What I wish I’d been told as a child with high Learning Potential

Why telling real stories about children and young people with Dual and Multiple Exceptionality is so important.

Children and young people with Dual and Multiple Exceptionalities (DME) are highly able and also have special educational needs and/or one or more disabilities (SEND). They are often not easy to identify and their needs even harder to determine both inside and outside the classroom. Amongst other things, their abilities can mask their SEND and they can ‘disappear’ in the system; they can be misdiagnosed or labelled lazy, badly behaved or troublemakers or they can develop a range of social, emotional, mental health and other problems which provide the focus for intervention without looking at their holistic needs as a child or young person with DME.

Every child is an individual and their abilities and needs even more so. To best illustrate DME, The Potential Trust is seeking stories about children and young people with DME, their journeys, how their needs are met and what happens to them at home and in their learning.

Our series kicks off in GTN Awareness Week with some real stories extracted from The School Handbook for Dual and Multiple Exceptionality by Denise Yates and Adam Boddison (published by Routledge in 2020) reproduced in part here with the kind permission of the authors. For more information or to order a copy of this book, please go to: https://www.routledge.com/The-School-Handbook-for-Dual-and-Multiple-Exceptionality-High-Learning/Yates-Boddison/p/book/9780367369583

If you have a personal story about DME which you would like to share with others, please email this to potentialtrust@gmail.com Please change the names and details to preserve anonymity. The Potential Trust reserves the right to edit the story and not to publish it on our website. Sending us your story implies consent for us to send it out on social and other media to raise awareness and support others in this important area of work.

Joanna’s story

About Joanna

What are Joanna’s specific strengths? Sports and music. There may also be significant academic underachievement and unrealised academic potential.

What are Joanna’s specific learning challenges? Social, emotional and mental health issues, emotional trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Schooling: Six earlier primary school prior to her current primary school

Introduction to the child and the context

Joanna is 10 years old and has dual heritage. She is the youngest of four children and all of her siblings are boys. Joanna’s birth family lived in an area of significant social deprivation, and they received parenting from their single mother. For reasons that will not be further explained here, Joanna ended up in the care system from a young age, initially with a series of foster carers, and she was ultimately adopted. However, the adoption broke down and Joanna went back into long-term foster care.

During this time, there were numerous upheavals at both home and school and by the time she was 8 years old, Joanna had already had six changes of school and was now starting at her seventh. All these schools were one-form entry mainstream primary schools, except for her current school, which is two-form entry. Joanna and her foster parents feel she is making accelerated progress in her current school in a way that they think would have been very difficult to achieve in any of the six previous schools. The foster parents are of the opinion that the provision at Joanna’s current school is more effective because the teachers treat Joanna as an individual, rather than just another pupil, and they are committed to meeting her specific individual needs.

Joanna’s experiences are such that she has had multiple layers of trauma to deal with, particularly in relation to separation and loss, but she has also demonstrated incredible levels of resilience. Prior to the identification of DME, Joanna had been written off by the teachers in her previous schools as a failure, but over time her High Learning Potential has become more obvious as a result of teachers at her current school and her current foster family recognising and nurturing her High Learning Potential.

Identification of DME

The foster family that Joanna is with currently have a strong track record in supporting the identification of Special Educational Needs and in spotting and nurturing the talents of children and young people in their care. In Joanna’s case, it was initially thought there may be elements of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), since she was struggling to sit still in class and to concentrate for any extended periods. However, it later transpired that the child psychologist and the psychotherapist believed these issues were a result of post-traumatic stress.

In many ways, the Special Educational Needs and the health and care needs were clear from the outset for Joanna because of the knowledge that professionals involved with her already had in relation to her wider circumstances. Professionals from CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) led on the formal identification of Joanna’s needs with input from social workers and her foster family. The needs were primarily centred around social, emotional and mental health needs and a risk of self-harming was also identified. As part of the ongoing identification and assessment of needs, Joanna is being supported through psychotherapy and drama therapy.

In relation to High Learning Potential, it was both the foster family and the school teachers together who led on the identification of different aspects of Joanna’s potential.

At home, the foster parents identified Joanna’s passion and potential in singing. They noticed that Joanna was singing in a cupboard as she was too embarrassed to sing publicly. They also felt that there were elements from the impact of trauma at play here too. Her foster parents were keen to build Joanna’s confidence to sing and they provided several opportunities to do this in safe settings through their family and friends. This included Joanna singing at family events and buying her a karaoke machine for Christmas. They arranged for Joanna to have professional singing lessons and they approached her school to discuss what opportunities they might be able to provide.

As part of the discussions with the school, it became clear that the teachers had identified Joanna’s sporting prowess. It was not just the case that she was good at a particular sport, but she seemed to excel in almost every sport, despite having had limited exposure to sporting opportunities in the past. Joanna’s teachers recognised that her resilience and competitive streak were significant strengths for achieving in sport and the teachers responsible for the various sports teams were competing to have Joanna take up their sport. Joanna learnt many new sports through the school including rounders, tennis, basketball, netball, athletics and cross-country running. Winning a variety of sporting competitions had a significant impact on building her self-esteem and Joanna was generally a happier young girl. The school also provided opportunities for Joanna to sing at music festivals.

Whilst there has been no formal testing for Joanna’s High Learning Potential, there is a congruence in the views of a range of professionals and additional evidence that supports the existence of High Learning Potential. Joanna’s swimming instructor said after two lessons with her swimming ability, she could make it to the Olympics. A secondary school in the area requires a musical aptitude test for entry and teachers at that school believe that Joanna will ‘pass with flying colours. Joanna is regularly invited to sing solo performances at public events, including those with deep personal relevance, such as the Looked After Children Awards.

Her teachers comment that whilst Joanna’s attainment may be behind in some academic areas, her progress has significantly accelerated to that of her peers, and she constantly surprises them with moments of sheer brilliance.  Even at the age of two, Joanna was able to share a whole host of facts about the world as well as being able to articulate the insight she had into her own domestic challenges and wider circumstances.

Joanna’s school has a good track record of identifying Special Educational Needs and the school’s ethos is strongly focused on the pursuit of excellence. The school was actively involved with IGGY (the University of Warwick’s International Gateway for Gifted Youth) and they have previously supported educational research into effective teaching strategies for gifted children. 

Description of DME provision

A key difference between the provision at Joanna’s current school and her previous schools is the enhanced focus on her strengths, rather than her behaviours. Joanna is encouraged to increase her engagement around sport and music, and she is praised when she excels in these areas. The relationships that are developed through the pursuit of excellence in sports and music have built a level of trust between Joanna and teachers at the school, which can help in the classroom when there are challenges in relation to Joanna’s behaviours.

The school has a traffic light system in place for managing behaviour. All learners begin on green and if there is poor behaviour, the individuals involved are moved to amber and ultimately to red. Learners on red must stand outside the Headteacher’s office with nothing to do until the Headteacher speaks to them and decides what the consequence will be. Whilst the affordances and constraints of this approach to behaviour management could fill the entire book, the focus here is on Joanna’s experiences.

The reality was that whilst the system was accepted by most learners, it absolutely did not work for Joanna. If she ended up on red, there would be a total meltdown of behaviour that could put her at risk of exclusion.

The school considered this issue carefully. They did not want to change their current approach to behaviour management as they felt it worked for most learners, but they also thought it would be inequitable to give one learner immunity from any consequences.

Following discussions between the foster parents, the Headteacher and Joanna herself, a compromise was reached based on reasonable adjustments. The school agreed that for Joanna there would be a new category in place of red, called ‘managing red’. In practical terms, this meant that Joanna would never be in the position that the behaviour management system was triggering meltdowns and the focus shifted from a consequence-driven approach of behaviour management to a therapeutic-driven approach to behaviour management.

When Joanna reaches ‘managing red’, she has to go to the Headteacher’s office in the same way as other learners, but whilst there she has a dedicated place to sit and rather than waiting for her consequence, she is encouraged to work. There had initially been some concern that other children would complain about this, but in practice the other learners have been very supportive. This more individualised approach has made it easier for the teachers and for Joanna.

In a similar way, the school considered its approach to rewarding academic achievement for Joanna. It was decided that offering rewards linked to Joanna’s passion in sports and music would incentivise her to improve her effort in the classroom. There are no consequences if academic targets are not met, but the rewards are only available when there have been sufficient effort and/or achievements.

English in particular was deemed by her teachers to be Joanna’s weakest subject. An English teacher at the nearby secondary school has a therapy dog and Joanna sees this dog (and the English teacher!) regularly as part of the package of provision for meeting her literacy and trauma needs. Joanna and the English teacher have agreed to write a book together. In practice, Joanna writes a page for the book, and this is then edited by the English teacher.  This will continue until the book is written, although nobody apart from Joanna and her teacher actually knows what the book will be about!

There has been a serious effort to put effective, meaningful and genuine coproduction in place. Routinely this has involved Joanna, her foster parents and her teachers, not just Joanna’s current class teacher, but also her first form teacher from when she joined the school who has stayed alongside Joanna throughout to ensure joined-up support. As required, there has also been engagement with the Headteacher, the Special Education Needs Coordinator (SENCO), the Gifted and Talented Coordinator (GATCO) and Joanna’s social worker. Here are two examples of coproduction in Joanna’s case:

Example 1 – Transition Meeting

As Joanna moved from one year to the next, there was a meeting between the current and incoming class teachers to which Joanna and her foster parents were invited. Challenges and successes of the current year were discussed and any anxieties about the next year were addressed. Email addresses were exchanged to enable slicker communications between home and school.

If there were issues at home, the class teacher would be aware when Joanna arrived and so better able to put the necessary provision in place from the outset. Similarly, if Joanna had had a challenging day at school, the foster parents were primed and ready to respond as soon as Joanna arrived home. The foster parents have particularly noted that dealing with any issues on the day as they arise and then drawing a line under them has been highly effective in improving Joanna’s wellbeing, since it has significantly reduced the risk of her going to bed worried or anxious. Every child deserves to be able to have a good night’s sleep.

Example 2 – Residential Meeting

The Headteacher convened and chaired a meeting to discuss a residential school trip, which Joanna had said she was worried about. The SENCO, the foster parents and Joanna’s social worker were all in attendance. Joanna was aware that the meeting was happening and fed her views into the meeting, but she chose not to attend. The SENCO outlined the provision that the school could put in place to address Joanna’s anxieties and any safeguarding concerns were discussed. The proposed provision was further shaped by the foster parents and the social worker and as a result Joanna had a positive residential experience.

In terms of wider provision, teachers at the school noted that Joanna’s performance in tests was not aligned to what they saw in the classroom. Discussing this further with Joanna, it emerged that in a test situation, she would see others writing much more than she did and panic. This was an issue of self-confidence and of anxiety and linked to the wider trauma needs.

For tests, the school has now put arrangements in place so that Joanna can be in a room without any other learners should she prefer that. In this situation, her original class teacher stays with her to supervise, and this has a further calming and confidence-boosting effect. Joanna’s test performances are now reflective of what teachers had seen in the classroom.

Finally, Joanna’s current school prides itself on having an excellent repertoire of extra-curricular activities and enrichment opportunities available to all learners. This provision is of vital importance to many learners with DME and it has been one of the key aspects of effective provision for Joanna.

In her previous schools, there were limited extra-curricular activities and Joanna was generally excluded from them as this was part of the consequences enforced by the school in response to her behaviour. In one school, after-school clubs were only available to learners in Year 5 or Year 6. At her current school, extra-curricular activities are generally free at the point of use and students are encouraged to attend. Joanna typically spends four out of five school days participating in different after-school enrichment activities.  

Impact of DME provision

Joanna and her foster parents are of the view that the provision at the school has had a significant positive impact. On a day-to-day basis, Joanna is a happier child, who has a growing friendship group. The school’s approach of matching up children with similar profiles of High Learning Potential has worked well in helping Joanna to find others with similar interests. The school also matches up children with abilities in a specific area to other children who want to develop that area, and this has been equally effective in promoting and celebrating academic diversity.

Looking ahead, Joanna now has positive and ambitious aspirations for the future. Her foster parents believe that Joanna could make it to the Olympics or to attend university, both of which Joanna and teachers at her previous schools had thought impossible only a couple of years ago. Whilst Joanna might have had an innate High Learning Potential, there were limited opportunities for it to be realised. Her foster parents believe that she now has both the ability and the opportunity to succeed.

In the classroom, Joanna’s academic potential remains invisible to Joanna herself. She sees that she is not as strong as her peers in relation to attainment, but there is little self-recognition of the accelerated progress that she is making. Her teachers are clear that her pace of learning is rapid, and they fully expect her to have significant academic achievements. Her foster parents believe this accelerated academic progress is because Joanna feels safe to make mistakes and is therefore more likely to push herself beyond her comfort zone.

Whilst the current DME provision is deemed to be strong, there are concerns about the future. The local secondary school is known to be less flexible in relation to personalised provision and there is a history of excluding learners who do not conform to behavioural expectations. Joanna’s foster parents are concerned that the secondary school will exclude Joanna when she makes mistakes or cannot cope and they feel this will be unfair, particularly if it is because the provision was not right at the outset.

The foster parents believe that exclusion in general does not work as it only passes the problem onto somebody else, causing emotional damage to the child in the process. However, the likelihood is that they will send Joanna to the local secondary school because Joanna herself wants to go there.

 If an exclusion were to occur, the foster parents are clear that they would fight this based on the Equality Act and reasonable adjustments, but they hope it would never come to that. If necessary, the foster parents have said they would personally remain on-site at the school to ensure that Joanna could stay there. They will do whatever it takes to meet Joanna’s needs.

To read more about Joanna and her journey and the other DME stories, go to The School Handbook for Dual and Multiple Exceptionality by Denise Yates and Adam Boddison.

About The Potential Trust.

The Potential Trust is a registered charity (charity number 326645) whose aim is to provide, promote and encourage whatever makes education and learning more interesting for children and young people (up to school leaving age) who have High Learning Potential (sometimes called more able, highly able or Gifted and Talented) or Dual or Multiple Exceptionalities (sometimes called DME, Twice Exceptional or 2e, neurodiverse or gifted with learning differences). We want to support all those children with more than the average share of curiosity, creativity, perception and persistence and to enable them to have access to events and experiences that facilitate their personal and social development and their creative, artistic and practical abilities as well as their intellectual abilities. We do this by:

  • Providing Potential Bursaries
  • Running Potential Conferences
  • Developing Potential Collaborations
  • Being a catalyst for Potential Change.

For more information about how to get involved or to support us, please log onto our website at https://thepotentialtrust.org.uk or follow us on Twitter @PotentialTrust

Names and details have been changed to preserve anonymity. Any views are those of the authors.

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