Mike Baldwin, Teacher at Belvue School in Northolt, shares his inspirational project which aims to help children with severe learning disabilities improve their language skills. Mike won the 2016 Let Teachers SHINE competition, which provided funding for the project.
How does the environment we teach in help enhance a child’s learning? It was this very question that led me to develop the project ‘Finding My Voice’ and help children with severe learning disabilities to learn new words and develop functional speech.
The inspiration for my project was sparked from one of my own students five years ago. At Belvue School, we work with children aged 11 to 19 who have severe and moderate learning disabilities and there was an autistic student who spent her first year in what we would call a ‘crisis’ situation, where she was more or less non-verbal.
At the back of our school we have a two-acre plot of woodland, which we use as an outdoor learning environment. Everything changed when we introduced the student to this area for the first time; instantly, her eyes lit up as she ran into the trees and started to explore the area. I must admit that there was an initial moment of panic when she disappeared, but after a short period of time we heard her calling us and speaking for the first time. It was at this moment we realised that she was displaying language skills that she hadn’t previously demonstrated before.
The woodland environment was key to this transformation by helping her explore and develop language. It made me think that if we could help one student, we could help many more, and so I began the next stage of bringing my project to life.
A remarkable difference
The woodlands project is about being able to help students find happiness and be the best that they can be. The joy I saw from this student in speaking for the first time was the catalyst to creating Finding My Voice.
If we fast forward to the present day and at the age of 18, this student is now able to communicate her basic wants and needs and get through life in a way that perhaps she wouldn’t have done before. Whilst she may not be fluent speaking, it was a remarkable difference from when she first arrived at school.
Over the past five years we have developed the project further to work with a core group of six students and have also introduced it across our 60 Key Stage 3 students. Even in its early infancy, we have seen a number of similar effects, with children grasping a much quicker acquisition of language than we’d have expected. In particular, one student with Downs Syndrome has now started to refer to himself as ‘I’ instead of by his name and making requests in three and four word sentences. While it might sound straightforward in essence, it’s quite a leap forward.
Generating a buzz
I was really pleased with the early success we were seeing from the project and speaking with other local schools I became aware that it had generated quite a bit of interest. It was at this moment, that my headteacher alerted me to the SHINE competition and having looked at the criteria, I truly believed we had an interesting project which could be developed further and utilised in other special schools.
I outlined the importance of the woodland setting, where we’ve been able to take advantage of a number of different activities for the students – whether it’s building a fire and teaching them the safety elements around it or planning a treasure hunt and asking the children to communicate to each other.
When the students arrive each morning, we help them to put on their coats, boots and gloves before going outside into the woods; in doing so they practice their organisational self-help and dressing skills. What I’ve been most fascinated by is that if the students arrive before me, they independently dress themselves. The boots aren’t always on the correct feet, and the gloves are sometimes on the wrong hands, but when I walk through the door they’re saying and signing ‘woods’ and telling me what they want to happen – digging, climbing and lighting the fire are particular favourites at the moment.
Making a special place
We’re also four months into a six-month build of a pair of woodland classrooms. They are both glass-fronted to maximise the view into the woods - one room will house our Finding My Voice class and the other will become a coffee shop where our older students will learn work-related skills. The building is both exciting and unique, and we hope will set a new standard for SEN classroom design.
Undertaking action research
We’re quite an experimental school, but in a thoughtful way, so when I’m asked what led me to using the woodland area I always reference the fact that sometimes standing up in front of the classroom and trying to teach a child to do something that they’re not ready to do hasn’t worked. It begs the question, how did the woodland environment help the children to develop their speech, and why does language seem to come quicker when it’s here?
The funding from SHINE will help me to answer these questions by undertaking action research. I’ll be conducting a study into why some of our students seem to acquire and use language in a natural, woodland environment more than they do when they are in a classroom. I’ll also be working with BA Education Studies students from London Metropolitan University’s School of Education and Social Sciences throughout the coming months, using video evidence to further understand what is happening when the children enter an outdoor environment.
By the end of it, I hope that we’ll have come up with a number of curriculum ideas to take forward including training and resources that teachers can use at other special schools.