Cracked Vessels – Letting in the Light?

Today I’d like to share what I can only haltingly call a vision, and the synchronicities and trains of thought associated with it.

Let me give you some context:  I had been in deep discussion with a couple of friends about my experiences as a teacher.  I’ll diverge into a brief ‘then and now’ to give you a flavour of those times…

Around half a century ago, when I was training to become a teacher, a debate was raging in educational circles.  Should children arriving in full-time education be seen as ‘vessels to be filled’ or ‘candles to be lit’?  A report by Lady Plowden and her committee – the go-to document of the time – concluded the latter, and I embarked enthusiastically on my chosen career as a lighter of small candles.

Today, of course, any such discussion is rotting beneath some long forgotten carpet, where it was swept several decades ago.  I quietly left the educational establishment and set up shop in an alternative teaching and mentoring setting when it became clear that the balance had settled firmly on the side of the empty vessels, to be crammed with as much junk knowledge as was deemed necessary to prevent troublesome teachers and students from having time to encourage or indulge in creativity, imagination and critical thinking.

Somewhere in the middle of all that, when the swing towards the ’empty vessels’ model was firmly in motion but before the quality of independent writing was judged by the number of similes, metaphors and examples of personification a child could cram into each paragraph, or obscure aspects of grammar guaranteed never to enhance or crop up in any aspect of life were stuffed into the minds of ten year olds, I found myself quite unexpectedly teaching in a specialist provision for children with speech and language difficulties.  It was this time of my life I had been considering as I went to bed on Friday night.

I was in that hypnogogic state, poised between waking and dreaming, when the ‘vision’ (what else can I call it?) appeared.  I saw containers – vases, perhaps or maybe orbs or bottles.  Each was cracked in its own individual way. some had a maze of hairline cracks, others a single fault line.  What fascinated me, though, was that through every fissure, a dazzling light was shining.  The light was not visible through the solid parts of the containers, just through the places where the cracks allowed it to appear.

“Remember this!” someone or something was telling me.  “It’s important!  Don’t let the image drift away.”

I lay for some time, trying to commit what I had seen to memory, toying with the idea of turning on the bedside lamp and attempting to write or draw it, but the helpful something in my ear assured me that I’d get more clarity through dreaming about it, so that’s what I did.

By Saturday morning I had an idea of what the vision had been about.  It was, as you may well have guessed, an image stemming from my sad thoughts about the ’empty vessels’ – the hapless children in our education system who day after day are ‘filled’ with largely pointless facts and knowledge, despite the sterling efforts of teachers to sugar the pill.  The cracked vessels represented the youngsters with what are variously called ‘special needs’, ‘additional needs’ or those with otherwise non-standard perception and cognition.


My teaching career increasingly nudged me towards a fascination and delight in working with those judged to be on the autistic spectrum or with some form of communication difficulty in the written, spoken or receptive aspects of language.

The instructions passed down to teachers from our leaders were to patch up the cracks in those ‘faulty’ vessels, to enable them to resemble their ‘undamaged’ peers and then to allow the ‘filling’ to continue.  That is what I was paid to do in the Speech and Language Unit – get them as close to normal communication skills as possible and return them to a cheaper, one-size-fits-all mainstream classroom.  Fortunately, as the leaders and inspectors had no specialist knowledge or understanding of such children, I had far more leeway than my mainstream colleagues in the way those children were taught.  

Those leaders didn’t see what I saw.  They didn’t know that small children with no intelligible speech could communicate perfectly well with others via telepathy.  They didn’t discover the deep, amazing and stunning twists and turns of the young autistic mind.  They couldn’t glimpse the creativity of the dyslexic when freed from pen or laptop and allowed free rein in the realms of shape and space.  I’d somehow slipped into a world where heightened senses and awareness way beyond common experience held sway.  Those children discussed out of body experiences, viewing ‘funny lights around people and animals that change with their mood’, remote viewing and the like as if they were everyday events.  For them, they were.

Perhaps those in charge of education didn’t want to be dazzled by the light shining through the cracks in the extraordinary ‘different’ children.

Egg, Cracks, Food, Nature, Blur, Dark

My vision and the dreams and ponderings that followed it left me with a conviction that the light shining in was vital to our world and badly needed to alleviate the darkness.  I was reminded of one of my favourite books: The Crack in the Cosmic Egg by Joseph Chilton Pearce.  Was this light appearing within those cracked vessels heralding a breaking of the eggs that hold in a deeper Gnosis or understanding of Cosmic Laws?  Perhaps each of us is, at some level, a ‘vessel’ – but not an empty one.  Perhaps we all hold within ourselves a brilliant light, but one we have hidden inside a container while we go about our humdrum daily tasks.  Perhaps the youngsters I had met on my journey through education were, in a very real sense, the light-showers or shining ones…

…Or perhaps I was a semi-deranged old woman falling down yet another of my many rabbit holes…

On Saturday night I settled to enjoy my current bedtime book: Gayle Kimball’s The Mysteries of Reality: Dialogues with Visionary Scientists.  I was reading an interview with Bernardo Kastrup PhD about contemporary idealism.  He pointed out that if, as the materialist scientific paradigm suggests, all thought experiences occur within the human brain, any impairment of that brain should result in more limited experiences and thoughts.  However, he explained, the reverse is true.  The body of evidence showing enhanced mental experiences (such as those described above in relation to my students) in those with certain types of brain damage or impairment, due to such events as bullet wounds, hypoxia or chemical impairments, strongly suggests that in such cases the brain’s filter system becomes more porous, disrupting the boundary between the brain and greater levels of consciousness. 

A synchronicity, perhaps?


Always will.

Glass, Shattered, Window, DestructionTen years ago, I was just finishing the most terrifying, exhilarating, exhausting and arguably the most successful year of my life as an educator.

I’ve spoken about it before, but not for a while, and a few things have happened this week (like the message from D) to make me want to look back at it.

Briefly:  I worked in a primary school at a time when everything was controlled by THEM – the curriculum, the standards, the targets, the methods.  As educators we were under stupid amounts of pressure to conform and jump through all THEIR hoops.  The alternative was Special Measures.

Ours was a smallish school and – as sometimes happens – in that particular year, we were struggling with an above average number of, um, challenging pupils.  The reasons for the challenges weren’t hard to fathom – parents in prison, parents who had died or were seriously ill, parents with substance abuse issues, violent and abusive siblings and step-parents, family break-ups, history of sexual, physical and emotional abuse.  Those are just the bits I can remember.  There was also peer influence and imitation; children would pick up on the behaviour of others and copy it.

Run Riot, Anarchy, City, Urban, GraffitiEvery class in the 7-11 age group had a few hard-core rebels and several who copied their behaviour.  Teachers felt their standards slipping as they struggled to deal with daily disruption.  Some were refusing to teach certain children or to have X and Y in the same class.  Exclusion of these youngsters wasn’t an option.  It was frowned upon by THEM, and anyway, we wanted to help these kids.

As a senior management team, we pondered long and hard on how we could organise classes for the next academic year.  No combinations worked.

Until I had my crazy/wonderful idea.

I opted to teach a mixed-age class of just 16 pupils, containing every one of the challenging children and a few others who had their own issues and difficulties, despite not being disruptive.  My conditions were that the National Curriculum would not be followed, testing would be optional – and then only at the very end of the year, targets would be replaced by frequent ‘look how far you’ve come’ reviews, the education would be holistic, with a different programme of study for each individual based on their personal circumstances and emotional needs as well as the educational ones.

Luckily, I had a brave, supportive head teacher and some brilliant, visionary and courageous support staff.  I was also able to buy in help from a very talented play therapist/counsellor.  Annoyingly, the local authority insisted on adding in its Behaviour Support Team, who tried to get me to run the class along the lines of Pavlov’s dogs or Skinner’s rats.  Not helpful.

My curriculum was, very broadly:  Term 1 – learn to tolerate and begin to like yourself.   Term 2 – like and take some responsibility for yourself and begin to tolerate one or two others, so you can manage to work in a very small group.  Term 3 – take responsibility for your own behaviour and actions and begin to tolerate and work with larger groups and the whole class.

Girl, Boys, Children, DevelopmentEach of the 16 who stayed at the school (such families travel around a fair bit, so some moved away) went on to rejoin a normal mainstream class the next year.  All of them opted to take part in the end of year tests and did as well or better than expected.  In the final term they did a whole class project and cooperated as well as any group I’ve ever taught.

Obviously the hardest bit – so hard I still have to fight back tears as I remember – was to get these lovely young people to tolerate and, later, like themselves.  Once that was achieved, the rest flowed relatively easily.

As I mentioned earlier, several synchronicities have turned up recently, drawing me back to 2007.  Some will have to wait for another post, but I will mention D.

He was one of the oldest in that class – an intelligent, painfully sensitive, deeply troubled young lad who somehow transformed during the year from having always been the class weirdo to becoming an excellent and much admired role model for the younger boys in our group.

Last night – as he does from time to time – he messaged me.  Said he hoped I was doing OK.  We chatted briefly.  I told him what was happening in my life; he told me a little about his.  Then we signed off.

“Thanks for remembering me,” I said.

“Always will,” came the reply.

I’ll always remember him, too, and the rest of the class who taught me that once you can like yourself, there are no limits to what you can do.





Danny Reading



Not Danny – but somewhat similar… (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you may remember Danny – he of the decimals and so forth.  He’s an after-school tutoring student of mine.  Coming up for twelve, still with speech difficulties and, shall we say, selective about what he gives his attention to…

I no longer teach him maths.  Reading has become the priority for our one hour a week together, since – he tells me – he is a ‘7.2’.  I’ve no idea what a 7.2 is, although I have a nasty suspicion that it could be his reading age, as tested by the special needs department.

To begin with, the reading books supplied by school looked promising – clean, attractively covered and illustrated and with easy words but age-appropriate content.  Week by week he unwillingly stumbled his way through them (“Have we DOT to do dis?”).  There was no discernible improvement.

Then the books changed.  Suddenly I was being presented with slim volumes of scantily worded and colourfully illustrated tales of ‘Ned the Greedy Dragon’, ‘Timmy the Flying Goat’ and their ilk.

“Seriously, Danny?” I remonstrated as yet another infant picture reader was dumped on the table.  “The school gave you this as your reading book?”

“I doze it myself,” he smirked conspiratorially, “I doze it ‘tos its easy!”

There followed a short but pointed lecture from me on the short-sightedness of this strategy and the difficulties that would accrue should he – as seemed more than possible – leave school without basic reading skills.

I didn’t feel I was getting through.
Danny, after all, has had seven long years to perfect his reading-avoidance strategies.  He wears them with pride.

Fortunately I know Danny well.  As I’ve discovered through our years together, motivation is everything with him.  A memory was stirring somewhere in my mind.  I recalled beginning to write a simplified version of Life: A Player’s Guide aimed at 9-12 year olds.  A short rummage around my PC’s hard drive revealed it: Coran and the Cosmic Computer Game.

English: Monitor "My Computer" icon ...
Would this story of avatar creation and computer coding in a sci-fi location be of interest to Danny?  I strongly suspected that it would.  I was also confident that he would be able to grasp – and relish – the analogy being drawn to Life.  Would the words be beyond his reading skills?  Well they were quite a way ahead of Timmy the Goat et al.  On the other had, if he were sufficiently motivated…

It was certainly worth a try.
IMG_20150529_085051 (1)First I drew up a grid, so that polysyllabic words could be written out, broken down into their constituent phonemes and blends.  (See right.)  Then I printed page 1 of the story:


Coran and the Cosmic Computer Game

 A brand new game! Coran was grinning to himself so much that he kept almost bursting into giggles. This was exciting. In fact it was more than exciting.

 He collected his pass and headed for the programming suite. That was where he would meet the programmer who would help him build his avatar and enter The Game.

He looked at the pass. It said he needed to go to Station 4. He headed across to the terminal and was greeted by a tall figure who sat the keyboard.

 “So, it’s nearly your birth-day, Coran,” said the Tall One, with a nod of his head.   “About time for you to do some choosing.”

“Hmm,” said Coran, thinking hard.

 Up where Coran lives, birth-days are not the same as birthdays here. A birth-day there means exactly what it says – the day you will be born!  Now that may seem odd to you, because Coran is already alive, or he couldn’t be saying, “Hmm,” – could he?

 What it means is that Coran is about to be born as a new character in a cosmic computer game. First he needs to select his avatar, which involves making loads of choices, then he will be ready to start playing The Game.

 Coran was trying to decide what sort of character he wanted to be in this game. He’d played it many times before, but this game was so mind-blowingly huge that each attempt could be completely different from all the ones before.

 “Nothing too easy,” he told the Tall One. “I want a real challenge this time. The last game was utterly boring.”

The Tall One smiled to himself and began to type the code on his machine.

“So you want a big challenge, huh?”

 “Definitely,” announced Coran. “My character will  have…”

The title was slow going.  By the end of the second sentence, though, he was reading most words without asking me to lay them out for him on the phoneme grid.  By the end he was barely stumbling on anything.  There were about three words in the whole passage I had to read for him.
He regarded me with wide eyes as he finished.  “I dort it was doin’ to tate me about a hour to read dat,” he said.
“Me too,” I admitted, and we both smiled broadly.
“Dan I read the next bit next time?” he asked.

As I mentioned, with Danny, motivation is everything.  I strongly suspect this is also true of so many of the so-called disaffected or learning-disabled students languishing in our schools.


A Raw Nerve


Wasn’t intending at all to write about this today, but here goes…

It’s not my normal style, and I’m not posting this story to gain pity or settle old scores, merely to show that once any system is ruled by fear, it is ruined.  In my very long career in the education system, I watched that happen, and it has continued apace since I left six and a half years ago.

I was just told by a friend on Facebook of a horrible incident from her childhood.  She’d been in an excellent school where all the children were learning well and very happy, yet a sour, vindictive school inspector came in, found the one child with mild learning difficulties, reduced him to jelly and verbally trashed the teacher, who went home and committed suicide.

Inspectors – like all manner of ‘experts’ – are people who swan into a setting for about 20 minutes and believe they have the knowledge and ability to sum the situation up and make life-changing judgements.

They don’t.

Let me tell you my inspector story – mild by comparison, but the raw nerve that was touched by my friend’s memory.

I posted once about a very special and experimental class I taught. The link to the original post is here.  The children were in a mainstream school but between them they had a huge range of problems and life circumstances which would reduce almost anyone to a gibbering mess.  Several had been on the brink of permanent exclusion because their behaviour was so extreme.

Well they made massive progress, and the following year I returned to teaching a ‘normal’ class of 10 and 11 year olds – except that this normal class contained a large proportion of the children I’d been working with the year before.

There was Shaun whose dad had died a year or two back after years of alcoholism, Daniel whose dad had just come out of prison and was now back to running a crack house, Isla who had just been moved from her long-term foster-carers and was being rehoused almost every week, Carly whose dad had terminal cancer, Sam who had suffered severe physical and emotional abuse at the hands of a teenage brother and various step parents… and those are just the ones that spring to mind.

By and large, we got along just fine.  Plenty of learning took place and although I often had to make allowances for these damaged and traumatised kids, who had a shorter fuse than most, with help from my brilliant learning support team, I was able to achieve my targets and they were making progress – in the ways our leaders required, as well as socially and emotionally (which to me was far more important).

Then we discovered that we were to be inspected by an OFSTED team.

An urgent class discussion took place.
“We really need to show these people how far you’ve come,” I told them. “That means while they’re here, it would really help if you could stay in your chairs, not have any arguments with each other or freak out if you feel a bit challenged.  I promise I’ll support you all and it won’t last long.”

Shaun gave an agonised scream.  “Can’t do it Miss,” he bellowed.  “I know I’ll get stressed out just ‘cos they’re here and then I’ll lose it big time and you’ll get in trouble.  I can’t handle it!”

That started an avalanche of worries and tears.  In each case it was the same.  They were terrified that they would let me, the class and the school down.  Day to day living was enough of a challenge for many of them.  This was a step too far.

My wonderful teaching assistants and I reassured them, praised them, reminded them how far they’d come and declared our absolute confidence that they could manage this.

The inspector arrived.  A roundish, well-heeled lady with a posh accent.  As she walked in, the children were immersed in the activity I’d set.  All was calm; all were bright.  True, Sam waited for the first opportunity when her gaze was averted and crawled under his table, where he remained trembling but otherwise immobile for the rest of the lesson, but this went quite unnoticed and no one showed any inclination to draw it to her attention.  The kids covered for him beautifully and kept him well concealed.

Children answered her questions politely and participated with enthusiasm and exemplary behaviour.

The blanket and pillow in the reading corner that doubled as a bed for anyone who hadn't been able to sleep the night before.

The blanket and pillow in the reading corner that doubled as a bed for anyone who hadn’t been able to sleep the night before.

When she’d left, we dusted Sam down and told the children how proud we were of them and how wonderfully they had behaved.  I was bursting with pride when I headed off to lunch that day.

After school, though, I had my feedback session with the inspector.

“Come in dear,” she smiled.  “Yes, a perfectly adequate lesson.  No problems and I could see learning taking place.  But…”  she looked slightly reproachful,  “I mean they’re a very well-behaved, good natured class, aren’t they dear?  I do feel you could have pushed them a bit harder – given them more challenge.”

There was the briefest of pauses where I could have responded.  I considered it.  I think the reason I didn’t was the same as Sam’s or Shaun’s.  The fear and stress and anxiety had been so overwhelming that I didn’t trust myself to say a word, for fear of letting the school, the class and everyone down.  If she believed that my class were well-behaved, then that was all I needed.  Yet I’d be lying if I said that her pronouncement on my lesson – ‘average’ – didn’t sting.

I feel no animosity towards the posh inspector.  She was simply doing her job.  Was she adequate?  Who am I to say?

The next day I told the class how impressed she’d been with their work and behaviour.  That was all they needed to know.  And I began planning my exit from the English state education system.


Pavlov’s Danny

English: A St. Louis-style pizza in its delive...

Regular readers of this blog may already be familiar with Danny, a ten year old boy I tutor in maths.  You may recall how, by the  judicious use of a few mini pizzas, Danny was finally able to work with decimals without hyperventilating at the very mention of them.

This week it was time to do some revision and to move him further in his studies.

By now, I reasoned (correctly, as it turned out) Danny should be able to work with printed pictures of pizza.  He had reached a stage where the pictures alone had him salivating as effectively as Mr Pavlov’s little bell did for his canine subjects.

We had images of  stacks of ten pizza delivery boxes to represent tens, whole pizza images to represent units and tenths and hundredths cut from a spare one of these.  As long as there was something to remind him of the pizza experience, Danny was able to pick up or identify 31.34 pizzas.  Even 20.25, 1.72 and 3.06 were well within his grasp.

From here we moved to an image of three boys eating pizza in front of the TV.  I had written down how much pizza each had consumed and asked Danny to rank them in order of  who had eaten the most.  He poured over the numbers with the most intense concentration.

“Tim dot the least,” he announced, “‘Tos he only dot 1.23 pizzas.  Then it’s Ed, ‘tos he had 3.6 and – oh I wish I was Sam! He’s dot 23.6 pizzas!”

We tried several similar questions.  He didn’t make a single mistake.  For Danny, motivation is everything.  Numbers don’t motivate him.  In fact they often terrify him.  Pizzas, however, are benign and desirable.  It’s important, in Danny’s mind, to know who has the most.  He comes from a large family.  To him, this is a survival skill.

Half way down the sheet, he noticed that the questions changed.  No comforting tales of pizza-snacking friends – just a request to order a set of 5 decimal numbers from smallest to largest.  The kind of question he’ll be asked to do battle with in the SATs tests in a few short weeks.

He glanced at me in panic.

“What’s these?” he asked.

“They’re still decimals, Danny,” I reassured him.  “Just think of them like pizzas.  Every time you see decimals, just think pizza, OK?”

“Right,” he said, relaxing instantly.

To my amazement and delight, he continued to order the numbers correctly.  I showered him with praise as he sorted out this group:    14.8             18.4             41.8             4.18             81.4.

“You know we’re doing these sums at sdool at the moment,”  he said thoughtfully, as he munched on the chocolate biscuit I’d given him as a reward.  “And I’m no dood at it.”

“Do you think you might do better tomorrow if you think of them as pizzas?” I wondered.

“Yes, I’m sure I tould do it then,” he smiled.

When he left, I sat down to prepare next week’s lesson.  It would be yet another attempt to encourage him to learn his multiplication bonds.  ‘If only,’ I mused, ‘I could find a way of motivating him to do that.’

Well, it’s far from perfect, but maybe this will help…Danny's maths sheet


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A Child with autistic spectrum perception in a neuro-typical school – help, please


EXPERT (Photo credit: Pete Prodoehl)

It’s no coincidence, of course, that within a week, two people had asked me questions about children with autistic spectrum perception coping in mainstream schools. It was clearly something I needed to give attention to.

The first was a parent, asking my opinion about her daughter, a ten-year-old I see for a couple of hours a week.

This thoughtful, caring and highly intuitive mum was at her wit’s end, as another ‘expert’, who had spent all of twenty minutes assessing her child, sat her down and talked at her about the girl’s needs, beginning with, “Is there anything in particular that you wanted to say, or are you happy just to let me explain my findings?  I’m afraid we don’t have very long.”

The implication – that 20 minutes of advice from an expert was more relevant and worthy of discussion than ten years of maternal care and understanding –  was not lost on the parent.  She bit her tongue, listened as the standard strategies and suggestions were trotted out, and silently despaired.  I’ve seen this happen to families more times than I can count.

Hot on the heels of this was an enquiry from a friend who is working in a school where a young teacher is trying to balance the needs of a class of lively six-year-olds and one little boy on the autistic spectrum.  He’s yet to be ‘seen’ by the expert, but the teacher is in need of strategies and ideas to help him cope within the classroom – preferably in such a way that his screaming fits and throwing of anything he can lay his hands on can be reduced.

Forest School 032

Forest School

I’ve never met this child, and was told only that he enjoyed the class forest school sessions, loved nature and since his personal teaching assistant had left was being given round the clock one-to-one attention by a wide range of staff – including teachers giving up their lunch hours – to ensure that he was always supervised.  My friend also mentioned that he’d had to be dragged, kicking and screaming to school that Monday.

And this is where the help comes in.

Yes, I came up with a few thoughts, off the top of my head, which I’ll copy below.  I have a fair bit of personal experience and have read many books on the subject, but would never call myself an expert.   That title I’d reserve for the parents and the people on the spectrum who have lived with this amazing, different and non-typical way of being on a daily basis, year after year.

If any of you reading this and can add further insights and suggestions (bearing in mind, of course, the needs of the rest of the children in the class), please comment and add your ideas.  I promise they’ll be passed on.

Here – for what they’re worth, are the thoughts I had, in no particular order:

Familiarity, to a child on the spectrum, is like a life raft in a sea of change, so the current situation with constantly changing minders is the worst possible for him.  Given that presumably nothing can be done about that, he needs as many things as possible to stay the same – either the room he’s cared for in, or a folder/box of his own equipment or activities (preferably his favourite colour and/or texture – he’s bound to have very strong preferences – but failing that, a Thomas the Tank Engine cover almost always works!)

If he doesn’t already have one, a visual timetable will help him to make some sense of his days, as long as every adult works through it with him at every change in his day.  It needs to be geared to his particular circumstances.

Cash in on his affinity with nature in every way possible – a feely box with bark, leaves, moss etc. to touch and talk about; a set of twigs or pebbles to count, sort or order in various ways; picture books about the natural world to share and perhaps a bird feeder outside the window, which he could fill and watch.  

I’ve noticed that these kids often have a link to crystals.  It would be worth seeing if a small bag of tumbled stones can be used to calm him when he’s out of control.  A lad I taught used to tell me that he could feel certain crystals vibrating in his hand.  He had an aventurine that always helped him to feel calmer if something had upset him.

Check with Mum whether there’s a particular object/texture/picture/sound that calms him at home.  Maybe school could have something similar to offer when he’s at the throwing stage.  

Perhaps a peaceful sunset or polar poster could be put at his eye level for him to lose himself in.

I’d strongly suggest that staff don’t discourage flapping, rocking or repetitive actions.  These may not be neuro-typical behaviours, but they are exactly what these children need to get themselves back under control.  Screaming and headbanging are less easy to deal with, but cushions help in both cases – to smother the noise (though not the child, of course!) and to protect the head.

The apparently unprovoked Monday morning tantrum could have been a response to the change from the weekend routine or a complaint about the chaos of having this many-carers system at school, but children on the spectrum are invariably very sensitive to the moods and feelings of others – to the point of telepathy, so he could easily be acting out some tension he has sensed in the household.

If outdoors works for him, get him outdoors!  I know from bitter experience teaching on the Essex coast, with winds straight from Siberia, how unpleasant that might be for his minder, but it may help him to gain control of himself.    

I presume someone has checked whether strip lighting affects him?  Some hypersensitive kids get an unbearable strobing effect from them.  They can also be strongly affected by smells, sounds, textures and the pattern of light and shadow, which the rest of us would barely notice.  So get all his carers to avoid perfume, for example.  Again, his mum could probably advise you.

I realise these are only a few ‘first aid’ measures, and don’t even scratch the surface of the deeper needs of a person who perceives in this way.  

Maybe they’ll help slightly.  Maybe you have something to add…

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Further Adventures of Simeon – Looking Death in the Eye

Eye death

In my last post, I introduced Simeon – a 14 year old with learning difficulties and a strong desire to join the British Army, along with a conviction that his life was over because he wouldn’t be able to fulfil this dream.

My first thought was: ‘He’s right – they’d never accept him.  Still, at least that’s one nice kid who won’t come home in a coffin or with limbs missing a few years on.’

Hot on the heels of that came: ‘And anyhow, he has no idea what army life involves.  He’s just spent too many hours playing Call of Duty and fantasising about holding a gun and killing anyone who gets in his way.’

Slowly it occurred to me that beyond my prejudices I had no real knowledge about the army.  I also had no right to dismiss Simeon’s dream so lightly.  I therefore decided to investigate further.  That way, I’d be able to give him more information.  He’d know whether he had any hope of joining the army and he’d also have a more realistic idea of what army life involved.  I also nursed a suspicion and hope that as his skills and self-confidence improved, he’d be ready to let go of the desire to hide behind heavy weaponry.

As you might expect, the Ministry of Defence has a comprehensive website, positively bursting with information on recruitment.

The good news, from Simeon’s viewpoint, was that he wouldn’t be expected to have passed any school exams.  On the other hand, he would have to sit a whole raft of tests and assessments if he wished to join up.  There is a useful section of practice tests for aspiring squaddies to try out – even an interactive one where they take part in a team challenge with a bunch of other young hopefuls.

Tried and tested

So when Simeon turned up for the next lesson – quite smiley and cheerful this time – I explained our new programme of study.  We would continue with the maths and English as before, but would also devote some time each lesson to trying out the BARB tests and other assessments the MOD provides online.  We would also research all possible aspects of army life (or as many as the Ministry felt willing to show us) so that, when the time came, he’d be able to make an informed choice about his future career.

He approved.

The first test was called Reasoning.  It had questions like ‘Bill is heavier than Sam. Who weighs less?‘  Perfect!  Exactly the sort of activity Simeon needed to develop his language processing skills.  He focused completely and scored 10 out of 12.  High fives all round and he was positively beaming.

“I want to try another one,” he said, eagerly.

This time he selected Letter Checking.  It involved scanning pairs of letters and deciding how many of the pairs were matched large and small case versions of the same letter.  Simeon is a very visual learner, so this was a perfect morale-booster.  He scored 100%.  Unable to believe his luck, he ran through it again, with the same result.

As you have probably guessed, not every aspect of the assessment tasks went this smoothly.  Some contained instructions which went way beyond Simeon’s ability to process information.  Initially, he seemed fine with this and persevered by attempting the tests again to try and improve his scores.  However his strategies weren’t great.  He eventually resorted to guessing blindly and consequently found his marks dropping still further.

The following week he arrived in the blackest of moods and told me he’d decided he would live rough when he grew up and would be glad if this shortened his life.  It took a good forty minutes of morale-boosting tasks and encouragement to bring him to a point where he admitted he was feeling better and didn’t really want to be a vagrant.

We’re currently breaking the difficult tasks into smaller, achievable activities before returning to the BARBs.  I praised him at one point for working so hard and applying himself to the challenges I was setting him.
“You’re really making progress,” I said.
“That’s because – for the first time ever – I’m being taught by someone who’s not a complete asshole,” he responded.


Like every young person I’ve encountered on the autistic spectrum, Simeon has a sensitivity to the thoughts and feelings of others that borders on telepathy.
“How would you feel,” he asked, watching my face keenly, “if I came back from a spell in the army and I had killed some people?”

I really didn’t need to reply.  He’d understood that despite the effort I’m making to help him reach his dream, I struggle with the idea of anyone ending the life of someone’s child, someone’s friend, someone’s spouse or parent.

He sat for a few moments, talking quietly about the implications of ending a life and admitting that he’d never before truly looked at the repercussions.  For the first time the fantasy and the reality were starting to separate in his mind and I saw that at some point, much further down the line, we’ll be having some deep conversations on this subject.

I have the greatest respect for Simeon and total faith in his ability to make positive choices in the future.

Meeting Simeon

English: Eyebrow, detail of File:Konferencja W...

It goes without saying that isn’t his real name.  I always alter certain details of the kids I write about, to preserve their privacy, but Simeon suits him well enough.

About six weeks ago he came slouching into my life.  He stomped into the study and eyed me warily.  He’s 14 and has autistic spectrum perception.  His parents had pulled him out of a special school where bullying was rife and learning, it seems, wasn’t.  They’d asked me to give him some weekly tuition in English and maths.

He was anxious, bitter, embarrassed by his ‘memory problems’ (receptive language processing difficulties) and lack of mathematical skills, and had enough chips on his shoulder to keep any fast food outlet going for a month.
“Let’s get this over with then,” he sighed, grabbing a chair.  “Two hours, right?”

Then the tests began…  What was it going to take to freak me out?

Week One included the following conversation:

Chocolate Digestive

Me: “You’ve worked very hard. Do you want to stop for five minutes for a drink and a snack?”
Him: “Got any cocaine?”
Me: “Sorry, just biscuits.”
Him: “Uh. How about steroids?”
Me: “No, I think they’re chocolate digestives.”

By Week Two he’d had a rethink.

When asked to enliven a dull passage by adding extra detail, he  managed to insert copious amounts of blood and gore into every sentence.  The protagonists lost body parts with dizzying speed and in alarming quantities, and what was left of the ‘hero’ by the end provided a finale by going to the bathroom (sic) on what remained of his opponent’s corpse and heading off to get high.  (“Do you know what that means?” Simeon asked, solicitously.)

I complimented him on having successfully completed the task he was set.  I spoke in glowing terms of the build-up of tension as the battle outcome remained uncertain until the very end.  I admired his range of vocabulary, while pointing out a few punctuation mistakes.  I then suggested that the euphemism for urinating was rather lame and that he needed to draw further distinction between heroic and villainous behaviour. if he wished to master characterisation.  Simeon silently made a few changes to his final sentence.

Comic Books

At the start of Week Three he reached into his backpack.  “I’ve brought something along I thought would be helpful for our lessons,”  he announced with an inscrutable smile.
He placed a copy of The Walking Dead comic on the desk.

“I could read some of it to you,” he offered, “like a reading book, y’know?”

“Fine,” I said.  “Which page would you like to start on?”

The reading session went on for a little longer than either of us had expected, because although the chunks of speech were not extensive, it took Simeon quite a while to apologise each time there was a swear word.  (“I’m sorry I said the f- word there.  It’s not like I was swearing at you, y’know.  I only said it because it was there on the page….”  and so on and on.)  There were many swear words.

After a while, mainly to save his blushes, I suggested returning to the Anthony Horowitz novel we’d selected as his regular reading book.   This he did with some relief, and since by a fortunate chance the first murder occurred a page or two into the chapter, he became totally hooked and complained when I asked him to stop.

By this time I was becoming rather fond of Simeon.  He could have become quite ratty at my refusal to be scandalised or offended by his carefully constructed ploys, but he took my responses calmly and was actually working extremely hard at the tasks I set him.   True, his obsession with weapons, the army and any dystopian videos,  games or reading matter he could lay his hands on could be wearing at times, but it wasn’t the first time I’d seen a disempowered teenager take refuge amongst such fantasies, and I felt I understood his perspective.  (See also this post.)

English: A British army Challenger II main bat...

Then, just as he was leaving on Week Three, he hit me with this:
“You know I dropped out of school?” he said.  “Well it was before I’d sat any of the exams, y’know?  All I’ve ever wanted is to join the army. But I don’t think they’ll take me without any exams.  So I think my life is just about over, really.”  He sighed so sadly.  “I think about that a lot.”


That forced me to take a close look at my own prejudices – my feelings about the armed forces and military combat as well as my feelings about this socially isolated youngster with a considerable range of learning challenges.  The thought of Simeon being trained as a killing machine didn’t sit comfortably with me.  On the other hand nor did allowing a fourteen year old to believe his life was ‘just about over’, if I had any power to help him change his mind on that.

In the days and weeks that followed, I also thought about it a lot.  In a future post, I’ll let you know the conclusions I reached, and how my encounters with Simeon continued.

Why some children don’t get numbers

This post is strictly for educators and parents with children who hate maths.  No esoteric stuff this time…

When I was a teacher, for some reason I always used to be given the top set for maths – year after year.  (I’m not going to get into the ‘Is streaming children for maths a good idea?’ debate, by the way; just saying that’s the way it was.)

Well I enjoyed working with the school’s brightest and best very much, but then one year, the head teacher told me he’d like me to work with the lowest set.  That got me really excited!

I always loved a challenge.  I spent most of the summer holidays pouring through the finished maths books of my new group, trying to work out why a bunch of hard-working and well-intentioned 10 and 11 year olds had apparently failed to understand the very basics of number, while their classmates had made such excellent progress.

Finally, I had it.  There was one simple step that this group of youngsters had somehow missed – and this was the key that would help them to understand.  It goes something like this:

In English, we have 26 letters:         a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z       which we use to make words.

The words can be one or more letters long:        a  my  box  daft  every  garden  quickly  unlikely  difficult…

In maths, we have 9 digits:        1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  and one gap-filler  0               which we use to make numbers.

The numbers can be one or more digits long:                 3    27    154    2013    53196   100481…

So how was I to get that message across to a bunch of kids who by now were approaching some kind of number phobia? They were happy to work with numbers up to about 20.  From 40 onwards they got somewhat panicky, and if a teacher tried to introduce three- or four-digit numbers, they’d start shaking and ask to go to the toilet.

Close-up of a bucket full of midi-sized Hama b...

My solution was to give each child an abacus.  The ones in educational catalogues were hugely expensive, coloured to appeal to 3 year olds and far too big to fit on their tables.  I paced around the local shopping centre for a while and ended up with a couple of packs of self-hardening clay, a bargain tub of those little fusible plastic beads and a stiff yard broom.  The bristles made sturdy but flexible and non-dangerous abacus sticks.  I set four of them into a little strip of clay and cut them off at exactly the height of 9 beads.  That way, the children would be able to make the numbers 1 to 9 on the ‘unit’ stick, but would be forced to take them off and start again on the ‘tens’ stick when they wanted to show the number 10.

These are my updated versions - note boy and girl-friendly versions to help children feel relaxed.

These are my updated versions – note boy- and girl-friendly versions to help children feel relaxed around numbers.

The picture shows how I now make them for individual students, using a loop of wire, with beads safely trapped into the abacus.  There are, of course, only 9 beads on each wire.

We spent many days ‘building’ numbers from 1 to 99 on the abacuses and writing down the equivalent number.  Suddenly the 4 in 46 was understood as ‘four tens’ and the purpose of the zero in 20 was clear.

I insisted that they were forbidden to use the other two sticks, until they were completely begging me to allow them to make ‘hundreds numbers’.
“Nah,” I grinned.  “You don’t like big numbers, remember?”
“We do!” they insisted.  “We can manage it,  We promise.  It’ll be easy!”
“Well, if you’re sure…” I said, looking suitably doubtful and working hard to suppress a triumphant grin.

Within weeks, these children were working confidently with three- and four-digit numbers; not just building and writing them, but using them in calculations.

The next stage was to turn the abacuses round and use them to show decimals. Instead of labelling our four sticks as Thousands, Hundreds, Tens and Units, we now had Units, Tenths, Hundredths and Thousandths.  There was a clear decimal point marked between the whole numbers and the decimals and I showed them how, in this looking-glass world, zeros had to be used as gap-markers from the left, not the right.  Otherwise, they were in familiar territory.

By the end of term, the class was happily creating numbers to four decimal places, and comments like, “I get maths now!” and even, “Actually, I LIKE maths!” were heard around the room.

Now, to my great delight, I’ve been asked to work with Simeon: 14 years old, great at English, clueless at numbers.  Here we go again!

The Curse of the Question Mark

Ideology Icon

Danny, despite his speech difficulties, has an interesting turn of phrase.  He’s just 10, and yesterday we had our first tutoring session of the new school year together.

“So what’s been going on in your life over the summer?” I asked.
“Dood stuff!” he announced, proudly. “I had my birthday, and I dot a digital damera and I’m detting a laptop soon!”

He must have noticed my raised eyebrows. I know his family’s financial situation isn’t great.
“The laptop’s from a jarity,” he explained. “I don’t know what ‘slexia is, but my mum wrote to them and they’re divving me a laptop so I can do my homewort.”
“Well that’s brilliant, Danny,” I enthused.  “Aren’t you a lucky boy!”

Lucky isn’t really the word that springs to mind when you first come across Danny.  The youngest in his year group, he does daily battle with all aspects of academic study at school.  Words appear to fly around the page and refuse to lodge in his memory; numbers resist all attempts to become bonded or otherwise related to one another.  Several speech sounds remain stubbornly inaccessible to him, despite years of therapy, and his tendency to writhe, fiddle, daydream or mumble his way through the interminable school day must have driven many a teacher to distraction.

Despite all this, Danny remains a cheerful child with a gift for optimism and humour.  He’s one of the many special young people who have so much to share with those of us who are willing to embrace different ways of learning and being.

“Do you really not know what dyslexia is, Danny?” I asked, despite my personal aversion to the term.  “Would you like me to explain it to you?”

‘Explain’ is one of his trigger words.  I should have remembered.

“No,” he replied hastily, “I thint I remember now.  It means I darn’t learn properly.”

Well that set off one of my own triggers!  I drew a quick cartoon brain.  I drew two dots and a straight line representing stimulus and response between two points in a neurotypical brain.  Then I drew the response to a stimulus in his brain – all manner of weird and wonderful connections firing off simultaneously and the resulting wavy synaptic line that connected them all in new and exciting ways.

“You learn DIFFERENTLY Dan,” I told him, as I traced the routes on my drawing with my finger, “and if the teacher wants a quick answer, that’s difficult for you.  On the other hand, if she wants an original answer – one that no one else would think of – then yours is the perfect brain for that.”

He looked slightly hopeful but sceptical.

Mario Kart DS Bundle

“What are you like at computer games?” I asked.
“Brilliant!” he grinned. “I’m the best in the family. I tan beat everyone.”

Several minutes of sound-effect laden role play followed as he demonstrated his prowess at Mario with an imaginary DS.

“I’m not surprised,” I told him.  “Your brain is perfect for that.  It can keep track of all the different things going on at once – the number of lives and energy levels, the route you need to take, dangerous enemies and obstacles…  All those bits of your brain that work at once can handle that far better than most ordinary people.”

Danny seemed happy with that, so we turned to some of the work I’d prepared – the gentlest of introductions to algebra, such as

9 + ? = 13   or  15 – ? = 10

Danny stared balefully at the page for a moment, then rose in his seat, peering down at it with great disdain.

“Dwestion Marts!” he announced with gravitas.  “My arch enemy!  I hate you, Dwestion Marts!  You never reveal what you are hiding!  Durse you to hell forever!”

And that’s the way it goes – a typical weekly session with Danny, the boy who can’t perhaps answer the question, but has penetrated to the heart of its intrinsic essence with a clarity the rest of us can only gasp at.

How utterly dull our world would be without the likes of Danny.