In celebration of ‘Learning Disability Week’, we sat down with Nicola Baker, Head of EdStart School’s Bury Outreach provision.

Nicola is a highly qualified educator, and a valued member of the team at EdStart Schools, and she works every day with children and young people who have special educational needs, and those who require additional social and emotional support.

A graduate from the University of Central Lancashire, where she received a BA in ‘Children, Schools and Families’, Nicola benefits from proven skills in change and behaviour management, social and emotional learning, emotional intelligence and trauma-informed care.

Currently, Nicola is in the second year of her five-year PhD course, in which she is focusing on the effects of trauma on adolescents, and behaviour management in secondary education settings.

Learning Disability Week: “Do You See Me?”

The theme of this year’s Learning Disability Week is “Do you see me?”, and Nicola was keen to share her own experiences as to how we can help a young person to feel “seen” within a school or alternative provision setting.

“A key theme that underpins what we do here at EdStart Schools,” Nicola explains, “is behaviour which, after all, is a form of communication.” In my chat to Nicola, we explored how we can better understand what our young people are trying to say to us through dysregulated behaviour, which they may not always understand themselves. This is to enable us to support them in the most appropriate way and, naturally, “help them feel seen, heard and valued.”

“When we’re working with people with learning disabilities,” continues Nicola, “it’s important that they feel safe. When they feel safe, they will communicate in their own unique ways. Alongside behaviour, there may be non-verbal cues; some may make a particular noise, start tapping or become restless. Again, they are trying to communicate something to us.”

Nicola is keen to stress that it is really important that we don’t label behaviour as “challenging”, or indeed associate it with any negative connotations.

EdStart Schools’ own policies on behaviour reflect our view here at Moxi Recruitment. We recognise that behaviour is communication and align ourselves with both their Positive Handling and Behaviour policies.

Understanding Why?

When exploring how a young person feels, it is important that we do not attempt to label their behaviours there and then. As we all know, telling somebody to ‘calm down’ rarely achieves its purpose. By talking through, asking lots of ‘why’ questions (usually, five or six) will get to the root of the problem, and enable us to get the child or young person in a calmer, more relaxed state.

An interesting parallel to this lies in the manufacturing sector; “5WHY” is a process for understanding the root cause of a problem.

“An emotions wheel can be a fantastic way to explore feelings and emotions,” Nicola elaborates, “and it helps us to understand them better. At the core of the wheel are primary emotions, and it works outward towards secondary and tertiary emotions. It can work both ways – outside to in, and inside to out, to help understand and explain an individual’s emotions.”

The timing of conversations to establish “why” is equally important. “Respect that people, particularly young people, need time, consistency and awareness in order to be able to fully open up to you,” says Nicola. “We may see examples of stress responses, including flight, fight or freeze. Read the stress level of the individual and identify the appropriate time to speak.

“There are six stages of crisis, and so it’s really important to intervene at the right stage. An example of this could be speaking to the person following a break, or at the end of the day, taking care to ensure it is discreet, not in front of everybody and not singling them out. Recognise that there can be processing delay, especially when working with those with SEN, so the person may be ten sentences behind what you’re saying, and ultimately not understand you. Interventions such as drawing, using visual aids (such as the emotions wheel), going for a walk, or playing a game can allow the young person to open up in their own time.”

Attachment and Trust

“Building trust and attachment to a learner is particularly important.” says Nicola.

“Secure attachment means predictable responses – on both sides of the coin. The learner will know what to expect from you. Likewise, you are likely to know what to expect from the young person.

“When we talk about attachment styles,” Nicola continues, “it is often within the context of parental or romantic relationships. However, we see that people will have an attachment style with their teacher, teaching assistant, key worker and so on. With that in mind, it is imperative that the right person has the right chat with the young person, in order to have the best possible outcome.

“Depending on your relationship with a young person, they can often feel like they have to give the ‘right’ answer and not necessarily the truth. In certain situations, this can be more harmful to them. This is why positive attachment is so important – so that the right person can identify when this may be the case and ask the right questions… at the right time.

“At EdStart Schools, we are always keen to make sure we do not label or dismiss how the young person may be feeling or behaving,” confirms Nicola. A good example of this could be where a young person tells you: “I am bored”, and an instinctive response might be: “well you shouldn’t be bored”. Again, we need to look at the “why”. They were in class, bored. Why? Was the content not sufficiently challenging? Was the lesson not engaging? Are they already familiar with the content and need extra work? So, lots of “whys” to go through.

As a SEN and alternative education provider, we always promote getting down – quite literally – to their level. If a young person is sitting or lying down on the floor, why not get down to their level? Promote mutual respect and build those relationships by earning respect, rather than expecting it.

The Science

During my fascinating talk with Nicola Baker, we also spoke about brain development and how the ‘amygdala’ – the region of the brain primarily associated with emotional processes – matures first, with the rational/ logical part of our brains – the frontal lobe – being the last to develop.

There is the perception that, by the teenage years, educators are limited in the impact that they can have; they are ‘too far gone’ to change. As I discovered from my conversation with Nicola, this is absolutely not the case; at the ages of 13 to 15, young people’s brains are developing at a phenomenal rate. “They go through what I call a ‘car boot sale’ stage,” says Nicola, “looking at memories and beliefs they have developed, and deciding which to keep and what they can get rid of. It is important that the right people give the space and support to our young people at this vital stage, as it really represents their formative years.”

Recognising aspects of neurodiversity, such as processing delays, can likewise be a major impact. “An example of this,” confirms Nicola, “are ADHD brains that can be burnt out just from sitting in a classroom, but can also belong to the most amazing students in subjects they are interested in. This shows that we need to promote engagement based on ‘interest’ and keep it ‘interesting’!”

So, What Are the Take Aways?

We know that the big wide world needs to do so much more to accommodate those with learning disabilities, and make the world more accessible to everyone.

In the meantime, we can:

  • recognise that behaviour is communication
  • get to know the young people we work with and build relationships based on trust.
  • reflect upon our own behaviours and responses to those around us.

Follow Nicola on LinkedIn for more insights and, if you need more information, then please call me today on 0300 303 4414, email or visit our ‘Contact’ page and send us a message!