Sunday, 16 February 2014

Jay, my Beautiful Autistic Savant

What a beautiful boy, he looked like the male version of the Pears Soap advert little girl. Blonde curls, lily white skin, sea blue eyes and a smile to die for. Tall for his age and gangly, he was often awkward in movement and space. He was happy, spritely, bouncy and eager to learn craving more and more knowledge. He was cuddly in a non-cuddly fashion but his eyes, when you could catch them, spoke a million words. You see (pardon the pun) my beautiful Jay at age two and a half had no language but when you were lucky enough to engage eye contact he spoke a million times over beautifully to you. He could be funny and cheeky and he and I had an understanding like no other. What an honour to work, teach and care for this beautiful boy.

I had never heard him speak a recognisable word for several years but he made noises all the time; grunts, squeals and groans, growls and hysterical laughter. In his own way he understood (and found the world funnier) than we gave him credit for. He could make himself understood at all times and knew exactly what he wanted and I understood every grunt and growl. He was very good at a meltdown too if he couldn’t get his own way; make himself understood or didn’t want to comply. Throwing himself on the floor and becoming a floppy mess he could lie there forever or until a new puzzle was offered to him. I could observe him for hours; he was one of the most fascinating and beautiful specimens of the human race I had ever encountered.
At two years he was stubborn and feisty; determined and persistent. He played alone, didn’t acknowledge his peers and could concentrate for great lengths of time on a topic or resource of high interest. He loved numbers, trains, puzzles, science and patterns. He disliked craft and creative projects, messy and outside play. Trains with numbers were like chocolate to him. By the time he was four he could do sixty to one hundred piece puzzles with no picture, upside down and back to front. I will never forget the day he took a puzzle box with three different puzzles inside (all mixed up) and without the pictures and in no particular order that made any sense to me (or anyone else) he sorted the pieces for the most difficult within a few minutes by throwing over his shoulder the pieces he had no use for! He then proceeded to complete the puzzle (with no picture) and with the pieces the wrong way up. He seemed to be able to complete puzzles by shape and pattern, it was astounding and a miracle to watch.

Always in his head and his world he amused himself very well and happily with his high interest toys and cruising the room searching out numbers on a daily basis. He would line up toys with numbers in order, all around the room and was very unhappy if you moved a number out of sequence. He could count to in sequence to infinity before the age of three. He recognised every number in the world around him (in and out of order) and could add and subtract very large number patterns. James was an enigma at age four.
At four years he began to speak in extremely adult language and using mathematical and scientific words, although he used short sharp sentences. When asking for his milk at snack time he would ask by the literage that appeared on the four pint semi skimmed bottle, for example, 2.272 litres. Everything in his world represented a number; he spoke of no one by name. Everything and everyone was a number in his world. The staff were given numbers as names; I was number six? The only acceptable books for our Jay were books with numbers included in the pictures and storyline, which he would read (and repeat) over and over; Jay was fascinated and obsessed with rhyming and language. He taught himself to read at a very early age and could read and recognise complex words without understanding the meaning of them. There is condition called Hyperlexia which is where a child has an intense fascination for letters or numbers and the ability to read far beyond their age but has a below average understanding of the spoken word and interacting and socialising. Jay loved numbers and scientific words especially but at times I don't believe he understood what he was discussing.

Jay was the third child of a family of four children, very much loved and very much understood by his highly intelligent parents. The eldest daughter also had a diagnosis of high functioning Autistic Spectrum Disorder, passed the 11+ and was on the gifted programme at the local grammar school and top of the class. Jay also received a diagnosis of high functioning ASD and a statement of educational needs to follow him to reception and assist him through his primary education and beyond if necessary.
Jay would be eight or nine now; I often wonder how and where this beautiful able boy is today?

Jay was twice exceptional – Gifted with ASD - some children have a learning disability alongside their giftedness or high ability, which adds another dimension, difficulty and frustration.  It is important to see the whole child and the two individual learning needs; it is important to not let the disability get in the way of the high ability of any child and vice versa.  Many learning difficulties do not interfere with intellect.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Safeguarding Our Children

Children’s safety must never be compromised; children have a right to be safe; it’s a human right to be safe. Recently we have heard about some tragic cases of child abuse and heart rending deaths of children, some of which have been in early year’s settings and schools. There have been many serious case reviews, Victoria Climbie, Vanessa George and Daniel Pelka, to name just a few and of course we obviously learn something from these but there still remains some very grave lessons to be learnt and there are also very grey areas for practitioners and professionals working with children to be empowered and confident to share and report concerns.

Safeguarding and child protection in the UK is a complex and challenging process and there are many problems linked to this very serious area of childcare practice. There are many intricate channels of reporting to follow, many acronyms to decipher and every local authority has their own procedures to follow not to mention the setting and school policies which are generally lengthy and complex themselves. I am always astounded by the length of policies and often wonder if they really get read and understood.
Staff training is also a very grey area. Not all staff will have any form of training or insight to safeguarding and child protection. Many employees rely of the small window of learning within a member of staffs level 2 or 3 childcare qualifications which only touches on the subject. Basic safeguarding training is what it says…..basic. Employees only have to update their training every three years and this is only a recommendation. And safeguarding covers all aspects of safety in a setting or organisation not just child protection but college courses are not teaching this, they just touch on child protection and abuse.

We also have to remember owners and head teachers have to keep a balanced view of their business but a child’s safety must never be compromised in the name of profit, budgets or reputation. Professionals have a “duty of care” to be mindful, observe and report any form of child abuse or safeguarding issue but when and who determines when a child is neglected or abused. Making this important decision can be subjective and this is where the airy fairy greyness steps in. What I feel requires reporting you or someone else may not.
When we refer to child protection we are not just talking about sexual abuse, there are many forms of abuse that professionals have to be aware of and report on. There are four types of child abuse. They are defined in the UK Government guidance Working Together to Safeguard Children 2010 (1.33 – 1.36) as follows:
  • Physical
  • Sexual
  • Emotional
  • Neglect
As well as:
  • Institutional
  • Discriminatory
Recognising child abuse is not easy. It is not your responsibility to decide whether or not child abuse has taken place or if a child is at significant risk of harm from someone. You do however, have both a responsibility and duty, as set out in your organisation’s child protection procedures, to act in order that the appropriate agencies can investigate and take any necessary action to protect a child. It is everyone’s duty to report any concern that may mean a child is at risk and then let the agencies deal with the case and decide on a way forward and outcome.

Abuse and neglect are forms of maltreatment of a child. Somebody may abuse or neglect a child either directly by inflicting harm, or indirectly, by failing to act to prevent harm. So here is another grey area…..are we responsible for abuse or neglect if we do not report a concern? Children may be abused in a family or in an institutional or community setting, by those known to them or, more rarely, by a stranger. They may be abused by an adult or adults, or another child or children. Abuse does not discriminate and can be happening in any family with any social background.

Guidance today for all educational establishments is statutory and not mandatory including the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) Statutory Framework & Welfare Statements and campaigners are fighting for reporting for all professionals working with children and young people in any establishment to become mandatory. The campaign is backed by five leading abuse charities as well as several MPs and shadow MPs. “Although child abuse is of course a crime, reporting it is – unbelievably - entirely discretionary. Along with many others, I find it incomprehensible that teachers, teaching assistants and other staff in Daniel’s school did not do more to help him," said Paula Barrow, Manchester based mother, in the introduction to her petition on where around 50,000 individuals have signed the petition for Daniel Pelka’s Law. If reporting had been mandatory it is very possible Daniel would be alive today. We must all feel confident to recognise behaviours, symptoms and attitudes that give cause for concern in the families we work with.
  • Statutory – required, permitted or enacted by statute
  • Mandatory – required by law or mandate, compulsory
Case Study

Child A (12), Child B (10) & Child C (4), sisters with the same biological father, lived with their mother. Their father lived out of the area. It had been disclosed he abused alcohol. Child A and B went to the local primary school and the Child C attended the local day nursery referred on the 2 year old funded government free education scheme. It was noted in both settings that the children were unkempt, unclean and smelly. The mother had a young partner. They were asked not to smoke or drink in front of the children. Mother and her sister were raised by their biological mother and her partner, their step father, who sexually abused them for most of their lives. As adults they both continued to have a sexual relationship with the stepfather until Child A disclosed at school that her step grandfather had sexually interfered with her. The school made a referral to social care and the assessment and intervention team were called in and after many play therapy sessions, interviews and meetings a case conference was held and the three children were placed on a Child Protection Plan. The step grandfather was arrested, questioned and released on bail. He was given conditions not to contact the family or attend the local area. At a later date Child B also disclosed. Many agencies were involved in the case – social worker, head teacher, school nurse, health visitor, children’s center, nursery manager, police, GP, play therapist, counselor, pediatrician, educational psychologist, translator, advocate. The referral was made by the head teacher of the school.
Less experienced staff (and even experienced) still struggle to recognise abuse and certainly feel uncomfortable challenging parents and reporting. A question they will always have in their minds is “What if I am wrong.” But far better to report and be wrong than not to report at all and a child dies. There are specific reporting lines as follows:
  • Disclose to your designated safeguarding officer in confidence
  • Who in turn will inform the head teacher, manager and/or owner
  • Telephone the First Response phone line
  • Contact the Local Area Designated Officer
  • Contact the Local Safeguarding Children’s Board
  • Local Social Services Intervention & Assessment Team
  • Ofsted
  • Your local authority
The Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS), as part of the Tickell & Nutbrown reviews stipulates all staff must be monitored and have regular one to one supervision. This is imperative for all those professionals working with children “period” but even more imperative for those working on child abuse cases especially those involved with sexual abuse and paedophilia. Working on such cases is onerous, emotionally challenging and can be extremely disturbing. Employees need a safe space to “off load” and “share” with a senior supervisor. Working on such cases can also bring up issues in the member of staffs past that can be difficult to manage and even become a conflict of interest on the case they are working on. A member of staff may need counselling support themselves and in some cases retirement from the case.

Staff also need to be ready and confident to whistleblow any concerns about anyone who may be abusing or causing harm to a child on or off the premises. All setting and schools must have comprehensive safeguarding, child protection and whistleblowing policies in place. Whistleblowing is also a scary procedure and staff need to know they are safe to whistleblow in order to keep children safe without reprisals or fear of losing their jobs. There are several organisations that can support with whistleblowing:

Some of the Indicators to look out for:
  • Destruction of physical environment
  • Turning night into day/sleep disturbance
  • Sleeping in the fetal position
  • Chronic incontinence/persistent urine infections
  • Extreme physical and/or emotional dependence
  • Verbal abuse and aggression towards carer
  • Introverted/mutism/low self esteem
  • Changes in personality caused by illness and/or medication
  • Non-compliance with carers wishes
  • Obsessive behaviour
  • Wandering/absconding
  • Self-harm
This list is not exhaustive.

The two year funded scheme for the most deprived two year olds brings with it many areas for concern for practitioners.
Case Study

Child A was seen by a nursery nurse to be “lapping” like a dog from the toilet. When asked what he was doing he replied “having a drink”. When asked why he drunk from the toilet he replied “this is what we do at home”. This child was 3 years old. As time went on it materialized that his mother, a single parent, was a cocaine user and alcoholic and strapped Child A and his brother Child B into high chairs all day in order that she could sleep off her frivolities of the night before. She also refused them drinks in order that she did not have to change their nappies. Child A was so thirsty when he attended his day nursery, and was afraid to ask for a drink for fear of being reprimanded, that he drunk from the toilet secretly in order to quench his thirst. The setting ensured he never had to ask for a drink. A written referral was made to social care and the assessment and intervention team was informed and the above procedure began. The children were put on a multiagency Child Protection Plan. Sadly these two children were taken into long term foster care and eventually adopted. Their mother was offered long term mental health and parenting support.

Remember there may be family and institutional contributing factors also damaging a child’s life, home and well-being, e.g. substance abuse, domestic violence, financial difficulties, mental illness, stress, unemployment, loss of a parent and/or disability. These can be contributing factors to an unhappy or emotionally abused child; we are not necessarily looking for bruises. So, safeguarding and child protection is complex and not just about sexual abuse. Carers who withhold food and fluids, lock children in bedrooms, omit to keep children washed and clean, use illegal substances around their children or subject them to episodes of domestic violence can all be construed as forms of child abuse.

The NSPCC states that existing whistleblowing legislation has a number of weaknesses, such as the number of obstacles to clear before employment protection is available. These weaknesses cause child protection and safeguarding professionals to be reticent about reporting legitimate concerns they may have about child safety. The NSPCC wants there to be an atmosphere where people involved in child protection and safeguarding feel able to raise concerns about issues that could affect children’s safety without having to fear an adverse impact on their employment situation.

The NSPCC advises that there needs to be:
  • Changes to the groups of people for whom protection is available
  • The level of knowledge or concern about child protection and safeguarding at which employment protection starts
  • A reduction in the number of legal obstacles to employment protection
  • An increase in activity to raise awareness of the protection available for those who want to blow the whistle about legitimately held concerns about child protection and safeguarding
The NSPCC would like to see the “reasonable belief” threshold for protection of employees who whistle blow lowered to “reasonable suspicion or concern” in cases where a child is suspected of being abused or harmed. This is to encourage whistleblowers that might have some doubts about the information they have received but are sufficiently concerned about a child that they feel the matter should be investigated properly.

So…..I leave you to consider if reporting should be mandatory?

If reporting had been mandatory and the threshold for protection of employees who whistleblow was lowered to “reasonable suspicion or concern” would Victoria Climbie, Baby P and especially Daniel Pelka be alive today? Plus, would many children’s abuse have stopped much earlier.

Everyone working with children and young people need to feel confident and empowered to make a referral in the name of our children, their safety and their human rights. Remember, the long term damage from any type of abuse lasts a lifetime. So, I ask you to support and help keep children and professionals safe.

Additional Information
NSPCC 0808 800 5000
Early Years Information

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

The Early Years 2 year old Funding Debate

Two year olds are very special little people, vastly different in needs to under twos and three year olds. They are constantly busy, always on the go; rarely do they sit still, or not for very long anyway. There is so much learning going on in their little brains and bodies every minute of the day. They rarely walk anywhere and need very special experienced and trained practitioners to keep them busy, stimulated and safe but understand informed risk.  By the time they are close to three years old it is amazing how far they have come and how much they have learnt.

Two year olds brains are frantically wiring and they crave movement and activity; they get a lot of pleasure and satisfaction from moving and dumping items from one place to another or one container to another, they need to explore. Two year olds are beginning to learn language, sharing, turn taking, following an instruction, concentration and listening skills as well as the basic educational curriculum embedded in the early years foundation stage and development matters. All these areas of learning will happen in a spasmodic fashion and with differing timescales and experienced highly trained practitioners will be working hard focusing 0n supporting two year old children’s communication and language, physical and personal, social and emotional development.
Two year olds are unpredictable, erratic and naturally impulsive, this is because the area of their brain that is involved in planning and logical thought is far from developed.  Two year olds have a "see and do" attitude to the environment they are playing in. Asking a two year old not to touch or do something will generally have no effect as their impulsiveness will take over once an adult is out of sight.  Sitting for any length of time will be extremely challenging and is likely to result in frustration, wriggling, walking around and, in some cases, the odd problematic bite or pinch.

Two year olds need a room full of a wide variety of equipment and resources and the pace of the session needs to be notched up; waiting times needs to be minimal. There needs to be a quick turnaround of activities and practitioners need to offer high levels of support to help two year olds engage in a wide range of play. The outside classroom is particularly inviting for this age range so long as the outside space is busy, inviting and stimulating.
Two year olds social and emotional needs are still developing together with their understanding of their peers needs and feelings. During this year twos will learn how to share and play with each other through squabbles, negotiation and interacting with others. When twos touch and explore the world around them they are learning about shape, colour, texture, weight and text, all of which will assist in developing literacy and writing skills later on. in readiness for school. A safe secure environment with robust key person relationships and plenty of duplicate toys and resources will make for a fun enjoyable two year old working environment.

Two year olds need to run and jump; climb and roll; throw and catch; kick a ball and ride a trike. Large movements are essential for this age group and the key person and practitioners must also ensure a wide range of outside activities are readily available on a daily basis. This age need a free flow in/out environment more than ever to sate their brain growth and physical needs. Twos are also just beginning to learn independence skills which will go on to help develop positive confidence and self-esteem. Ensure there are varied opportunities for children to pour, use a fork and spoon, thread and do puzzles; sweep and clean the tables, help lay the table and carry items, to name just a few.  Challenging activities develop concentration skills, hand eye coordination and strengthen their muscles and fine motor development essential for later learning.
Two year olds classed as being in poverty are now offered 15 hours of government funding to the most deprived and with differing eligibility criteria as set by each local authority. Primarily places are offered to looked after children, adopted children, children with a disability or special educational need or households that qualify for free school meals. Other families that may be eligible are families receiving Working Tax Credit, Universal Credit and incomes not exceeding £16,199.

The two year old scheme brings with it many additional areas of challenge to settings due to the basis of the scheme and the deprived areas it is designed to support. Many children arrive in settings with additional needs or additional family needs, e.g. substance abuse, domestic violence, child protection issues and court orders. These additional needs can put huge pressure on settings and practitioners in a wide variety of ways, e.g. paperwork, support mechanisms, attending meetings and case conferences, writing reports, IEPs and liaising with outside agencies. It takes experiences managers and practitioners to have an in-depth understanding of some of these children/family needs together with correct, up-to-date and adequate training in areas such as Autism, Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD), Dyspraxia, Dyslexia, behaviour and social and emotional difficulties. Training is essential but often expensive; and sometimes not enough available locally in the evenings and weekends in order for practitioners to easily access. Practitioners cannot always be let out in the working day due to maintaining both staff and child ratios. On another level, paperwork to obtain Higher Needs Funding or a Statement of Educational Needs for many of these children is extensive and time consuming and requires high levels of expertise.
To be referred to the two year funding programme generally means there is an additional need of some kind, so it is imperative staff/child ratios remain high (1:4) for these wonderful but busy little people in order that they receive the high quality care, learning and development, social and emotional, communication and language and physical support that they need and deserve in order to flourish and grow in confidence and self-esteem and to aid their success in future years.

If twos are to be integrated into the formal school environment there must be an extensive training programme of expert lead practitioners in these new two year old classrooms in order to cope and deal with the complex additional needs that accompany many of the funded two year olds. Specialist and safe indoor and outdoor environments must be created that offer a high-quality, balanced and holistic curriculum with a deep understanding of each twos brain development and their additional need. Early years settings in the Private/ Voluntary/Independent (PVI) sectors have been working with these impulsive and active little bodies and their additional needs for many years and have become very experienced in satisfying their every need and creating expert and dedicated play and learning spaces that challenge and extend their successes.
The Department for Education (DfE), Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) and schools would do well to ask some of us for our opinion and expertise in supporting twos transitioning to school settings, we have a wealth or knowledge and experience to offer.
Education Consultant, Early Years Specialist & Gifted & Talented Expert