Category Archives: News

COVID-19: Lessons Learnt During the Pandemic

Almost exactly six months ago, sitting in our School Business Meeting, with a heavy heart, I made the decision to cancel our tour of the World War I Battlefields that was due to leave 48 hours later. Our annual ski trip to the slopes of Italy had returned two weeks earlier, narrowly avoiding the awful situation that was unfolding there. I felt that to take a group of students to Belgium and France was simply a risk not worth taking.

Looking back, it was absolutely the right thing to do, but at the time it wasn’t an easy decision to make and I definitely wasn’t sure that I was right. I questioned whether or not I was being too cautious and taking away what would most certainly be a fantastic learning opportunity for students.

As Headteachers, we are often asked to make critical decisions like these – we’re asked to balance access to learning opportunities with risk almost every day… but I think most Headteachers would agree that we’ve never been asked to do it quite as much as during the past 6 months.

As I reflected on the past term and a half, it prompted me to think about what we’ve learnt about ourselves (as a school) during the COVID-19 pandemic and what practices we might continue to use when this situation is finally over… and before you ask – just like you, no, I don’t know when that might be!

School leaders are still working day-by-day, reading advice as soon as it’s published and responding to it appropriately and as quickly as we can. We’re not privy to any information before it’s published nationally so we only hear what you hear when you hear it.

Embracing online learning and support

Our school moved exceptionally quickly to identify a suitable platform (Microsoft Teams) and put together an online learning package that took into account our students’ need for structure and support during their days at home. We set a timetable for them to follow that encouraged a pattern of an early morning physical activity, followed by an academically focused morning and a more creative afternoon.

We knew that we were asking a lot of our parents to take on the responsibility of home-schooling for what felt like it was going to be a long time so we also set up ‘Class Group Teams’ for every student. We tried to replicate what would happen in a “normal” school day by providing access to the child’s Key Team through chat forums. Using the platform, we were able to offer both parents and their children daily support for learning.

Student accessing group online learning session

Given that well over 70% of our students have had extended periods of absence from school prior to getting a placement at here due to anxiety about education, it was crucial that we made sure every one of them knew that we had them in mind throughout the time that they weren’t with us on our school sites.

We were extremely concerned not to allow our students to retreat back into the old routines many of them used before coming to us to cope with the anxiety caused by the world around them. We wanted them up in the mornings and learning in the same way they would have been before the pandemic struck.

Using the online platform provided a fantastic opportunity to ensure that where a child wanted it, daily communication could take place between them and their teacher, therapist or Learning Support Worker. We were able to answer questions they had about their work, the school, the virus and, really anything else that was on their mind at that moment in time. With an open, transparent and, crucially, monitored dialogue, our staff felt confident to respond to all of the questions and concerns students presented them with.

From online learning to quizzes, diaries, competitions

The curriculum work that was set using Teams became increasingly adventurous and innovative as the weeks progressed and we all grew in confidence. We seamlessly moved from more traditional classroom-type activities into the realms of online and live quizzes, video diaries, stop-motion video production and mathematically-driven Bake-Off style competitions (don’t ask!)… and everything else in between.

Teacher delivering online learning session

Our teaching teams became ever more creative in stretching the boundaries of what can be achieved in online learning as each new week emerged and, for the most part, our students rose to the challenge.

… and therapies

Whilst the innovation within curriculum learning has been fascinating to watch, some of the most interesting developments have taken place within our Therapies provision. Our use of Tele-Therapy has been an amazing development and we’ve had some exceptional results from this mode of delivery. It’s been so successful that we’re continuing to use this strategy now that the new school year has begun. We’ve arranged for rooms to be set up as Tele-Therapy resource bases for students to access.

Student accessing Therapy Session via tele-therapies

This enforced new method of delivery had many advantages for us. Some of the gains made with the use of online communication have been that it:

◦ Allowed students to continue working on Therapy outcomes whilst not on-site

◦ Facilitated face-to-face contact for ongoing emotional support as and when needed

◦ Resulted in an unexpectedly high level of engagement from our students

◦ Enabled tutors to be able to produce resource banks of learning materials that could be accessed as required by students

In addition to the many benefits for our students, the school took the opportunity to continue to develop and improve systems for communication between our teams.

We’ve moved to a much-reduced requirement for staff to move between sites for meetings, preferring, instead, the use of online meeting forums and conversation packages. This provides improved use of every attendees’ time as after-school meetings (which previously would have been delayed by up to 20 minutes while attendees crossed the Derbyshire countryside) can now begin instantaneously.

The development that’s taken place since March will undoubtedly benefit the school greatly in the months and terms to come. We feel ready to instantly switch our offer from face-to-face in the classrooms and therapy rooms now to face-to-face via a computer or tablet screen should the need arise.

For us, then, I feel that the school lessons learnt from our time away from our desks and classrooms will indeed continue to be used for the months and years to come. And whilst none of us would have wished for what happened to our country and the wider world, at least we can say that, as a school, we made the most of the learning and development opportunities it provided us with.

About Me

I am the exceptionally proud headteacher of Alderwasley Hall School in Derbyshire. Our school transforms the lives of young people with High-Functioning ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), Asperger’s Syndrome, Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA) and Developmental Language Disorder.

How to plan to make Christmas as stress-free as possible with a child with ASD

calm ASD christmas

It’s no secret that Christmas can be one of the most stressful times of the year for many of us. There are a huge range of triggers for this stress that we all experience from time to time. The expectation that one meal will be memorable for the right reasons, the financial burden the season places upon us, the seemingly endless stream of visitors to be hosted and visits to be made and that’s just for starters…

76% of people reported problems with sleeping at Christmas and 60% of people have experienced panic attacks over the Christmas period. (Mind study, 2015)

As a self-proclaimed Christmasophile, (I literally have Christmas music playing in my house from November onwards) I sometimes find it hard to see the downside of the festive season. But even I have to admit that there are parts of the holiday that are a challenge.

I can usually acknowledge and reduce my own stress and anxiety levels as the holiday season approaches and I’ve learnt some great strategies for this. Recently, though, I began to think about what this time of year is like for many of the students at our school. These young people aren’t always able to recognise what it is that’s causing them anxiety (or even recognise the feeling of anxiety) and often require direct intervention from a supporting adult to identify useful strategies to reduce that anxiety.

Christmas makes life just a little bit more difficult doesn’t it?

As parents of children with ASD, you know better than anyone how difficult this time of year can be for your child and, as a result, for your whole family. The excitement of the season builds these days from October onwards in the shops and on our TV screens and you have to work so hard to keep excitement down to a manageable level.

The shortened daylight hours seem to sap your emotional strength more than usual. The changes in routine become less easy to avoid as you plan for the big day…or week…and all around you the Christmas music seems to get louder, the shops get busier and that quiet, secret car park you use all year round to nip into town has suddenly been discovered by every shopper across the county.

How can we help?

Here at Alderwasley, we have a vast array of highly specialised staff in a huge range of areas of work (Speech and Language Therapy, Occupational Therapy, Psychotherapy, Clinical Psychology, student wellbeing, ASD-specific teaching, ASD-specific residential care) and I thought that I’d ask a few of them for their opinions on strategies to help parents of children with ASD have as stress-free a Christmas as possible. Here’s what they had to say…

Our Wellbeing Officers Lisa and Ravneet said:

“It’s really important to involve your child in the planning of events and giving them a specific task to do when visitors arrive (for example handing out nibbles) can be helpful to reduce your child’s anxiety. Also, make sure that your child knows who is going to be arriving and at what time they’re due as this will help to support your child’s internal processing.”

Our Head of Therapies, Emma suggested:

“Set up a calendar of what’s going to be happening and re-visit it each morning – crossing off completed activities and talking about what’s next. Talking to your child about how they might feel about the different activities planned will help them to manage different feelings (for example they might be excited about gift opening but then disappointed in what’s actually unwrapped). Acknowledge with them that it’s okay to have different feelings for different parts of the holiday.”

Fill in your weekly planner with your child and cross off activities once they’re complete.

Our Heads of Speech & Language Therapy and Occupational Therapy, Mel and Jane had this advice:

“Make sure that you build in quiet time in amongst all the changes to the usual routine. Make sure that your child has access to their preferred sensory calming tools and, if it’s possible, when you’re at someone else’s house, identify a safe place for your child to retreat to if they need quiet time. This will help them to lower arousal levels and refocus their attention.”

Our Residential Lead Practitioner, Carly gave these top tips:

“Talk to your child and jointly plan what decorations will be placed where in your home. Get your child to take an active role in putting the decorations up so that there are no surprises in the rooms in their home.”

Our two Assistant Headteachers, Bernardo and Ed said:

“If you’re heading out to a public event (such as a meet Santa Claus event or Christmas Market), research the venue in advance as much as you’re able. You can get a lot of information from Customer Services teams who may even be able to advise you of any adaptations they can make for your child. Even though many routines will have to change over the festive period, talk to your child about how the changes you make are okay and are expected changes at this time of year. Ed was very keen to point out that it’s okay to have a mince pie for breakfast once in a while!!”

These are all fantastic tips to help your family Christmas go as smoothly as it can. It’s really important to remember that no matter what anyone tells you, no Christmas is stress-free. Your Christmas doesn’t have to live up to anyone else’s Christmas – never judge yourself by the standards anyone else sets (particularly on social media)… it just needs to be what you wanted it to be. It’s okay to say “no” to some of the invitations you receive.

Oh, and my tips?

Enjoy spending time together as a family, doing the things you like to do. And always, always, have a Plan B!

Don’t forget that if you need a friendly ear over the holiday, you can also talk to other families in similar situations using groups and forums such as The Autism Support Network on Facebook or Autism Support UK. And don’t forget to post your comments on our Facebook Page too and let know us what you’ve been up to over the holiday.

From everyone here at Alderwasley Hall School, we wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

About me:

Sara Forsyth Headteacher Alderwasley Hall School Sixth Form

I am the Headteacher of Alderwasley Hall School and Sixth Form and I have 25 years’ experience in SEND, in particular working with young people with Autistic Spectrum Disorders. Alderwasley Hall School and Sixth Form is an exceptional independent SEN school for young people with ASD and associated needs in Derbyshire.

Chief Executive Officer Awarded Honorary Master Degree From The University of Derby

Brian Jones PC VC Chancellor

Huge congratulations go to our Chief Executive Officer Brian Jones who has been awarded Honorary Master of Derby University to recognise him for his work to promote and ensure the equality of education for young people.

Brian has been Chief Executive Officer for the SENAD Group since 2006. Using his significant experience in specialist education with local authorities, the voluntary sector and independent sector, he has successfully led the group in designing and operating high quality education, therapy and care services for young people and adults with autism, speech language and communication needs and mental health needs.

Brian is relentless in his dedication, determination and ambition to ensure that the most vulnerable people in our society and their families are treated with the respect, dignity and have equal opportunities to maximise their potential. He is highly respected figure within the sector and works closely with the Department for Education, educational institutions, including the University of Derby to develop policy and practice that will increase equality for all people with additional needs.

Photo Credit – Richard Richards Photography

Video Credit – First Sight Media

Outstanding experiences and progress for children at Bladon House School say Ofsted.

The residential home for Bladon House School in Newton Solney have received an ‘Outstanding’ grade from Ofsted in their inspection, which took place at the beginning of June. The school provides day and residential placements for children aged 5 to 19 years with a range of complex needs, including: a diagnosis of autistic spectrum disorder, speech, language and communication needs; moderate or severe learning difficulties, mental health issues and associated challenging behaviours.

The school also has expertise in helping with children and young people with Prader Willi Syndrome manage their condition. Inspectors praised the home for the significant progress children make to achieve their potential through the rich and varied experiences offered to them. This includes making a music album, writing a cookbook and visiting Disneyland. A parent told the inspectors “I consider myself to have very high standards and want the absolute best that is on offer for my daughter. This home meets my expectations”. Young people are also making fantastic progress in learning life skills by being encouraged and supported to challenge themselves by staff who the inspectors said “have a commendable understanding of current and changing risked posed to and from the children”. This support of young people to take age appropriate risks develops their self-esteem, confidence and resilience.

The homes commitment to ensuring that parents are involved in their children’s lives was also praised by the inspectors, as well as the warm and nurturing relationships staff had with children, which provided reassurance to parents. One parent told inspectors “As a parent I am sad that she is not able to live with me and that I cannot keep her safe, but the staff in the home do this for me, so I have total peace of mind” The school received a ‘good ‘grading from Ofsted in their education inspection in March 2019.

To read the Home Inspection report in full: https://senadgroup.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/Bladon-Ofsted-Care-Inspection-Rpt-4-5.06.19.pdf