Phil Earle: Why I work with pupils with additional support needs
There is no greater honour as a writer, than being allowed to speak directly to your audience. For me, it is, and always has been, the greatest part of being a writer.
I know this might prompt disapproving looks or shakes of the head from some camps, but for me it is a fundamental truth. Why would I write for children and young adults if I didn't then want to get out there and talk to them directly about what I had created?
So to be invited on the Scottish Friendly Children’s Book Tour in 2014 was both an honour and a thrill.
The itinerary was packed.
Five days, ten schools and over fifteen hundred students, but one event stood out. Not because the audience was especially large. It wasn't. It was actually the smallest. Fifteen teenagers in a unit for children with special educational needs.
Although I wasn’t a complete stranger to SEN students, I had never facilitated a session for them that related to my books, and as a result, I was frankly, scared.
I was going to get it wrong somehow.
I’d pitch the ideas I had way too high and alienate them or the staff.
How would I manage to hold them for long enough, or cope if one of them needed something I didn't feel I could offer?
What if a pupil became upset or angry or disruptive, or if I couldn’t understand what they were trying to communicate to me?
The fears seemed many and varied, and so I entered the session with some excitement, but also with a massive amount of fear, which is something I never feel before a school event.
The hour that followed was, honestly, wonderful in so many ways.
I encountered an energy that you rarely find, no matter how well your stories are received. But that’s nowhere near all.
These students may have been limited in their vocabulary, or conversational ability, but what they brought in terms of passion, enthusiasm and spontaneity was a marvel to behold and an absolute honour to be part of.
Through the course of the hour, the majority of my fears were allayed, but even when things didn't go to plan (and they often don't when working with such groups) I had all the staff support I needed, plus what I learnt very quickly, was to trust in my ability to adapt my material.
I came out of the session absolutely buzzing, determined to seek out more work like it. But strangely, I found it hard to come by, and as time passed, I started to doubt my ability to pick up where I had left off.
So when I was invited to be part of the Scottish Friendly Book Tour again, this time to celebrate their 20th Anniversary, I knew I’d love to focus on work with SEN students, and the response from schools was fabulous.
Plan and adapt
Over the course of this week I’ve been so lucky to meet and work with a number of young people with additional support and special educational needs. Their requirements were varied and often complex, but they have all been an absolute joy.
One of things I love about working with them is the unfiltered way in which they live and communicate. Getting volunteers from the audience is never difficult and the questions you pose are always answered honestly and often, hilariously.
Yes it may seem at times, like their attention is wandering, but they do it in such an honest way that it isn’t difficult to spot and adjust your pacing accordingly.
As a facilitator, all you have to do, is plan and adapt as you would to any group.
Today for example, I didn't plan to read at all from my work, but having spoken to the teacher before the session, I cued up one of my ‘early reader’ stories as a backstop, which paid dividends.
Fifteen minutes into the event, I could feel attention wandering a little, so segued to ‘Albert and The Garden Of Doom’, which definitely helped.
By asking them to read along, and to join in on certain key words or actions, the group re-engaged and re-focused.
The key here was preparation, improvisation, but also, taking the time to engage the staff who know the students best and ask key questions;
- What are the range of needs of the group?
- How verbal are they?
- Do they respond well to noise, sudden or otherwise?
- What about pacing? Am I speaking too fast?
- How long should I speak for before I risk losing their interest. What is a typical lesson length?
- And what about interaction? Part of my event involves dressing a volunteer in a costume. Would they be OK with that, or should I be careful of who I ask?
The last example revealed just how insightful the staff were, as I was warned that there might well be more than one volunteer, so how did we avoid any kind of subsequent disappointment? By the teacher whipping off to class to find more capes for wannabe heroes.
I think it’s important, that as a writer, that you don't feel the responsibility for a successful event falls solely on you. The staff at units for SEN pupils often have to fight hard to get authors to visit them, and as a result invest a great deal personally both in advance and on the day. So use their passion. Tap into it.
Whereas, in mainstream schools, I’ve often had teachers that are not fully invested in the event, marking books, or browsing Facebook (!), I’ve always found SEN staff 100% engaged and present in good numbers, facilitating their charges needs as you talk away. It is a real team effort for an event to go well.
Put simply, there is no recipe for a successful SEN event. Like in any talk, no two audiences are ever the same, regardless of their needs.
What I can tell you though, is that I’ve never met a more passionate or spontaneous audience.
Every time I work with a SEN group I feel both lucky and honoured, and that is why, as my career progresses, I’ll seek every opportunity I can to work alongside them.