Nurture Class Development - My Experience
The Nurture Class - Pouring Oil on Troubled Waters?
Developing our Nurture Class...
Owing to the particular nature of the problems experienced by children in our Nurture Class, I thought it might be helpful to share my experiences with you. I have chosen to focus on strategies that we used to deal with these problems, reflect upon how successful they were and how the Nurture Group Network course (and links we have since forged) has helped us further develop our Nurture Class.
When the Nurture Class at Y H (name concealed: confidentiality) was started in September 2006 I had been a teacher there for a year. My main task during that time was to support a small group of autistic children (one of whom I supported throughout his primary years). Each of them had their own individual needs, and each had to be treated in different ways. So when I was asked to join the Nurture Class I knew that my experience in using flexible approaches towards different children would be vitally important, because each one of the eight children had completely different problems.
Creating the Nurture Environment...
When Miss H and I knew that we were going to be the teachers in the Nurture Class our main concern was the layout of the class. Neither of us had experience of Nurture Groups, but we were directed towards the Nurture Group Network for help and advice. We set up 2 ‘environments’ within the class: ‘Class’ and ‘Home’ so the children could distinguish between ‘lessons’ and more informal time. The next issue to be addressed was the actual day-to-day running of the class – the children were to be with us every morning and integrate into other classes in the afternoons.
The children to be placed into the Nurture Class were chosen on the basis of results from Boxall profiles. In a special needs school there are potentially many pupils who would benefit from being placed in a nurture group, so Mrs J (special needs co-ordinator), Miss H and I drew up a list of children who we thought would benefit most from the placement. Amongst these were children with serious emotional and behavioural problems. The 8 children who scored lowest on the Developmental Strand profile and highest on the Diagnostic Profile were chosen to form the Nurture Class.
This process in itself helped my professional development because when completing each Profile I had think about the personality and actions of each child very carefully, look at areas I had not investigated before and try to be objective. I tried to be accurate as possible when considering the 34 statements in each section – I felt a big responsibility to make each Profile a true ‘picture’ of each child so that our first Nurture Class would contain the 8 children in most need of a nurture environment.
“It is becoming increasingly acknowledged that children whose fundamental emotional and social needs have not been met during their early formative years will benefit by having the opportunity to develop an understanding of both their own and others’ needs in just such an environment and this in turn will impact on their ability to learn.”
I was glad to learn from the Nurture Group Network course that I had acted correctly in studying each statement in depth.
Getting to know all about you...
During the first weeks we concentrated more on the social aspect of being in the class. We wanted the children to settle in and get used to each other. We wanted them to feel safe and secure, because the problems with some of the pupils arose from feelings of insecurity and paranoia. We established a class routine. The children responded well to this: knowing what to do and what to expect calmed them - especially on arrival in the morning, when they may have had a disturbing time at home.
"The teacher establishes routines, emphasises order and routine, ensures much repetition. She achieves/conveys her behavioural expectations by clear prohibitions and limits."
I thought about what was most important for the children and how I could best help them. I have since learned as a direct result from the Nurture Group Network course that a child’s experiences in the first 3 years of life shape heavily the child’s later life.The children we have in our class had traumatic experiences in early life – and most still have today. Marjorie Boxall stated in her book two traits that are present in our children and needed addressing before further useful progress could be made:
“They do not engage appropriately with adults.Some function barely at all and make no acknowledgement of the adult, or they heed her and appear to be biddable but respond mechanically.”
In order for Miss H and me to try to interact usefully and gain the children’s confidence we had to start at the beginning, slowly encouraging the children to give us their attention. One strategy that seemed to work was to behave outrageously to make them laugh! Examples include: lying on the table, using a towel as a magic carpet to engage a troubled child and break-dancing in front of the children on a cold February morning! I believe a happy child (after the incredulity wore off) is more likely to confide what is really troubling them. Another strategy was to tell them of problems that I experienced as a child which were similar to any of theirs (my parents divorcing when I was 7, being bullied at comprehensive school because of my size – at the time, I was very small and underdeveloped).
I think this, in their eyes, made me more like them and they stopped feeling isolated and 'stupid' for having problems of their own. Sharing each other’s problems was easier for the children than just telling someone else their own.
Problems we encountered...
“They have limited social skills and poor peer group relationships.Many are not able to wait and share, their tolerance for frustration is poor and some have temper tantrums. Communication and relationships with other children are usually limited and unconstructive. Some are aggressive and are involved in fights, and maybe resistive, destructive, explosive and violent, and in some instances deliberately antisocial.”
The statements above applied to every child who entered our class. It was a group of children who demonstrated the following behaviours (in no particular order):
· suicidal (J had run from school and thrown herself into a river)
· aggressive (C had been excluded from a school for consistent fighting)
· non-communicative (S never spoke – she had a complete lack of confidence)
· attention-seeking (All demanded a disproportionate amount of attention)
· selfish (All unable to share, interact or even play games with each other)
· sexually inappropriate (All made comments and mimed actions)
· socially inappropriate (Most swore regularly and had poor general manners)
· immature (L had severe learning difficulties and all lacked responsibility)
Needless to say, each child needed very sensitive handling. All had different issues that they wanted dealt with – all at the same time – and they were all easily irritated and frustrated.
“Angry children are not happy children – they may have feelings of depression, frustration, hurt, jealousy, low self-esteem, self-hatred and jealousy.”
The atmosphere was initially tense and even small incidents were blown up out of all proportion.
Strategies to help...
Miss H and I concentrated on creating a calm, open environment during that time, slowly bringing the children together and showing them that aggressive, inappropriate behaviour would not help them with their problems. It was difficult for them to see that at first, but we initiated a ‘time-out’ system that ranged from a verbal warning to exclusion from class.
They responded very well to that – we rarely had to exclude anyone. They were also issued with passes, so that if they felt angry, frustrated or violent when in other classes they could show these to the class teachers concerned and return to the Nurture Class. This helped them on numerous occasions. The children were also allowed to stay in at breaks and lunchtimes if they needed to (away from potential fights and bullying, for example). We noticed a distinct improvement in their general behaviour: each child has an ‘incident’ file and most of the children’s files were filled with negative incidents from previous years. During the first term only 8 incidents were reported from the whole group!
Other strategies that helped to improve their behaviour were discovered on the Nurture Group Network website (linked above):
· The tree of achievement. Children were given a leaf each time they demonstrated good manners, considerate or responsible behaviour and a determined attitude towards their work. Each leaf was put onto a large tree mounted on the wall. The group was rewarded for their efforts as the foliage increased!
· Mirror work. This was used to increase the children’s self-esteem – some children could not even look into the mirror at first. What pleased us was that when we asked questions such as ‘What can you see that is good about you?’ other children volunteered answers: ‘You’ve got lovely hair/nice eyes/big smile/white teeth’ which showed us that the children were thinking positively about others and not just absorbed in themselves.
· Facial expressions. We took photographs of the children showing different emotions. This worked well because the children could recognise what they must look like in different moods and could also recognise the expressions of others.
· Reflexology. Each week a reflexologist came to the Nurture Class to treat the group. Everyone found it very calming and came to recognise and enjoy the feeling outside of the sessions: ‘I’m feeling as good now as I did yesterday in reflexology, Miss’.
· Music Therapy. Through playing musical instruments and moving to music,the children learned to express their feelings – good and bad. It certainly released some of the pressure and tension they sometimes felt and gave them opportunities to express happiness also.
Another initiative that we started which has proved to be very useful is having a social worker based in school who is mostly involved with the Nurture Class. She spends time with the children and makes regular visits to their homes. This means that any problems or issues can be dealt with quickly, ensuring they do not grow into larger ones.
Teamwork and self-esteem...
We found that breakfast time was a good opportunity for informal discussion and interaction with the children. It took time for some children give you eye contact and to feel able to talk about their problems and very often this happened at the breakfast table. Children were encouraged to invite guests also, which raised their self-esteem. Other members of staff were invited too, as it was good opportunity for them to experience the nurture environment we created.
We held coffee mornings to raise money and invited the children’s parents to forge better links with their home lives. Once a week we all cooked lunch together. Each child had a different task towards the meal (peeling, chopping, laying the table, making drinks and so on) and these types of tasks helped them to bond together as a team.On reflection, it was precisely this type of teamwork and feeling of belonging that the children needed – all of them had been neglected at home, they felt resentful and useless. We also held parties to celebrate each child’s birthday.
“The enormous therapeutic and educational value of ordinary experiences in a containing and safe environment is right at the heart of nurture group work.”
In developing our Nurture Class I felt that this bonding process and raising of self-esteem were the most important things we could do for the children. In many instances, learning became of secondary importance to calming angry and upset children by listening to them, talking to them, being genuinely interested in what they have to say and trying to gain their confidence. Indeed, it is stated in every lesson plan that:
“This lesson may have to be changed at any time due to emotional or behavioural difficulties.” (Y H School lesson plans)
Changing attitudes of others...
The attitudes of the staff towards the Nurture class have been generally very positive.The Senior Management Team is very supportive – as are most members of staff who have begun to complete Boxall Profiles on pupils in their own classes. But even though the concept behind the Nurture class has been explained in detail in various meetings, initially there were a small minority of teachers who felt that the children in the Nurture class were given unnecessary treats, privileges and preferential treatment.
One instance that readily springs to mind took place in December 2006. We arranged to take the class to a restaurant for a special Christmas dinner – in a limousine! We felt that after a long term (with an inspection thrown in!) it would be a reward for all their hard work – socially, as well as educationally. Many of the children had never been to a restaurant before so apart from being a reward, it was a good social experience for them. Some members of staff thought that this was ‘spoiling’ them and was ‘a bit over the top’.
These misconceptions were cleared up by explanation to the members of staff concerned, of each child’s particular problems and how the experience would help them. We invited them to the Nurture Class to eat and talk with the children in what they felt was their environment. Scepticism soon turned to sympathy and this added to a more full understanding of the main principle of the Nurture Class. In the light of such interaction it was agreed to arrange an INSET day for the whole school about the Nurture Class and what it involved. This day proved to be very useful for all staff and made many aspects of the nurture group principle more clear to them.
This understanding was very important because the children were integrated into the ‘mainstream’ classes each afternoon. The teachers were already aware of the passes the children had in case they felt the need to leave the class, but in the light of the discussions (see above) we had with the staff we gave a copy of our behaviour strategies sheets to each teacher. This meant that they could deal with the children in the same way as we did, thus ensuring consistency of strategies. Each child was given a ‘contact book’. This contained information about the child’s behaviour and mood each day, so that each teacher would have an idea of what to expect. The teachers could write comments also, if appropriate, about good or bad behaviour. Good behaviour in other classes was always rewarded. We hold regular meetings with our Educational Psychologist and Senior Management to discuss the development of the Nurture Class.
A happy ending - not treading on butterflies' wings...
With all these different strands in place, our Nurture Class was showing signs of developing into a successful initiative. Inspectors confirmed this: after inspecting our school in December 2006 they awarded the Nurture Class Grade 1 intheir report. This was very pleasing to all of us because, as I have mentioned, it only started in September 2006. Although we felt we were heading in the right direction, to be given the highest grade after a term was more than we hoped for.
As a direct result of the Nurture Group Network course and the successful inspection I was asked to give a presentation at a conference for classroom assistants at The Liberty Stadium in Swansea. The theme was The Nurture Class and I found it very useful in two ways:
· it made me reflect on our practice in the Nurture Class – in order to communicate my thoughts on our Nurture Class to others, first I had to think carefully about what the most important aspects were and how we approached them;
· the conference both raised the profile of our Nurture Class and gave me an opportunity to make links with teachers and classroom assistants who were in similar situations to me.
In conclusion, working with the children in our class is both demanding and rewarding. Even though the many strategies we use are broadly successful, there are occasionally some difficult times with the children – physically, emotionally and socially. These times, thankfully, are now uncommon and are far outweighed by happy times when the strategies are successful; the children enjoy being in the environment and when all of us, staff and children alike, feel enthusiastic and optimistic. These are the times when we feel we are making a positive difference to the children’s quality of life, that our Nurture Class is developing well and is a good place to be!
If any of you have got this far - my congratulations and a gold medal for perseverance! Please do not hesitate to make any comments, suggestions or criticisms - or to ask any questions if some things aren't clear enough. I welcome your interest!