans and pictures painted on the walls that offer positive thoughts such as ‘stay safe’ or ‘talk and listen’. You want a room that is a good size, is painted a calming colour and has soft furnishings or bean bags for children and staff to sit on.


Children with ASD who abscond or hide under furniture often do this because they don’t realise there are other options and thus default to a pattern of behaviour that can cause a great deal of disruption. Offering an alternative space where the child can feel safe means as professionals we have a greater degree of control and can help diffuse a volatile situation much better.

The learning environment is often one of the last things we consider when trying to help manage emotions and behaviour. Have a good look at your work place and see if there is anything you can change to provide the children and educators with calmer, safer spaces.

Brown---ASD-and-Deescalation---CLICK-HERESteve Brown is the author of Autism Spectrum Disorder & De-Escalation Strategies which is available in paperback from Jessica Kingsley Publishers

Autism Spectrum Disorder de-escalation strategies: Non-verbal communication

Brown9781849055031In the second of his special blogs running this March Steve Brown is offering another short practical insight into how professionals working with children that have an autism spectrum disorder can create the most comfortable learning environment possible and de-escalate situations that can lead to volatile meltdowns. This week – the importance of non-verbal communication. Steve is the author of Autism Spectrum Disorder & De-Escalation Strategies: A Practical Guide to Positive Behavioural Interventions for Children and Young People – for more information on the book visit the JKP website


Non-verbal communication

Sixty per cent of communication is supposed to be conveyed through non-verbal communication according to Borg (2011.) Experts in this field disagree on the exact statistic (don’t all the academics disagree? it’s their job!) but it is generally agreed upon that body language makes up a large part of what we communicate.

How many times have you gazed across a sea of children’s faces and picked out the ones that are looking to cause trouble or show signs of needing help just through reading their body language? Now think back when you were a child and did something that was bad enough to warrant serious consequences, you could probably gauge how severe your punishment was going to be from the adult long before they opened their mouth.

An angry teacher holding a composition book and pointing a ruler.As professionals working with children on the autism spectrum it is essential to be aware of the power our body language has. There are things we should always try to avoid – negative messages that automatically send out a bad vibe such as, double tea pot stance (hands on hips), turbo boost eye brow lift eye contact (a really stern look) and finger wagging are all non-verbal wind up techniques that are confrontational and can raise anxieties in children with an ASD.

We all know it is difficult to manage body language, to keep control of eye contact and limit our negative gestures but it is important that we try and remain aware at all times of the power these signifiers can have.

The trick is to be relaxed with body language, appear confidant and assertive and send messages that convey clear statements without appearing aggressive or authoritarian.

eye contactYour gestures are going to give away a lot of your overall message to a child long before you have said a word – as professionals we should start thinking a lot more about using our words to back up our gestures rather than allowing our gestures to give away something we might be thinking but isn’t helpful in a potentially volatile situation.

With that in mind we should try to align our non-verbal messages with the words we use. If you are asking a child to sit down – point at the chair and not directly at them. Make your gestures in a confident and assertive manner remembering the whole time that rapport is often built on non-verbal communication.



Steve Brown is the author of Autism Spectrum Disorder & De-Escalation Strategies which is available in paperback from Jessica Kingsley Publishers

Autism Spectrum Disorder de-escalation strategies: Avoiding confrontation


Throughout March author and de-escalation expert Steve Brown is offering short practical insights into how professionals working with children that have an autism spectrum disorder can create the most comfortable learning environment possible and de-escalate situations that can lead to volatile meltdowns.  Steve is the author of Autism Spectrum Disorder & De-Escalation Strategies: A Practical Guide to Positive Behavioural Interventions for Children and Young People – for more information on the book visit the JKP website


Avoiding confrontation
I often get asked how best to de-escalate in different situations – particularly when it comes to working with a child that a professional does not know well or has been able to establish some level of working relationship with.

In times of doubt or when a child of any age is displaying unpredictable behaviour, the space we have between us and the child is really important. Stand too close and we are physically vulnerable, stand square on and lean in and we put ourselves at further risk. This also looks confrontational. As an adult if someone gets too close what is our reaction? I often witness adults stepping back, instructing the person to back off.

armbentThe length of space between the elbow and the shoulder is deemed as intimate space, a space that we reserve to invite people into.

The next closest space is personal space which is defined from the elbow to the finger tips. This space is often entered unnecessarily or unintentionally. This is where problems occur. Eighty percent of injuries to staff are to the head and four to five year olds cause 3 times more injuries to staff than any other age group. Staff can fear older, taller children, yet it’s the younger, smaller children who cause the most damage to the most important resource: staff.

teacher_telling_off_sonEven though the staff who work with younger children get down to the children’s height, they tend to lean in and therefore bring faces closer into striking range.

If more staff stood sideways on and tried to keep in social space they would be safer and reduce the risk of injuries. The child would be less likely to be wound up or feel intimidated and have their emotions heightened.

An easy way to remember this is “sideways is safest”.

In times of trouble keep your distance and reduce and deflate your body language, by approaching sideways on you increase the chance of lowering the child’s anxieties which will help to reduce behaviours that challenge us as professionals. This doesn’t mean staff have to walk around placing their arm out pointing towards the children shouting “back off!” it has to be a controlled approach that is as calm as possible. The important thing is to not aggressively invade the child’s personal space. I once witnessed a staff member get so close to a child that when he was speaking little bits of saliva landed on the child’s face. The child kept on stepping back and then looked towards the member of staff, wiped his face and said “I asked for the news not the ******* weather!” It is important to remember that initially the professional must maintain that personal distance and approach side-on.

Emotions drive behaviours that get reactions and staff can wind up emotions or wind them down. De-escalation is subtle and can look like nothing is happening but done the right way it can make learning environments more comfortable for all involved. To avoid confrontation and winding up children staff can remain assertive, look confident, naturally smile, reduce body language by getting sideways on and stick to a positive script.





Steve Brown is the author of Autism Spectrum Disorder & De-Escalation Strategies which is available in paperback from Jessica Kingsley Publishers

“It’s just a bit o’ banter, innit?” – Why “That’s so GAY!” still needs to be challenged

Jonathan Charlesworth is the Executive Director of the charity Educational Action Challenging Homophobia (EACH), UK, and author of That’s So Gay! – Challenging Homophobic Bullying. He has over thirty years’ teaching and training experience and regularly delivers training and consultancy on homophobic bullying, harassment and crime to schools, colleges, universities, and the police service. In this post he explains why homophobic name-calling is still a problem, and one we must work together to challenge.

“Got your little clarinet, have you? You’re so flippin’ gay, you are!” I heard this one sneered at a pupil in a corridor not so long ago. This is a fairly straightforward one with which to deal. Our ‘perpetrator’ had targeted her insult directly at another pupil and called him gay. Presumably those dishing out homophobic name-calling, perceive it to be okay for a girl to be seen carrying a clarinet but not a boy, so one must assume effeminacy equates to ‘being a girl’ with the two seen as interchangeable? There is always interesting work to be done here around sexism and gender with all our pupils and youth group attendees.


That’s So Gay! – Challenging Homophobic Bullying, by Jonathan Charlesworth

It’s certainly easy here for a member of staff to recognise that one pupil has denigrated another and this requires an intervention or sanction. What’s harder to challenge for staff in schools or informal youth settings is the ‘victim-less crime’ of something being called ‘gay’ like homework, or a pop band (who aren’t – or can’t all be), or something intangible like the cold as in “Oh, God, this weather is so gay!”

How often have you spoken to your son or daughter about ‘calling things gay’ and they retort with, “But it’s just banter!” Or you’ve spoken to a young person if you’re a teacher or someone who works in children’s services and they fob it off as being just a ‘joke’ whilst someone who is the target of homophobic bullying and who is really worrying you misguidedly dismisses their abuse simply as ‘a bit of a drama’.

Many schools will be indicating consistently that homophobic bullying is wrong and pupils will recognise that it is unacceptable to treat someone differently because they are gay or are thought to be. Where schools often struggle is with the use of homophobic language and phrases such as ‘That’s so gay’. In these cases pupils will often not see that their actions have a direct consequence for anyone. As a result it will often be perceived as ‘harmless banter’.

Any of us who work with young people will recognise that homophobic language is frequently used without its perpetrator’s thinking and is often overlooked or even ignored because it can be difficult to know how to respond without awareness-raising or appropriate training.

I recently explained to a Deputy Headteacher in a secondary school that we were soon to see the publication of my book to help schools challenge homophobic name-calling and bullying: That’s So Gay!. “Oh, yes!” she exclaimed. “But they don’t mean anything by that, do they? They say it all the time and it more often than not has nothing to do with sexuality!” I did my best to explain diplomatically why it is important to take homophobic name-calling as seriously as racist or disablist, but by this point she was smiling at me with that look of someone who is thinking about something else and has ‘checked out’. It may come as no surprise to learn that the pupil whom I’d come to support and discuss left the school a few weeks later because of homophobia and cites being much happier in their new school.

This is just one localised example of how homophobic name-calling is regularly brushed off as ‘harmless banter’ and not thought to be particularly hurtful. Its use, and homophobia in schools in general, does need to be challenged because ignoring it absolutely allows homophobic bullying to gain a foothold, continue, then escalate.

To be borne in mind however is that a lot of pupils will be reluctant to admit that they are upset by the homophobic abuse whilst the desire not to be seen as weak or a victim can make pupils equally reluctant to report any form of bullying.

If you’re being bullied because you’re, for instance, black, Asian or Jewish in all likelihood your parents will have had several conversations in front of and with you about faith-based or racist bullying and harassment. There’s comfort at home provided by understanding, compassion and shared experience. With disability often comes the sense that it’s ‘not their fault’ and despite the ‘retard’ and ‘spaz’ insults, which have so charmingly resurfaced in recent years, pretty much every pupil acknowledges disabilist name-calling and bullying as a taboo.

Sexual orientation meanwhile is too often considered by both young people and adults alike to be a ‘choice’ rendering the gay person a legitimate ‘victim’ of their bigotry and disapproval. Gay or lesbian young people invariably also don’t have the luxury of someone at home who shares their sexuality and who can empathise with feelings of awkwardness or ‘get’ what their ostracism ‘feels like’. If you’re being bullied because you’re heterosexual but your ‘Mums’ are lesbians this can present its own set of problems.

Although young people who hold on to stereotypes may not wish to withhold equal rights from gay people they may well have their sense of who gay men and women ‘are’ skewed by television depictions and not see it as a priority or empathise with the issue.

The belief that being gay is inferior to being heterosexual leads to subtle behaviours such as jokes and vocabulary that can be very damaging to gay young people. One of the most obvious examples is the pejorative use of the word ‘gay’ among young people to describe something as worthless, wrong, dull, stupid or inferior.

Way too often pupils in school believe that reporting their bullying looks like taking it too seriously which will simply attract more abuse. We also know that too often, pupils are  not confident in the mechanisms schools put in place to respond to bullying. Similarly too many feel that their teachers will not take the problem seriously. They can also be unsure how to report if homophobic bullying is not specifically cited as unacceptable within school policies and practice.

Pupils regularly tell me and my colleagues at Educational Action Challenging Homophobia (EACH – about a lack of clear and consistent sanctions in school when responding to bullying. Many fear that by reporting bullying they themselves will be excluded from activities in order to avoid being targeted by their perpetrator(s). EACH regularly hears stories of targeted pupils being asked to change separately for sports lessons, physical education, or leave lessons early in order to avoid running into their tormentors.

When so much legislative progress has been made for lesbian, gay and bisexual equality, pupils might question whether co-opting the word ‘gay’ as an insult really matters. Language changes all the time and many young people will argue that calling their homework gay has nothing to do with their opinions on same-sex relationships. In fact young people who themselves identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual will use ‘That’s so gay’ in this context. For these pupils the word can have several meanings which they think has no connection to their attitudes towards themselves and other gay people. Education about historical oppression and the tremendous battle fought for equality evidently needs to be for all. There is also a chance pro-behaviour is at play here. This is when someone who is conscious of feeling ‘outside’ of society’s ‘mainstream’ deploys self-deprecating humour to divert attention away from their, for example, disability, ethnicity or sexuality. It sometimes works but to those who can see what is happening it is more often embarrassing.

If a pupil or a young person in your care uses homophobic language we should all point out the effect their language is having on other people: remembering that phrases such as ‘That’s so gay’ are not harmless banter but part of wider homophobia whether the pupil appreciates this or not. This is not just an Ofsted requirement but a moral responsibility we share collectively as part of our Duty of Care.

This article has been adapted from Jonathan Charlesworth’s That’s So Gay! – Challenging Homophobic Bullying.

Educational Action Challenging Homophobia (EACH) is the multi-award winning registered charity providing training, resources and support to affirm representations of gay and transgender people, challenge homophobia and reduce discrimination experienced because of sexual orientation or gender identity. (
• EACH’s National Homophobic Bullying Actionline: 0808 1000 143

Supporting young people suffering with self-harm and eating disorders – three key lessons

Pooky Knightsmith is a specialist in student mental health and emotional well-being, and author of Self-Harm and Eating Disorders in Schools. Through her company In Our Hands Ltd, Pooky works with schools, parents and organisations to promote awareness of and provide training on topics related to mental health. She is also the Mental Health and Emotional Wellbeing Advisor for the PSHE Association in the UK and a trustee for Beat, the eating disorder charity. She has personal experiences of the issues she teaches and writes about, having personally overcome eating disorders and self-harm herself.
Here she shares her top tips for supporting young people suffering with self-harm and eating disorders, gathered through years of research and training.

“How on earth have you ended up doing what you do?” A colleague questioned me today “Teaching people about self-harm and eating disorders is not exactly the kind of job you dream about when you’re 14 is it?”Knightsmith

And he was right.  I didn’t dream about doing my current job when I was 14.  In fact, I didn’t dream about anything in my future when I was 14.  All I really wanted was to be dead, but I lacked the motivation to make my ‘dream’ a reality.  I was living a half-life, walking around each day in the shadows of anorexia and self-harm.  So in answer to my colleague, I suppose that I started down the path I’m currently traversing in order to try and stop other children feeling the way I felt.

Fortunately, things have moved on somewhat from my own school days.  We have a far better understanding of self-harm and eating disorders – unfortunately that’s at least in part due to a huge increase in prevalence in both conditions which has forced us to learn, fast, and taught us some difficult lessons along the way.

I feel we’re currently at the tipping point, with schools and agencies ready, willing and increasingly able to offer support to the young people who need it most.  But what are the key lessons that we should bear in mind when offering support to young people in our care?  If I had to boil down many years of research on the topic into three key learning points (and anyone who’s attended one of my training sessions will know how keen I am on having three take home points!) it would be these:

We need to enable young people to feel in control of their own recovery

A desire to take control of one aspect of their lives is a key reason young people cite for the development of self-harming and eating disordered behaviours.  Bearing this in mind, we need to ensure that in our keenness to support young people’s recovery, that we don’t take this process straight out of their control.  Contributing to their sense of lack of control is likely to exacerbate rather than alleviate their harmful behaviours.  We can help young people to feel in control of their own recovery by employing truly person-centred practice where the young person is the key initiator in recovery goals and all information and meetings are designed to be accessible to the young person concerned.

We are stronger when we work as a team

When school staff, sufferers, parents and any external agencies involved come together and work as a team to support the recovery process with unified goals; progress is both more rapid and longer lasting.  This type of team working can be difficult to implement but it reaps dividends in terms of positive impact for the young person trying to overcome their self-harming or eating disordered behaviours.

Recovery doesn’t stop when someone looks healed

Finally, we need to ensure that support doesn’t drop off the moment someone looks physically better.  When a healthy weight has been restored or cuts or burns have healed then it’s normal for support to drop away.  Tight health budgets often mean that therapeutic or psychiatric support may dwindle at this point and parents, friends and school staff can often begin to step away feeling that the worst is over.  For the young person concerned though, this can be the most difficult phase of all as they are probably still working to overcome the underlying difficulties that drove them to their unhealthy behaviours, but they no longer have these behaviours to turn to as a means of coping.  Whilst underlying issues are being resolved and new, healthy coping mechanisms are still being embedded, young people are very vulnerable to relapse.  To minimise the likelihood of relapse, we need to ensure we extend our support, care and guidance into the weeks and months following physical recovery.

Things are looking up.  More than ever I find myself welcomed with open arms when I go to teach colleagues about how best to support the young people in their care who are facing self-harm and eating disorders.  A few short years ago there would have been no market for the book I’ve spent so long researching and writing and there would be no place for my training sessions; so taboo and under-recognised were these topics.  We’re opening our eyes to the problem and our approaches are evolving fast.  I’m hopeful that soon I’ll be able to reflect that a lot less young people are feeling like I did when I was 14.

I certainly hope so.

You can download one of Pooky’s PDF handouts, which gives alternatives to self-harm suggested by former self-harmers themselves, here

Find out more about Pooky’s book Self-Harm and Eating Disorders in Schools, read reviews or order your copy here