Learning disabilities blog

How I learnt to support children with learning disabilities

13/07/2018

When Place2Be’s Claire started working with Rhea, she was being tested for learning disabilities and going through lots of confusing change in her life. However, having space to explore her feelings helped Rhea build up a ‘shared language’ with Claire that she carried with her at home and in school.

When Rhea came to Place2Be, I was told that she experienced what they call ‘developmental delay’. In other words, she wasn’t progressing at the same rate as her classmates, or reaching the same milestones growing up.

But as is the case with many children with learning disabilities, the adults in her life hadn’t quite worked out exactly what was affecting her and how best to help her. Rhea was undergoing further tests to help ‘diagnose’ her learning disability, and her family and teachers worried that the experience would be confusing and tiring for her.  

Rhea had been very chaotic in the past at home and school but jointly they had worked together to help her with her concentration which had improved significantly. However, at the time I started to work with Rhea she was in her final year of primary school and the thought was that the transition to secondary school may be particularly challenging for her.

Rhea’s first few sessions were chaotic and full of energy. She jumped around the space, starting several things at once without focusing on any of them. I felt overwhelmed and exhausted after each session and wondered at times whether I could sustain this level of activity. I wanted to continue letting Rhea lead the session and use the time as she wished – that felt particularly important. But it was a real challenge.

After a while, it became clear that Rhea loved acting things out and being creative in the space. Rhea began to develop her own beginning and ending rituals, removing shoes to begin and playing football to end. I helped her maintain them because I knew that routine could be especially grounding for some children with special educational needs.

Another thing which helped Rhea feel safe in the room was a giant parrot puppet, which she played with almost every week. It became another familiar thing that grounded her and helped her focus on what she wanted to do during sessions.

Rhea also enjoyed playing out rhythms with her hands on herself or furniture around the room. Each session I would mirror the rhythm she would create. Connecting with Rhea non-verbally by mirroring her rhythms, exploring the space and moving about helped us understand each other and build trust. It allowed us to communicate in a ‘shared language’ that didn’t rely on words, which she could struggle with.

Three months in, Rhea was diagnosed with a genetic condition, with traits similar to autism, as well as a short attention span, distractibility, impulsiveness, restlessness, over activity and sensory problems. The diagnosis helped Rhea’s family and teachers to understand why she might be struggling at home and in class and make some changes to help her adjust.

Rhea’s condition had many potential strengths too, including long-term memory, good imitation skills and visual learning and these strengths really showed in our time together.  For me, the diagnosis renewed my confidence in the work we were doing together. It was Rhea’s strengths which allowed her to immerse herself and really make the most of the sessions.

Rhea working out what she needed from the space and our connection was a wonderful process to be a part of and surprising at every turn.  Children with Rhea’s condition often struggled with sudden change, so I decided to acknowledge our ‘end date’ early by doing a progressive countdown. 

Not long after, Rhea began to recall and re-enact previous sessions right the way back to our first meeting. It felt like she was showing me all the significant moments of our journey together. This for me was one of the most wonderfully emotional moments to witness.

Rhea already had a strong support network of friends and family within school and home and many of them noticed that Rhea began to take elements of her rhythmic, sensory and sometimes ‘dramatic’ communication style into class and home, attempting to recreate that shared language we had created together.

Because she now had her own way of sharing how she felt, she seemed so much more settled. Rhea’s story is testament to my belief that, if we give a child the space to explore their feelings and challenges, it can really help them move forward.

This blog was written in a personal capacity and does not necessarily reflect the view of the organisation.

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