New Possibilities

Starting school – a teacher’s perspective

Here is a blog from a teacher welcoming a Reach child to her class:

Joseph’s father Stuart then came to school and spoke at length with me and my classroom assistant before he started. This was an important meeting, where Dad could tell us not only about Joseph’s limb, but also share with us such things as his favourite toys, his character traits, and some family background information. At this meeting we also talked about the things that Joseph could do easily for himself, and those he may need support with, what he called his limb and his prosthetic arm, when he used this, where we should keep it, how best I should prepare the other children in my class etc. Dad left me the Reach video, which I circulated among all the staff, as I felt it was important for all of us to know the information, not just those adults who would be working directly with Joseph. I also wrote a memo sheet for all staff, so that we all had the same information and would be using the same terminology. We talk a lot at school about everyone being different, all being individual and all being special.

Previously, I had taught a child with two prosthetic legs, and there had never been a problem for other children to accept her. So it was easy in one of our ‘circle time’ sessions to talk about the new little boy who would be joining our class. I told them about my special grandmother who had no little fingers, and about all the clever things she could do, like knitting and sewing. We talked about Esther who had ‘special’ legs. Amazingly, one child then told us about his grandfather who had only one arm. I had not known this previously. This obviously led easily into our talking about Joseph. At another session, I read a story called I’m Special, which included children with many different disabilities and a teacher with one arm. When Joseph visited school for the first time, the children were looking forward to seeing him just as they would any other new child. They chatted and played with him and immediately accepted him for who he was. I had never experienced any other reaction and had no  reason to expect anything different.

When Joseph started school properly, he was pleased to show all the children his special arms, and they would often find his prosthetic arm for him if he needed it. It was, just as his father had told me, as common a thing in the classroom as the toys and was often left among them or in the dressing-up clothes. After Joseph had been with me a few weeks, I became aware of some things that I felt he needed support with. Joseph found using scissors difficult, not because he couldn’t use the scissors, but because he needed to be able to keep the paper taut. He did not find the prosthetic arm helpful for this. It had not presented itself as a specific need at home, probably because Joseph had not been working alongside children cutting at a much faster rate than he was. This did not worry Joseph, but I wanted to give him equal access to the curriculum, and felt he was entitled to sup- port with this. So, we experimented with ideas such as blutacking the sheet to the table in places and holding the sheet in a page-up computer holder. I bought different types of scissors: easy-glide, one-handed, battery operated, and a cutting blade and mat. Joseph was keen to experiment and so were all the other children. They often used his scissors too. They became an alternative class tool for all.

As time went on and Joseph began to write more, I also felt he found this a tiresome task. An angled writing board with a non- slip surface proved to be the answer. This kept the paper still, and Joseph’s writing and colouring improved immediately. Again, other children used it, and liked it, and I invested in several non-slip mats for anyone to use. Joseph could access most of the curriculum as easily as any other child.

It is always important to be sensitive to his needs, and there were a few areas where it was essential that I thought ahead carefully. One of these was in country dancing, where children usually need to hold hands, and where Joseph participated well, when positioned carefully on the ‘right’ side of his partner. Another was in PE when the children were about to begin early tennis skills, and needed to throw a ball up with one hand before hitting it with a raquet in the other hand. We would always plan ahead the way we expected Joseph to do it, and he often experimented with different ways himself, and increasingly became able to decide the best way for himself. Joseph really enriched the experiences and awareness of the other children in the class. His Mum suggested we invite Frank Letch into a whole-school assembly, and this was a wonderful experience for us all. We chose Reach as one of our charities to support that term and it was a proud moment for us when Joseph presented Frank with the cheque, which just about covered the cost of a one-handed Reach recorder. Because things had gone so smoothly when Joseph joined the school, I suppose I was shocked when a child who started school later in the year reacted strongly when he saw Joseph. Unfortunately he screamed when he saw Joseph’s little arm. I needed to do a lot of work, talking with the child and his parents to redress this. I feel sure this was an unusual reaction, but worth mentioning, to warn others to be prepared for it. I had thought a lot about preparing the children in my class before Joseph joined us, but obviously had not thought enough about preparing each new set of children as they entered in subsequent terms. It was important to talk with Joseph’s parents throughout. Joseph’s Mum was a great support not only in helping Joseph to practise some of the little physical tasks he found difficult to do, but also in giving me access to support via the telephone from members of Reach, particularly Frank Letch, if ever I had a concern.

One thing that could have been made easier for me, and therefore for Joseph, was access to information relating to educational aids available. I had to do my own research on scissors, angled writing boards etc. It would have been great for Joseph to arrive in school accompanied by a list of resources and suppliers that may be of benefit to him. Joseph moved on from my class after one year, and is thriving well as he moves up the school. When watching Joseph with all the other children, playing football, painting, folding paper and cooking, it is difficult to believe that he is any different from them. His successes are mostly due to his sheer determination.