Teaching a child with High Learning Potential: what I wish someone had told me when I started my teaching career.
Parenting a child with High Learning Potential – what I wish someone had told me when I had my child.

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.

Kerry’s story

About Kerry

What are Kerry’s specific strengths? High Learning Potential in singing, gymnastics, mathematics and creative writing.

What are Kerry’s specific learning challenges? Sensory and emotional issues.

  • Anger – Kerry can become irritated quickly by the smallest of issues and, within a short space of time, can become very angry. This sometimes results in physically pushing or hitting her siblings or parents, grunting and exhibiting ‘angry’ body language (e.g. clenched fists, red face). Kerry gets angry quickly but takes a long time to calm down.
  • Anxiety issues – Kerry is a perfectionist, so if she makes a minor mistake in her schoolwork, this can be a big trigger for becoming angry or anxious. For example, she will hit herself repeatedly on her forehead.
  • Relationships – Other children at school know that Kerry can be ‘wound up’ easily and there is some intentional provocation to see her reaction. This means that Kerry’s relationship with her peers can be strained and volatile.

Schooling: Small maintained primary school.

Introduction to the child and the context

Kerry is eight years old and is one of three siblings.  She attends a one-form entry maintained primary school and reports that she finds every single day a challenge.  Kerry has a mature and academically advanced view of the world around her, but she doesn’t understand why others can’t see things the way she does. She struggles to cope with her own emotional turbulence and is increasingly frustrated with other people.

Kerry’s parents first noticed something wasn’t right when she started school and they received contradictory progress reports.  The reports showed the highest levels of attainment across all subject areas, but the effort grades were mixed.  The school was increasingly contacting Kerry’s parents about what they described as ‘unacceptable behaviours’ both in the classroom and in the playground.  By the time Kerry was seven years old, school-life had become very hard for her.  She had been excluded from social groups by the parents of her peers and was not invited to birthday parties, when the rest of her class were invited.  The school were keeping her inside during break and lunchtimes ‘for the safety of other children’ and they had warned Kerry’s parents that she was at risk of school exclusion.

Kerry felt isolated by the position in which she found herself and the challenging behaviours, tantrums and violence started to happen at home as well as school. When Kerry was angry or upset, she physically lashed out at her siblings and parents, and she would grunt and growl.  Kerry kicked walls and furniture, slammed doors and stamped up the stairs. Very often, Kerry would hit herself repeatedly in the head when she was angry with herself and she would call herself stupid, blaming herself for not being able to control her emotions and behaviours. Kerry’s parents were not sure what to do and they became very concerned when Kerry started saying that she wished she was dead and that she wanted to kill herself. She repeatedly said that she hated herself and thought that everybody around her hated her too because of how she was behaving.

It was during these two years, that some of Kerry’s talents really become clear too, although it was not obvious to her parents at the time. Kerry was a creative young girl, and she began singing – a lot! Her parents said it was often a challenge to settle Kerry down for bed as she was singing entire musical theatre productions before she went to sleep. She also began to express herself through art, drawing and 3D modelling using clay. At one point, Kerry’s parents thought she might be hyperactive since she was repeatedly jumping on the sofas and doing cartwheels immediately after eating. It seemed that she could not stop moving.

Kerry was generally less successful at sports more generally if they required hand-eye coordination, such as badminton or golf. She would become frustrated when she couldn’t play, and it would trigger strong emotional responses. Kerry was also increasingly unaware of her surroundings, which resulted in clumsy accidents, such as forward rolling into walls, knocking into items of furniture or stubbing her toes on furniture.

At school, Kerry had low levels of tolerance to other people being in her personal space and her response was generally violent. Rather than being sensitive to particular textures, Kerry seemed to crave them. For example, she was often found in school rubbing walls and railings, licking her cutlery and squeezing different fabrics in her hands.

Things began to improve for Kerry when a new class teacher started at the school, who had no prior knowledge of Kerry’s behaviours, and gave her a fresh start. Following an incident in which Kerry had an emotional meltdown in the playground, this teacher contacted Kerry’s parents to find out how she could help. It was this meeting that led to the school SENCO becoming involved. With the class teacher and the SENCO working collaboratively with Kerry and her parents, a strategy was drawn up to identify and support any Special Educational Needs.

The SENCO arranged for several specialists from the Local Authority to come into school to observe Kerry and to help to assess her needs. The conclusion was that Kerry was identified as having significant sensory needs with anxiety and some autistic traits. The provision put in place by the school included:

  • Lego Therapy (to help improve communication and teamworking skills)
  • Yoga (to help improve mindfulness and wellbeing)
  • Nurture Groups (to help improve Kerry’s self-image)
  • Termly meetings between the SENCO and the parents

In the months that followed, there were fewer behavioural incidents, but Kerry became more and more unhappy. She started saying that she didn’t want to go to school and whilst she was able to manage her emotions better in school, it was becoming more difficult at home.

Identification of DME

At one of the termly meetings between the SENCO and Kerry’s parents, it emerged that Kerry was being denied access to certain activities in school if they deemed her behaviour was not good enough. The activities included things like assembly (where Kerry would sing), playtime (where Kerry would do gymnastics in the playground) and golden time (where Kerry would do art and crafts). The class teacher who instigated these consequences was a newly qualified teacher who felt she had to apply the school rules consistently.

The SENCO agreed with the parents that blocking access to such activities was contributing to Kerry’s low emotional state and supported the parents to bring an end to such a punitive approach which failed to recognise her needs. She worked with the class teacher on understanding her duties in relation to reasonable adjustments.

The SENCO explained to the parents that she had recently read about DME and was intending to deliver training on it for all staff. She said that she thought Kerry might have DME and arranged for her to be assessed by an Educational Psychologist. The Local Authority would not pay for the assessment, so the school covered the costs directly. The Educational Psychologist confirmed that Kerry was operating at a level academically above what would be typical for her age.

The Educational Psychologist and the SENCO both agreed that meeting the Special Educational Needs alone was insufficient and that the High Learning Potential needed to be nurtured too. It also became clear that further professional support was required in relation to strategies for helping Kerry manage her sensory needs. It was recommended that an occupational therapist should be engaged for this. Sadly, the Headteacher at the school ruled that the school could not afford to fund the occupational therapy sessions and so these costs had to be covered directly by the parents.

Description of DME provision

Fortnightly occupational therapy sessions focused on the development of practical strategies centred on Kerry’s High Learning Potential. For example, when Kerry was angry or upset, rather than the focus being on stopping the resulting behaviours, she was instead encouraged to shift her energies into an area where she had developing talents, e.g., art, singing, creative writing and mathematics. The occupational therapist also worked with Kerry to help her frame and assess the scale of the problems she faced, so she could respond appropriately. Using these tools, a small problem, for example, would only require a small response appropriate to the situation. The occupational therapist taught Kerry how to recognise the early warning signs and triggers for her anxiety, so she could regulate her emotions whilst she was still in control. Finally, the occupational therapist helped Kerry to understand the effect of the different forms of sensory stimulation that she craved. Some helped to calm her down, whilst others made her more frantic. Understanding which sensory approaches to use in which situations provided Kerry with a set of useful strategies for use at home and at school.

The SENCO and class teacher jointly delivered a twilight professional development session on DME using Kerry as a case study. The SENCO has explained that some staff are still sceptical about DME and take the view that there should be a zero-tolerance approach to ‘undesirable behaviour’. However, the Headteacher and most staff were receptive and willing to embrace a different approach. A key message from the SENCO in the staff training was that behaviour is a form of communication.

In class, Kerry has been permitted to use therapy putty as a calming sensory strategy. The school have also provided Kerry with a range of enrichment opportunities to help nurture her talents, including maths competitions, computer programming, school choir and external singing performances. The class teacher has done some work on inclusion with all children in the class to try to foster more acceptance of differences and to celebrate diversity. This is still a work in progress.

At home, Kerry’s parents have signed her up for a musical theatre club that meets on a Saturday morning. This has given her a new friendship group and, whilst there, she discovered that another girl who attends the club is from the year above at her school. This has helped in school as she is now not over-reliant on the friendship groups within her class. Kerry’s parents are encouraging her to use her new-found interest in computers to use the built-in features of PowerPoint to write and record her own musical presentations. Recently, she has produced an interactive presentation on the properties of ravens. At bedtime, audio books have been introduced as a form of sensory stimulation that can be focused on Kerry’s areas of interest. Most recently, this has been Harry Potter, with Kerry using the stories as a catalyst for her own creative writing. Interestingly, Kerry’s class teacher is an avid Harry Potter fan and so this has created an opportunity to further develop the staff-pupil relationship. Kerry and her mum keep an emotions diary in which they exchange messages about how they are feeling, and this has been a useful outlet for emotional discharge. Kerry has increased the volume of creative tasks she engages with at home. Recently, she created a miniature notebook for her toy elf. Despite being miniature, the attention to detail was incredibly intricate with individual lines on the pages and a glittery binding. 

Impact of DME provision

Reflecting on the provision, Kerry said she felt much happier, and the strong emotions of self-loathing had mostly subsided.  School is still hard for Kerry, and this is primarily an issue with the perspectives of the wider parental community and its acceptance of her ‘differences’ rather than with the school. 

Kerry feels that she is now known for more than just her challenging behaviours and says that she now feels like a person rather than a problem. She appreciates what the school and her parents have put in place for her, but she also shared some frustration with being a recipient of the provision and not having enough opportunity to shape it herself.

Kerry’s effort grades have soared, and they are now aligned to the high levels of attainment she has had throughout. Kerry has taken the yoga skills she has learnt at school and applied them at home, often leading family yoga sessions. Over the past 12 months, Kerry has developed a fierce sense of moral purpose and social justice, and this was triggered by Sir David Attenborough’s campaign about plastic in the oceans, which her class learnt about at school. One the one hand, this has been positive because it has given Kerry an external focus for her to apply her talents. On the other hand, it has been a challenge because she is now holding everybody to account for any of their behaviours that she thinks are destroying the planet. This has been the source of a great many arguments with her siblings.

When asked what her biggest success has been, Kerry says it is the improvement in her badminton skills. She explained that she was not the best at badminton, but before she couldn’t hit the shuttlecock and as a result, she would immediately get angry and throw her racket across the court.  Now that she is better able to regulate her emotions, Kerry can play badminton in the garden with her family, and she says this makes her feel happy and included.

To read more about Kerry 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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