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The following case study focuses on a Teaching Assistant’s experience of setting up a circle of friends for a pupil with Asperger’s Syndrome at an independent day school. The school offers all-round education for 1,200 boys aged from 10 to 18.
Jennie has been a Teaching Assistant at the school for nearly three years and previously worked in a large inner city comprehensive school for eight years. She has not always worked in education. It wasn’t until she started helping out at her own children’s school that she decided to swap her career in IT for one in education.
Jenny noticed a vacancy at a local school for a Learning Support Assistant and applied. She remembers: “I really enjoyed the role and because I wanted to learn as much as I could about SEN and appropriate teaching strategies I went on as many training courses as I could. I now have an ncfE Certificate in Special Needs, a Level 5 OCR Certificate in Specific Learning Difficulties and a Level 2 CPCAB Certificate in Counselling.”
Jennie’s experience at the local secondary school was a great preparation for working at her current school. There was a large special educational needs department, helping to support students with a range of difficulties, including autism. Each special educational needs teacher specialised in a different area, and visited other settings to observe best practice, and feedback to the rest of the team. It was during one of these feedback sessions, with the autism specialist, that Jennie first heard about the Carol Gray’s social stories, and the idea of forming a ‘circle of friends’ to support a pupil.
The pupil’s father’s contacted the school, concerned after a number of incidents of unkind behaviour towards his son from his classmates. The boy’s Head of Year asked Jennie to help with the situation.
The class had 22 boys, and was quite a fragmented group, with several pupils who had difficulty getting on with each other. Jennie initially spoke to the family of the pupil with Asperger’s Syndrome. She explained that she would like to speak to the class, giving a short talk about ‘differences’ and sharing their son’s diagnosis with his classmates and how they could support him. She also spoke to the pupil, who was happy with the proposal but opted not to be there during the presentation to his class.
Both the pupil’s form tutor and the Head of Year attended the presentation. Jennie started by talking about differences between people and got the class involved in suggesting examples of physical differences. She then got them to think about differences we can’t see. The boys spoke about people they knew who had differences of some kind, either medical or learning, and how they felt they should be treated. She then talked about Asperger’s Syndrome and the way that is affects individuals and, in particular, some of the difficulties that this pupil had to deal with.
At the end, she invited the boys to become part of a circle of friends for him, and was pleasantly surprised that 16 of them volunteered out of a class of 22. She set up four groups of four boys so that they could do a week on and three weeks off. They supported him both in class and at break time and lunchtime, offering a mixture of friendship and guidance.
Each Friday Jennie met up with the group to get feedback on how their week had gone.
“Many of the boys now come along every week, and not just the week when it is their group’s turn to support the pupil. They want to be involved all the time.”
Jennie found that during these meetings, the pupil with Asberger’s Syndrome could be very negative, and sometimes come across as though he didn’t appreciate the support. She took these opportunities to explain that these were examples of the type of difficulties he had in interacting with others and how easily he could be misunderstood.
At the end of the year the Head of Year awarded certificates to all the members of the circle of friends.
Jennie said: “It was so rewarding to see them all together; how supportive they had become not just for this young man, but also with each other. They had come such a long way in their understanding and tolerance.”
“In this case, the situation reached a crisis point before we addressed it. In the future I hope that we can set up something like this from the beginning.
“Every pupil is different, so spend some time getting to know them, observing and identifying difficulties, then you will be able to give other pupils and teachers strategies to help support them. It is also very useful to observe the class so you have some idea of how they interact to help you plan your discussion to be as effective as possible.
“It is important to get parents on board. I spoke at length with his father, and we exchanged many emails. His parents were very supportive and explained some of the specific difficulties he had so I could include them in my talk to his class.
“However, if you are supporting a pupil whose family do not recognise the diagnosis, and do not want this sort of support, you must respect their wishes. It would be out of the question to disclose someone’s diagnosis without both parental and pupil permission. In this case I would just have a general discussion about recognising and respecting differences in people and treating them as we would all like to be treated.”
“This pupil is much happier now, and is socialising with the other boys. There has also been a dramatic effect upon the class as a whole. They have ‘gelled’ much better as a group. They are more tolerant, thoughtful, and respectful of each other in general. The benefit therefore has not been just for this one pupil, but the whole class have gained from the experience.
“In February this year we had a very unhappy boy in school which affected everything he did. Now he is happy, full of life and enjoying a range of activities with his classmates. The most important thing is he feels included and has friends.”