Archives for April 2011

Supporting children with asthma at school

Alison Whyte Alison Whyte | 17:24 UK time, Saturday, 30 April 2011


As parents, we’re ultimately responsible for our children’s health. All children get ill from time to time, but children with asthma may need medical care at school. If your child suffers from asthma, it’s vital to arrange a meeting with the school staff before your child starts at a new school, to ensure all relevant staff know how to handle it.

Go into any nursery or classroom, and you’ll see a pile of inhalers on a shelf.  One in 11 children in the UK has asthma. Younger children will need to have a responsible adult to help manage their condition. Older children are more self sufficient. In 2009 teachers in Perth and Kinross were offered special training to learn how to provide better support for schoolchildren with asthma.

girl using inhaler @ dragon_fang -

All teachers should be made aware of a child’s condition and they must be familiar with symptoms and know when to intervene or call for help. This is especially important in secondary schools, where children move from class to class and are less well supervised as they become increasingly independent.

The Department for Education has set out guidelines for schools which should have clear, regularly updated policies about how to help children with medical conditions.  As a parent it’s important to set up a meeting to discuss how a child’s condition is managed in school as guidelines are not always followed.

There’s no reason why children with health conditions shouldn’t take part in sport. However while it’s good for PE teachers to be encouraging and inclusive, they need to be aware of a child’s limitations. Asthma UK’s Alert to Asthma programme gives teachers information about supporting children with asthma, while their Out There and Active book is really useful for parents keen to pre-empt issues before they even arise.

Going on class outings or even school trips shouldn’t be a problem, as long as staff are aware of a child’s health condition and are trained in how to manage it. Provided the right guidelines are in place and all the key staff are aware of them, asthma can be managed in a school environment and your child should be able to lead a full and active life.

Alison Whyte is a freelance journalist.

Changing school mid year

Fiona Holmer Fiona Holmer | 16:25 UK time, Wednesday, 27 April 2011


Moving house, lack of friends, poor teaching – these are some of the reasons why parents are forced into changing their child’s school and sometimes it has to be mid year. It is quite different from moving up to secondary when all Year 7 pupils are new together. It can seem very traumatic at the time, especially if your child is well settled in school, has left a good group of friends and you have just moved house. If your child is changing school following difficulties, such as parents splitting up or having been very unhappy at a previous school, it is worth having a word with the new teacher to make them aware of this.

You have to follow the same application process as you do when your child first starts school, contacting your local education authority in the first instance. Once  your child’s name is on the waiting list you cannot predict when a place might become available and if you do not take it up within a couple of weeks, you risk losing it. The offer will not always be made during a natural break in the school year either – it could come through during a holiday or at the end of the academic year as it is often triggered by a family moving away. 

student answering teacher's question @ Avava -

The reason the schools are so keen to fill places that come up mid year is that they receive funding per pupil and they never know when they might be required to provide data.  Having an empty place can make a big difference to the budget, given that the average spend for a secondary school pupil across England for 2009-2010 was £5,200 while for primary school pupil it stood at £4,284. 

I remember starting my son at a new school at the start of Year 2 as a result of our house move. It was a big step to take but meant that we would be able to walk him to school again, rather than relying on the car or public transport. And with younger children tagging along, this was a major consideration. As I accompanied him into his new classroom and said good-bye, I don’t know who was more upset him or me.

The biggest issue for children when starting out at a new school is probably the friendship one. What will the other children be like?  How will I find my way around, especially given I am the only newbie on the block. Schools are generally well versed in sorting these things out.

When my children moved school one summer term when they were aged four and seven years old, they were each assigned a buddy on the first day, to show them round. This was hugely reassuring and they enjoyed being fussed over as several children wanted to be their friends. Changing schools then had its plus points as they were able to join in with all the fun end of year activities.

Are the teachers really strict? This is another question that crops up frequently. When my daughter moved school half way through Year 8, she was pleasantly surprised to find that the school she started at was actually more laid back than her old one and detentions were not given quite as readily.

What the peer group or immediate classmates are like is a big factor and will have an impact on how quickly they settle in. At primary school how well they get on with their class teacher will be really important as they spend the majority of the school day with them.

If your child is does have to change school for whatever reason, it is worth encouraging them to view it positively – a chance to benefit from all their new school has to offer and to make some new friends, while still keeping in touch with their old ones. 

Fiona Holmer works on the BBC Parents Blog.



No need to feel blue if your child has visual dyslexia

Jo Lamiri Jo Lamiri | 19:08 UK time, Saturday, 23 April 2011


Dyslexia is a real drag... not just for the children who endure it, but for parents who are at their wits’ end trying to work out how to stop their offspring from falling behind at school. Often it is not detected in school as many teachers do not have the expertise to see when a child might be struggling with dyslexia.

An adviser to the previous government, Sir Jim Rose published a report in 2009 calling for primary school teachers to receive training to help them identify children with dyslexia and provide the support they need. The current government has not yet commented on this proposal. 

Our son, Sam, is now 15 but when he was at primary school we noticed he had a real issue with reading – he found it difficult so would never pick up a book for pleasure. 

homework @Jacek Chabraszewski -

That all changed when he was about eight. We were told about  a publisher that specialises in books for dyslexics...many of them with boy-friendly storylines (boys generally are more reluctant readers than girls and more boys than girls are dyslexic).  

The books are printed on a light cream paper and the font used is sympathetic to dyslexics, who prefer a ‘clean’ sans serif font for ease of reading; in fact, a special font, Read Regular, has been developed for dyslexics too. The stories are good: although the language used is quite straightforward, the storylines are pacey, which means that the child isn’t patronised with a baby book but still gains confidence from reading and understanding.

The main factor that helped Sam, though, was when we heard about a company that specialises in tinted lenses for glasses – imported from Japan, where this type of treatment is well established. I was initially sceptical but we went off to see a specialist for an assessment. 

Sam sat at a desk with a large lamp shining on to the page of writing. The specialist inserted a yellow-coloured slide into the lamp which shone yellow light on to the page. For Sam, this made no difference. Green then red had the same lack of effect. But when they added a blue-tinted lens Sam was astonished. “The words aren’t wobbling any more Mum!” Of course, I hadn’t realised they ever did, but just imagine how difficult that would be if you’re trying to learn to read. I had to blink back tears.

Our next step was to visit an optician that specialises in supplying coloured-lens spectacles to dyslexics. Sam’s eyes were also tested in the usual way but the optician then used lenses with different depth of blue until the optimum shade was reached. Sam has normal eyesight, so his glasses simply had coloured glass in them. 

He wore them at school and, from a reading age that was two years behind his actual age, he progressed in a few months to a reading age that tallied with his chronological age. The glasses also seemed to have a positive effect on his Maths. About a year later, Sam felt he had no more ‘wobbling’ problems and he stopped wearing the glasses. He then became an avid reader, devouring all the books other children his age were reading - amazing what a bit of blue glass can achieve.

For further information contact the Dyslexia Action and the British Dyslexia Association.

Check out the BBC Ouch page on famous dyslexics.

Jo Lamiri is a freelance writer.

Is handwriting history?

Sarah Kingsley Sarah Kingsley | 18:26 UK time, Wednesday, 20 April 2011


Last week, as I struggled to persuade my eight year-old daughter to produce neat handwriting, it occurred to me that future generations may not be required to practise writing, or even spelling, at all. What bliss, I thought, as I watched my daughter doodle on her homework, no more nagging. But would it mean no more doodling too? I’m not sure I want the swirls and flourishes of individual handwriting to be completely replaced by the uniformity of a computer generated typeface.

Certainly Ofqual’s chief executive, Isabel Nisbet, caused an outcry recently when she suggested that computerised exams should replace pen and paper tests. In reality, this is probably some way off as financial constraints and issues of security, computer quality, technical faults, typing ability and so on would need to be resolved first.

girl doing her homework carefully @ Eleonore H

However, it seems that the writing may be on the wall for the humble pen. Although handwriting is part of the national curriculum, the focus in many schools is moving away from handwriting towards keyboard skills. As computers become cheaper and new technology is introduced, handwriting could well be phased out. And with birthday cards and thank you notes already being replaced by animated e-cards and texts, children have less opportunity to hand-write. 

Still, not wishing to appear a Luddite, I asked my 12 year-old son whether it really matters if handwriting dies out. At primary school, encouraging him to write was like getting blood out of papyrus, so I was surprised at his response. He says he achieves better marks for his essays when they are handwritten rather than typed. He also admits he’s easily distracted when using the computer and tends to think more carefully when writing because it’s not as easy to change. 

In fact there is evidence that handwriting helps build sequential memory and fine motor skills. It is important for self-expression too and helps us to connect better with what we are trying to communicate. As a result, we are more likely to retain the information. 

Of course, computers can be a huge benefit to children with dyslexia and other learning difficulties, but wherever possible I believe that learning how to handwrite, spell and understand grammar enables us to make better use of technology. There is a digital pen, which allows the user to upload handwritten notes onto a computer – this may gain greater prominence in schools in the future and combine the traditional skill of handwriting and all its merits with new technology.

In the meantime, writing with pen and paper is still very much part of the curriculum and the examination system. The primary school years are a crucial time for us to support schools in teaching our children to learn to write and spell with confidence.

If children struggle with handwriting, this can hinder their progress later on, so it’s worth encouraging them to write whenever possible at home. Younger children can help write shopping lists, birthday cards, menus, postcards, invitations, recipes, messages – the more fun and practical the better. Older children may enjoy making and writing a mini-book, writing down football teams and scores, writing to a pen-pal or writing a diary. Even doodling and drawing help to develop fine motor skills.

Reading and writing are strongly linked, so reading with our children makes it easier for them to connect sounds and letters, which in turn helps with spelling. As for those dreaded thank you letters, a combination of a computer-designed card with a handwritten message inside may be the way forward!

Sarah Kingsley is a freelance writer and a member of the BBC Parent Panel.

Take a look at CBeebies Grown-ups 'Learning to write' page.

Too Young for School?

Claire Winter Claire Winter | 08:51 UK time, Sunday, 17 April 2011


I’m still waiting to hear what school my three and a half year-old twin girls are going to in September. By then they will only be four and three months and I am concerned that they just won’t be ready to go. They were born prematurely and are still young for their age.

Last year saw the first intake of rising fives to all the local schools in our area. And when I see the foundation stage children in the playground, I can’t help wondering whether another year at a pre-school or nursery in a less formal setting, might have been a better option for them all - particularly when children in other European countries, like Finland or Denmark, don’t start their formal education until they are six or seven years old.

young girl playing at Montessori pre-school @ Monkey Business -

Labour changed the schools admission policy in 2009. It now means that all children have the option of starting school in the September after their fourth birthday. Before, children born in the summer often moved on to primary school in the January or April before they turned five. Where we live it was the term after they turned five.

The school my eldest goes to has built a beautiful new classroom and play area for the fresh intake of children. They are doing a great job accommodating the youngest members of the school.

But some parents have raised concerns about the day being too long for the children. In response, the school and governors did consult the parents about shortening the day for the younger children. This wasn’t implemented because there were too many objections, although they are still considering it as an option for the foundation stage.

We don’t have to send our girls in September, we can keep them at their nursery and at home for one or two more terms and then send them to school in the Spring or the Summer term instead. 

Our dilemma is this: I worry that delaying the start for two more terms will cause them to lag behind their peers, even though there is also lots of evidence that starting too young can be stressful.

According to a review of primary education led by Cambridge University in 2009, children should not start school until they turn six as school is stressful and young pupils’ needs are often not being met. It argued that reception children should have more space, time for play and equipment suitable for their age.

One of the main arguments put forward by the government of the time was that this change in policy would counter the fact that summer born children fare worse in exams.

It is well documented that summer born babies are less likely to achieve good GCSEs and A-levels results or go to university, than kids born in earlier in the school year. It is hoped that sending them to school earlier, will reverse this trend.

Perhaps it is time that school admissions and classes were looked at from a different perspective. Why not put children in classes by ability rather than purely by age? In America and in France, it is common for children to stay back a year if they haven’t reached the expected academic standards and brighter students are sometimes moved up a year.

As a parent I do have some options and I am grateful for that. Regarding my twin girls starting school, the current plan for September is to ‘wait and see’. If I think they’re not ready to go to school, I will keep them at home for as long as I can.

Claire Winter is a member of the BBC Parent Panel.

Gardening with kids

Hannah Hunter Hannah Hunter | 16:56 UK time, Wednesday, 13 April 2011


Spring has definitely sprung and the young shoots and buds are emerging everywhere.  With nature bursting out from winter hibernation and with the sun finally visible, there’s no better time to get outdoors. Gardening and outdoor learning in general, has become very popular in many schools - growing plants provides a perfect opportunity for first-hand observation. What better way to learn about life cycles than to watch a seed germinate and grow? Or how about teaching healthy eating by actually growing your own food?

There are many other, less obvious, ways in which the national curriculum can be delivered through gardening, from scientific learning through to literacy and numeracy projects . And schools don’t need to have huge outside spaces to grow things in – a small container garden can provide plenty of inspiration for teachers and children alike.

small green plant in child's palms @ sunlu4ik -

It’s not simply the novelty value of being out of the classroom that gets children enthused.  Studies by the RHS (Royal Horticultural Society) have shown that children are happier and learn better if they attend schools that encourage gardening.  Many will behave better and achieve more when learning outdoors – the charity, council for learning outside the classroom, insists that the confidence of children who may not be doing well academically can be boosted by this different approach to learning.

If your children’s school doesn’t have a garden and you have some experience, why not offer your help set up a growing space, or help out with the gardening club.  For the less brave, there’s a lot you can do at home, whether you have a garden of your own or not.

Growing something edible is great for encouraging healthy eating, as well as being able to closely observing a plant grow.  CBeebies’ Mr Bloom, who has an allotment of talking vegetables, has transformed my four year-old from vegetable-hater into vegetable-lover overnight (though his love has yet to extend to tasting ‘Colin’ the runner bean, but we live in hope…). This cress head is a perennial favourite, and will give quick results, perfect for impatient young children.  Another great way to observe germination is to grow a bean plant in a jam jar. You can clearly see the root and shoot development, and can grow it on any windowsill.

Encouraging gardening at home can be anything from growing a single seed in a pot to letting your children take over a whole section of your garden or allotment.  You don’t need to be an expert yourself – simply discussing what you can see happening, and helping them to care for plants provides a valuable, and enjoyable learning experience for your child.

Hannah Hunter is a member of the BBC Parent Panel.

Take a look at BBC Gardening with children.

Find out about the One Pot Pledge

Adopting an older child

Fiona Holmer Fiona Holmer | 15:30 UK time, Tuesday, 12 April 2011


Maybe you saw the programme on adoption, that went out yesterday on BBC2 ‘A Home for Maisie’. 

Featuring an eight year-old girl who has two failed adoptions behind her, Maisie is adopted by Jim and Sue Clifford. We see how hard it can be to adopt an older child. They have already been through the process with their eight older children so they know it can be very rewarding, even if it's not always easy.

Often therapy is needed if a child has suffered abuse when younger, but if issues can be worked through, the outcome for them is infinitely preferable to going into care. Being welcomed into a loving family whom she can trust gradually transforms Maisie. Sue writes: 'We have helped Maisie not only to trust, but also to experience feeling cared for, nurtured'.

The Clifford family with Maisie

You can read Sue Clifford's blog on her experiences.

If you missed the programme, why not catch it on BBC i-Player?

Fiona Holmer works on the BBC Parents Blog.

Holiday activities for the Easter break

Rachel Newcombe Rachel Newcombe | 16:50 UK time, Thursday, 7 April 2011


By the time the Easter holidays arrive, children are often in need of a break from school, and parents may welcome the break from the daily school run. As well as having a much needed rest, there are plenty of activities you can do as a family to keep children of all ages active and entertained throughout the holidays.

If your children enjoy making things, then Easter-themed crafts can keep them busy for a while. Good staples include making Easter cards, creating a miniature Easter garden, making Easter decorations for your home or decorating eggs. If you’re opting to decorate eggs, hard boil some eggs, leave them to cool, then decorate them with painted designs, or transform them into shiny creations with glue and glitter (decorated eggs are best not eaten, so keep these for decorative purposes only!).

Easter @ Pershing -

The Make and colour section of the CBeebies website is a great source of inspiration for more craft activities. The Funky Birds Nest activity is particularly appropriate for this time of year, as you can make a nest with little chicks to go inside it, then fill it up with mini chocolate eggs when Easter arrives.

For edible Easter goodies, why not have a baking session? These delicious Easter egg nests are perfect for children of all ages to make, as they don’t require much cooking - the hardest part may be waiting for them to set before eating them! Older children could try making hot cross buns or traditional simnel cake.

In theory, the spring weather should bring with it some sunny days, but whether it’s sunny or not, it’s always good to get out and about in the fresh air. A good free activity for an afternoon is a nature walk in the countryside. If you’re feeling organised, you could prepare a list of things to spot, or make it up as you go along. Good seasonal natural aspects to spot include ducks, ducklings, swans, cygnets, different shaped leaves, lambs, blossom on trees or spring flowers. 

Alternatively, you could have a refreshing walk by the sea, collecting seashells along the way or looking in rock pools to see what life you can see. For children who love exploring nature, the Wildlife Trust often runs good events for children, especially in school holidays. You can search for events in your area on their website.

If you’ve got bikes, or don’t mind hiring them, then another nice way of spending a morning or an afternoon is to go on a family bike ride. For cycle route ideas, check out Sustrans. If the weather turns windy, you could try your hand at teaching your children to fly a kite.

A visit to a National Trust property is a favourite for us and there are usually Easter-themed activities for children, such as special trails around the gardens. The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) hosts child-friendly events too, such as the Easter weekend family garden trail at RHS Wisley.

One of the highlights of the Easter holidays when I was young was taking part in an Easter egg hunt and it’s great fun to re-create this for the younger generation. It doesn’t have to be anything elaborate or large scale, and it can be inside or out. Simply hunting for a secret hidden egg can provide heaps of excitement for young children.

You could also look out for an organised Easter egg hunt taking place locally. For an atmospheric location, the Forestry Commission is running various egg hunts in forests in England, Scotland and Wales. Enjoy England also have some Easter egg hunts listed.

The sound of several weeks off over the Easter holidays may seem like a lot to fill, but when you’ve packed it full of varied activities, the time will fly! 

Rachel Newcombe is a freelance writer.

How we accessed mainstream SEN provision to get an education for our children

Ellen Power | 15:11 UK time, Friday, 1 April 2011


I have two children who have special educational needs (SEN): William is 12 years old and was diagnosed with severe verbal dyspraxia when he was four, and Peter is now 14 and has Asperger’s syndrome, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and dyspraxia. They both attend a mainstream secondary school and Peter is a pupil in the school’s specialist Asperger’s support unit.

When I look back to when my children were small, I am struck by how utterly complex they were, and how indescribably difficult it was to carve out a path for them through the education system.

elementary school pupils running outside @ monkey business -

On the one hand we had Peter, who appeared to be terribly intelligent, but had very limited social skills and was socially excluded by his classmates and their parents. He was bullied to within an inch of his sanity in primary school and when he joined the Asperger’s unit at secondary school, it was a crisis placement. There was simply no other school in our county that could have met his needs. Without this school, he would have had to have gone to a residential school that specialised in Asperger’s syndrome and we would have all found this extremely difficult.

Then we had William, who was diagnosed with severe verbal dyspraxia and motor dyspraxia when he was four years old. He also suffered from bullying. All of these things impacted greatly on his childhood development and on his progress at nursery and school. William got his statement when he was four, and Peter when he was nine years old.

A statement of SEN is the document issued by the local authority after it has carried out a statutory assessment of a child’s special educational needs. It details the child’s SEN and sets out the provision necessary to meet them. For more information on statements, read this useful BBC article.

It was not easy to get statements for our children. We were fortunate enough to have a very good health visitor but once the children started school, we were pretty much on our own, in terms of finding out about help they could access. Many hours were spent on the phone as I tried to track down things that could help. I chased placements in specialist speech and language and Asperger’s support units like a mad woman!  I stalked teachers after school for ‘a quick five minutes’ to talk about education concerns or, much more frequently, bullying incidents. 

We wrote what seemed like mountains of letters and stacked reports in boxes as they came through the letter box. We challenged education officials and threatened them with legal action and with the press. We appealed to the Tribunals Service, Special Educational Needs and Disability on behalf of our children on more than one occasion. These parent support organisations were extremely helpful to us during this time: the Independent Panel for Special Educational Advice (IPSEA), the Dyspraxia Foundation, the National Autistic Society, Contact a Family and the Advisory Centre for Education (ACE). At last in 2006, I was able to say that both of my children had the statements they needed.

Was it worth it? Did we get it right? William is now integrated into his school with support from teaching assistants to help him with organisation, getting his work down in class and to help him manage other learning needs. He is doing well in school, is musical, and has friends. Peter is now doing eight GCSEs and one AS level. After years of academic failure and not being able to get his work done without a scribe (someone to write for him), he has succeeded at secondary school and can now type enough words to do his own essays. He has to date completed six essays on his own, with no intervention or help from anyone else and is getting A grades for them, even though his own handwriting is still very rudimentary.

He is also musical, artistic (despite severe fine motor difficulties) and is planning to go to university. He has friends, which for children with Asperger’s is a significant achievement. None of this would have been possible without the right therapies and help in school. My message to parents is this: if you are concerned that your child may have SEN and you believe they need more help in school, don’t wait to see how things will turn out. Start to look at your options now and keep on pushing for the support your child needs.

Ellen Power is an author and writes the ‘Guerrilla Mum' blog.

Listen to a podcast of BBC Radio 4 Woman's Hour which features Ellen Power.

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