Challenges in childhood development in the school context

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During my time at school (2000-2007) we were taught that although were all individually different we must treat one another as equals, to have respect for our peers and for those who we have not yet been acquainted with. It seems hypercritical looking back now as I also remember a separate building at the back of our secondary school for the pupils who had additional learning difficulties which was named the 'special unit'. After each class a bell would ring and we would all change classes dispersed all around the school, however the pupils with special educational needs (SEN) did not move. They remained in the same area all day excluding lunch time and home time when they got a yellow bus home while the rest of the pupils got one of the several standard school buses, like every other school in the area. It's clear that although the pupils with SEN attended a mainstream school, they were still very much excluded from the community within the school. Unfortunately, this is a modern day example of locational-integration (Warnock, 1978) which represents a poor demonstration of an 'inclusive school'. Sinclair Taylor (1995) studied pupils in a special unit in a mainstream secondary school and found that pupils with SEN were in no doubt about their image in school. Surely this shows that it is not simply enough to group pupils with difficulties, into a specialised class, within an ordinary school. Education should not portray an image of a community which excludes. This system of categorising pupils with SEN is based on medical criteria (Belanger, 2000) and often imposed on schools even though, according to Zuchman (2002), this process is not educationally pertinent. Inclusive education depends on the capacity of the school, the principle, the teachers etc, to put differentiation in place to accommodate and support pupils with difficulties in an ordinary classroom so that they are not isolated, that they feel a sense of belonging and that they have access to the same opportunities as their typically developing, peer counterparts.

Ongoing research is crucial for careful systematic monitoring of the outcome (child achievement progress in areas of difficult, socialisation) of inclusion to provide evidence on its effectiveness. Previous research in this area has suffered due to numerous methodological shortcomings in relation to the various different conceptualisations of the 'inclusion concept' (independent variable). Further downfalls in previous research of inclusion was the comparing of inconsistent pupil samples i.e. comparative studies compared pupils with moderate learning difficulties to those with severe or mild learning difficulties which inevitability produced unreliable findings and studies that cannot be replicated. The Foxwood Inclusion programme states that 'Inclusion is about engendering a sense of community and belonging and encouraging mainstream and special schools to come together to support each other and pupils with special educational needs'. This conceptualisation relates to current thinking on inclusion because it promotes the importance of a sense of belonging and community which Booth and Ainscow (2002) identify as a fundamental aspect of inclusion that is sometimes overlooked.

In the present study a detailed discussion took place between the mainstream school practitioners and the parents of the (former special school) child to clarify the aims of the inclusion programme. The flow of communication and understanding between all the parties involved in the child's integration into the new school was identified as a vital part in the success of the scheme in promoting inclusivity. The collaboration between the special school teachers and the mainstream teachers and their support for each other was essential for practical reasons, such as, materials but also for advice and support in the change. Increasing teacher's awareness of inclusion is consistent with the recommendations of psychological theory and research which the Foxwood scheme adhered to. Teachers from a mainstream school who took part in a small scale study spoke of the challenges to effective inclusion as centring on the lack of resources and level of expertise (Goodman, R.L. & Burton, D.M., 2010). According to Armstrong (2004) 'working on differences would probably help teachers go beyond their own fears of differences thus doing away with an important cause for the absence of advancement of integration'.

An individual programme was developed to meet each child's needs in the programme, which centred on the view of ensuring as much time as possible in a mainstream setting. Meeting the child's individual needs is consistent with that of the social model of disability which reinforces the importance of treating everyone's abilities as individual as opposed to diagnosing, labelling and treating one's condition like the medical model of disability and applying a 'one-size-fits-all solution' to their difficulties. In contrast, the social model identifies an individual's needs in the context of school, home and their social environment in order to facilitate and support them. The inclusion team designed individual programmes for each included pupil to adjust to, as opposed to having to follow a rigid curriculum in the mainstream school. Wedell (1995) reported that rigid teaching methods and rules that only cater for typically developing students may cause issues for pupils with SEN. There is evidence to suggest that children can make appropriate progress in a mainstream setting if specific curriculum differentiation and teaching strategies are employed (Manset & Semmel, 1997). The key is to adopt the academic aspects in order to ensure that children with SEN receive an effective education appropriate to their needs. The foxwood programme adhered to this adjustment.

One of the most significant factors (in the Foxwood scheme) in the children being successfully included was that they all wore the same school uniform. This factor promoted a sense of unity and belonging in the school and classroom which is essential for ensuring inclusion and reducing the visible barriers between the children with and without SEN.

The inclusion team in the present study were very successful in moving and including the former special school pupils into the mainstream school. The results, contrary to Warnock's (2005) views, showed that the included children experienced positive social and affective outcomes in this process of inclusion. In light of this success, there are just a few suggestions which could be considered for further development of the programme. For example Symes, W (2010) examined levels of peer social support and frequency of bullying among students with SEN and found that pupils with autistic spectrum disorders (ASD) experienced higher levels of rejection and lower levels of acceptance than pupils with dyslexia or typically developing students. Also reported were lower levels of peer social support and higher levels of bullying experienced by the pupils with ASD. This study, along with others, indicates that the type of SEN or the severity of the difficulty can influence factors such as, peer acceptance. Therefore it should be taken into consideration in future studies of inclusion, especially when conducting comparative studies and also as a factor of consideration for the Foxwood inclusion scheme.

Research studies have indicated that 'peer tutoring' (supportive pupil interaction) can promote a number of positive, social affects that supports a sense of inclusivity and belonging for students with SEN. For example, Karagiannakis, A (2009) conducted a study with children attending special education classes who were experiencing social and emotional difficulties. The findings from this study identified 'peer-tutoring' as an effective intervention for this issue. Similarly, another study investigated the effects of class wide peer tutoring (CWPT) and peer coaching of students with attention-deficit hyper activity disorder (ADHD) (Pulmer, P,J 2005). The results suggested that the students participating in CWPT were actively and positively engaged with their peers. In addition, the peer coaching results indicated enhanced social behaviours during break and lunch time. The development of 'peer tutoring', as well as, the peer preparation workshops that took place in the Foxwood programme is a further suggestion for improvement of the scheme.

Children with SEN should be accommodating the same transport, were possible, as the mainstream pupils to and from school. 'Special transport' such as, a yellow bus, is a coded label which unfairly and very visibly distinguishes these two groups of pupils creating social barriers outside of the classroom. This issue of separate transport should be addressed and its effects should be studied in future studies of inclusion by the Foxwood inclusion team.

Social competence has been conceptualised as a multidimensional construct that includes social skills, adaptive behaviour and peer relationship variables (Gresham, F.M, MacMillian, D,L., Ferguson, L.D, Ferguson, P.M 1997). Dodge et al (1982) have shown that problems may arise because children with low social competence tend to interpret situations in a different way from their classmates. Dodge et al (1982) also found that competent children made more social approaches than other children - but only in playground, not in the classroom. There are various ways in which social competence can be investigated for example, through 'peer nomination' (Moreno, 1934). This method involves children being asked to nominate a number of their peers in relation to a specified criterion (positive or negative). This scale can assess classmate's attitudes towards one another. In addition, the reliability of this scale is found to increase throughout the primary age range of children.

Another investigative method of social competence is 'a forced choice group preference record' such as the social inclusion survey (Frederickson & Graham, 1999). This is a rating scale technique that normally employs positive criteria as opposed to negative criteria. In reference to this, Connolly (1983) highlighted the dangers of acknowledging the unpopular children. With saying that, no other studies have found negative effects of using this approach. Fredrickson and Furnham (1998) argue that this particular investigative method is very appropriate for measuring social inclusion in mainstream schools for children with SEN as it does not focus solely on the included pupils. Also when a positive criterion is used it subsequently avoids the occurrence of negative responses being attributed to children with SEN. Furthermore, Frederickson & Graham (1999) reported good reliability and validity data on the measures reported from studies carried out in schools in England with pupils who have SEN and their mainstream peers in inclusive school contexts.

A study carried out by Bauminger (2002) involving a 7-month cognitive behavioural intervention with 15 high functioning children with autism seen a major improvement, following treatment, in the children's social and emotional understanding in 3 specific areas which included social interaction with peers, problem-solving and emotional knowledge. These are all key aspects of affective social competence and functioning that schools could help improve through additional, social programmes. In addition, this could help reduce the issue of bullying in schools. It's very important that the education provision does more to ensure that children who have SEN do not experience severe social rejection due to a lack of competence and affective functioning.

The work and efforts of the Foxwood inclusion team should be imitated by all schools in order to create an education system that promotes inclusion and eliminates concerns of classroom acceptance. Numerous studies have proved that children with and without SEN experience positive effects from the social and academic interaction of children with different abilities. Kalambouka's (2007) findings from a systematic review of literature carried out by an 'Inclusion Review Group' indicates that are 'no adverse effects on pupils without SEN of including pupils with special needs in mainstream schools, with 81% of the outcomes reporting positive or neural effects.' A study carried out by Murphy, G (2007) showed that many people with intellectual difficulties and associated challenging behaviours experience a poor quality of life in particular reference to social inclusion. It's for this reason and many others that the educational service provided to children should be improved upon. Schools should be supported financially and educationally in preparing a more inclusive learning setting within mainstream classes in order to provide every pupil with an equal opportunity to succeed academically, emotionally and socially. Everyone deserves a fair chance to a high quality of life.