An open letter on the Importance of Early Intervention, to Minister for Education and Skills, Richard Bruton TD

15 August 2016

Richard Bruton TD, Minister for Education snd Skills Dáil Éireann,
Kildare Street,
Dublin 2.

An open letter on the Importance of Early Intervention, to Minister for Education and Skills, Richard Bruton TD

Dear Minister Bruton,

I hope this letter finds you well. As I said in my previous letter to you on July 4th, it is my intention to write to you each month outlining some issues I have identified in the special education system in Ireland. A copy of this letter will also be sent to the NCSE. As you are the Minister for Education and Skills, I feel it is of the utmost importance that both you and the NCSE continue to receive these letters, as you have the power with a circular to effect a change in the system. Please allow me to take this opportunity to thank you for welcoming my first contribution so warmly in July.

It can sometimes be difficult to measure in quantifiable terms the importance of early intervention in a child’s education, but I can say from my personal viewpoint as a service user for over 20 years, it lays a foundation both educationally and socially for a child’s development and growth in society. Educational benefits aside for the moment, the early years of children’s school experience designs the slate they will base many of their social interactions on – a good social experience in school helps a child to develop their confidence in social situations.

As a child with a disability that was sometimes misunderstood, I wasn’t always afforded this positive growing experience. As I mentioned in my previous letter to you, my disability has resulted in severe sight loss, and some coordination issues. To put it to you quite simply Minister, I was a little girl in a big classroom who couldn’t read the blackboard or see clearly any demonstration by our teacher whenteachingushowtodrawlettersandnumbers. Thisoftenledtomeaskingquestionsofthe teacher that were already answered on the board or during her demonstration. As you can imagine, this would often lead to teasing by other kids about me not being as smart as them – but also to teachers forming the opinion that I wasn’t a good listener or that I was a child with a short attention span. Withbothofthoseopinionstocontendwith,Igrewintoayoungchildwithaverylow opinion of myself and my ability to learn.

While I still tried my best to learn at the same rate as my peers, I often missed out on parts of a lesson because I was afraid I may ask a question that was already answered on the board, but that I hadn’t seen because of my severely short sight. Although I sat at the very top of the classroom, I still could rarely read the board without the use of a small handheld scope. I also needed to use a handheldmagnifiertoreadmybooks. AndbecauseIwassuchanobviouslydifferentchildtomy

classmates, I ended up being treated differently by many of them and their parents; I was never picked for PE teams even when I was the only child left; I was unable to identify my friends at lunchtime break and often would play alone unless another child came to me; I was excluded from birthday parties of my fellow pupils.

In the early years of a child’s primary education, playtime and PE play a very big role in the school day,andsoagainit’swhereachildisexpectedtolearnandgrowtheirsocialskills. Manyofmy teachers tried their best to encourage the class to include me, but children will always follow the lead of their parents. And because their parents saw me as a child with special needs that they did not understand, they felt the best option was to exclude me. Not all children in my class did, but unfortunately the majority did, and so it coloured my social and emotional view of myself as I grew up. Our social experiences are just as important as our educational experiences in our early years, and as such, I feel there must come a change in Ireland’s approach to early intervention towards a more inclusive one.

Having dealt with the social aspects of early intervention, I would like to now focus briefly on the educational aspects of it – I say briefly here because I have seen during the research for my Masters thesis that there is already a wealth of information on the importance of early educational intervention for children with all manner of special educational needs. From personal experience, I know the value of early intervention in my own education – I know the value of it because I did not have it and because of this I struggled.

As I mentioned above, I could not always follow the blackboard demonstrations of my teachers, and although they did their best to assist me, they also had twenty-eight plus other children to teach. Due to the lack of a special needs assistant to help me with understanding what I was unable to see, I could not follow many of my earliest lessons on reading and writing, and I fell behind significantly. For many years I could not read as well as my classmates because I had failed to learn the spelling of many every-day words. I did notice an improvement when my school was eventually allocated resource hours which allowed me to have one-on-one tuition – but in reality my resource teacher and I were only ever playing catchup to everything I had already missed.

To this day, my mathematics ability is limited at best, and I attribute this deficiency to my failure to learn basic maths skills as a child, which in itself was a failure of the educational system to support me. I also have limited writing abilities – I consciously avoid many situations that require me to writeorfilloutformsasmyconfidencewasconsistentlyshatteredasachildlearningtowrite. I generally write lists in block capitals as my fine-motor skills and co-ordination is restricted by my sight. Again, this was another issue I faced in school while learning to write which was often misunderstood by teachers as laziness, and misunderstood by classmates as stupidity.

Having considered the differences I have seen between my own situation as a child in the nineties, and the supports offered to children now, I am heartened to see there has been such a vast and consistent improvement to the supports offered to children, and also to the training given to teachers in terms of understanding the special needs of children with education needs. I would like to

applaud you Minister for continuing to reinforce the provision of these services. Having completed my Masters thesis in special education service provision, I am fully aware that money as a resource itself is always in demand across the education sector as a whole.

However, I would like to take this second letter in my series to you to note some of the suggestions I feel could make improvements in the education sector from the point of view of a service user. As I detailed above, social interactions form a very big part of the early years of any child’s education, and I feel that by using more inclusive teaching methods, teachers and schools can often avoid many of the rather harsh situations I found myself in as a child. These methods might include giving oral instructions to a child with a reading or vision impairment, so that the child won’t end up in the situation of missing out on a direction or demonstration they are unable to read from a blackboard. Other examples of successful teaching methods in other European countries have included concept based teaching for children on the Autism spectrum; demonstrations with oral descriptions for children with vision or reading impairments; team-teaching strategies for children with learning disabilities etc.

Simple differences here can be identified by a teacher or special needs assistant, but often need the approval or support of department officials or visiting teachers which in itself would require more flexibility from the education system. There is also a cultural change which will need to happen in conjunction with this – a change in the way children with disabilities are viewed not only by their teachers but also by parents and other children. During my time in school, the needs of a child like me were often misunderstood and left me in situation where I was ostracised by others which has had a long-lasting effect on my self-esteem and confidence to this day. I would very much welcome an age-appropriate lesson-time for children to help them understand that those with disabilities aren’t to be feared, or “broken’’ – they are children who are the same as them, but may need extra help in some situations. This can assist us in developing a more inclusive and accepting society, but it can also prevent later issues surrounding a fear of school, low self-esteem, and the development of social anxiety and related mental health disorders in Ireland’s children and young teens.

Again, I appreciate you taking the time to read this correspondence Minister. I feel Ireland is working well in terms of its objectives with early intervention in schools, but that there must be a social-focus to this as well as the educationally-based approach, as both can have far-reaching and long-lasting effects on Ireland’s next generation of school-goers with special education needs.

I look forward to hearing from you, Is mise le meas,
Jessica Ní Mhaoláin, BSc., MBS.

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Iris Dances Around the Room

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Nystagmus – a mouthful of a word.  A condition I am still trying to understand.  But a condition which has effected me along with albinism since birth.  Medical and health professionals describe Nystagmus as “an involuntary, often rapid, movement of the eyes”.  This description will ring true for so many sufferers of nystagmus around the globe.

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There are a number of nicknames given to it; ‘dancing eyes’, ‘wobbly eyes’, ‘shivering eyes’, the list goes on and on.  For me, I personally used to call them “my shivery eyes”.  And I was really lucky because all throughout my schooling, my friends were used to it.  Once or twice we even used it to scare a stranger – my shakey eyes were my party piece if you like!  We used to have great fun with it.

It was in later life that I began to have a few issues with it.  Teachers would often remark that I ‘had a dreamy look’ while they taught me.  This seems to be a common complaint of educators of children and young adults with nystagmus – the lack of eye control and increased movement leads teachers to think you aren’t paying attention.  This is further compounded by additional sight issues if they ask you to go through what they have just written on the board – nine times out of ten you obviously cannot read it.

On a personal level, there are definitely things I find will exacerbate my nystagmus.  In general, most people tell me it isn’t very noticeable unless I am straining to focus on something.  But if I have been stressed out – exam time for example – the shaking gets far worse and becomes very noticeable to myself and others.  Similarly, if I have had a run of 2 or more nights where I haven’t had enough sleep, its a similar situation – more pronounced shaking.  The video below was recorded during a week where I was heavily reliant on my laptop – spending almost 5 to 8 hours finishing assignments.  All eyeball and eyelid movements you will see in this video are entirely involuntary.

This was definitely one of those times where it was at its worst.  But as I said, most of the time, those instances are few and far between.

So, have I described nystagmus correctly? And how do my readers find it affects them or their child/children?  I’m sure its not the same for us all.  For further information, check out the Nystagmus Network!

10 Things to Remember During Leaving Cert Season

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1.  For the love of God, STAY CALM!

Everyone will tell you this; your parents, the local priest, all your teachers, and especially your friends.  In fact, you may have friends that will brag about how calm they are.  Remember, this is a front they’re putting on.  Its near impossible to stay perfectly calm before you sit the Leaving – it is kind of a big deal.  But don’t let it take over your life.  At the end of the day, it’s a long exam over a few weeks in June.  Think of it that way, and don’t put the ‘college pressure’ on while your sitting it.

2.  Do not, under any circumstances, organise a ‘study group’ with friends. 

Harsh but true.  Study groups during school hours are okay, and some schools encourage students to study in groups during free periods.  But a group with anymore than three people will end in a gossip session about who wore what, or how last weekends rugby game went.  It’s even less productive when its a group of close friends.  If you do set up a study group, pick two different topics to cover over 90 minutes and take short breaks.

3.  Limit your procrastination.

Procrastinating over study will be a problem in your academic life forevermore.  And if you can find a way to avoid it, please let the rest of the world know!  It’s pointless advising you not to procrastinate, so why not procrastinate in a productive manner?  If you want to go shopping for something, make a list of household or personal items you need, and time yourself to see how fast you can get around the shop or department store.  Maybe a good use of procrastination time would be to clean out your room or wash the family pet?  Again, limit your time.  Even organising subject notes is a good use of procrastination!

4.  Eat well.

Study fuel is key during Leaving Cert season.  Fresh fruits, cereal, flavoured milk and smoothies are all study favourites, and for the most part they can be healthy too.  The key to study fuel is twofold; it must be tasty and it should be healthy and energising.  Avoid heavy meals and foods that encourage bloating like bread or a greasy bag of chips until after an exam.  You don’t want to be sitting in the hall trying to write about Shakespeare and growing a food baby at the same time!

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5.  Schedule some nap time.

There’s only so much study fuel you can consume during the weeks long study regime before you’ll start to burn out, so don’t forget to set aside some nap time during study time too.  The most productive naps are the ones that last between 10 and 20 minutes, so you can stay fresh and alert without getting too sleepy.

6.  Make up rhymes to remember tricky formulas or theorems. 

This is a great way to remember phrases or formulas for your Science, Maths or English papers.  The best thing to do is try and make a rhyme out of a short phrase, or better yet even sing information along to your favourite songs.  For example, if you want to remember the stages of mitosis, the phrase ‘I Party Monday And Tuesday’ is handy – Interphase, Prophase, Metaphase, Anaphase, Telophase.  You’ll be rhyming and learning in no time!

7.  Buy two of everything. 

Stocking up on study supplies is crucial for surviving the Leaving Cert.  Past Leaving Certee’s will tell you numerous stories about how they ran out of ink or how their calculator battery died half-way through an exam.  So make sure to have a well stocked pencil case, the Noah’s Arc of pencil cases if you will.  Two biro’s of each colour, two pencils, two erasers, two rulers, two compasses, and two calculators.

8.  Make plenty of flash cards.

Well-written flashcards are the saviour of any crammer in the run up to an exam.  Most people will use them to remember key points in all subjects, but a hidden trick is to devote some cards to themes you know will come up, and themes you can’t always remember correctly.  They will come in handy for younger siblings studying after you too, which earn you major brownie points with the parents.

9.  Pack your bag the night before.

This advice from the mouth of Irish Mammy’s all across the country, but to give them their due, its true.  There’s nothing worse than the mad rush the morning of a maths exam when you’re trying to find your pencil case or a calculator.  They were both on the table the night before and have now vanished – are there Borrower’s living in the house?!

10.  Be kind to yourself

Goes without saying really, doesn’t it?  You’re doing your best, be proud of it!

And remember…..

All this advice applies to studying when you’re in third level too!!

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That September Feeling

So, here we are. On the road back to education after a fun, hot, long summer… Well, at least my summer was!

That fear is starting to wash over me again, the fear I know a lot of others, both students and parents, will feel too. It’s a kind of strange apprehension isn’t it? That feeling of what might be facing you or your child this year, in terms of how their sight will affect their education and socializing this year.

“Have they cut his/her resource hours again?”
“What will the other kids think if I can’t recognize them?”
“I hope someone doesn’t ask me to read something off the board.”

I’ve dealt with That September Feeling every year since I was about 12. And it would be a lie to say you don’t feel it every year, but it does begin to bother you less and less every year. The worst that feeling ever was, was the year I went into Leaving Cert – absolute nightmare! Imagine what it was like to have the “points race” on top of the September Feeling?! It will send you a little crazy, it will send your kids a little crazy – it will drive your parents absolutely up the walls! … But isn’t that a parents job really? To over-think and over-worry about their kids? No matter their ability?

So what’s your story this September? Have you been suffering That September Feeling too?

My story is that I’m starting a masters in a few weeks time. You’d think after spending four years at an undergrad in a college where the Disability Support Service is second to none, I wouldn’t be apprehensive? You’d be so wrong to think that! Going in this September is just like starting again for me. There are new people, new lecturers, a new department and a new building. It’s like information overload for the girl who relies on her memory and not sight to get around.

I’m learning to combat my September Feeling though. For me, it’s all about organization really, organizing yourself and organizing the people around you that you depend on. I’ve planned my year in terms of how to study and when to study so I don’t tire out my eyes – if you suffer from a nystagmus like I do, study and time planning is unbelievably important! I’m also going in to meet with my lady in the DSS tomorrow too – again this comes around to organizing the help you’ll think you’ll need. Planning is such a good help to me when I’m trying to combat That September Feeling.

So, as I’ve asked before. How do you combat your September Feeling? Do you have That September Feeling this year? Let me know – I’d love some feedback on it!

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Well That’s School Covered

For me, there was always a massive difference between education and school.  I’ve always loved being educated and learning new things, but I never, ever liked school.  I think it was mix of things; part of it was the simple fact that school for a child like me wasn’t school for a typical 4 or 5 year old.  And another side of it was that I was probably one of those kids who just didn’t enjoy school anyway, regardless of my needs.

 

School for a kid like me was awkward and full of questions related to that awkward ness.

“Mammy, why can’t I write things down from the blackboard? Everyone else can”

“Mammy, why do I always have to sit at the front all the time?”

“How come no one will pick me for their team in PE? Why am I always left until last?”

 

I started school in the mid-nineties, and I pull no punches when I say that there was next to no supports for a child with special needs.  There was nothing.  Most of what I remember in the way of supports was a few hours of resource a week and having to use vision aides during class time.   And they were really awful aides to use! One was a hand held magnifier that was quite thick and round, really it would’ve been better used as a paperweight!  Another was a handheld telescope type thing for seeing the blackboard or whiteboard.  I mean, imagine being 5, 6, 7 years of age and having to use stuff that makes you stick out so obviously?!  Because kids can be harsh, it’s just their nature to say what they think.  So a lot of the time I’d do my best to avoid using them, I wanted to be just like my friends and my way of doing that as a child was to pretend nothing was wrong and that I didn’t need these things.  That culminated in me falling behind, in terms of spelling and maths – things that are primarily done on a blackboard.

 

That being said, things definitely improved towards the end of primary school, when Special Needs Assistants (SNA’s) were introduced to primary and second level.  The help that comes from someone sitting down and taking notes for you when you’re dealing with a severe vision problem can make a huge difference to learning.  And I can say without doubt that if it wasn’t for the help of my SNA’s (most of which I’m still in contact with because you do become that friendly), I probably still would be that little girl who struggled to spell properly and couldn’t do maths very well.

 

College.  Well now, that’s a whole different ballgame altogether.  I can truly say that it was in college that I really came out of my shell.  It’s a total cliché but entirely true!  It’s where I really began to enjoy being “in school” as opposed to being educated, I can now enjoy the two hand in hand – and that’s how it should be!  Now, I’d be lying if I said it was a breeze, it’s not.  The nature of my vision problem dictates that my eyes “get tired” as the day goes on and that’s an obvious problem when you have days in the week where its 9-5 lectures.  The college system of applying for help is different and I think that has a big impact.  If you enter as a DARE (Disability Access Route to Education) student, or when you enter normally you can register with your colleges’ disability support service.  They’re the ones responsible for ensuring your needs are assessed and catered for.  In my case, most supports I’ve needed or asked for I’ve been granted, which is mostly a note taker, exam supports and sometimes learning supports.  Learning supports might seem like an odd one because I have a note taker but it’s not always easy to gel together what’s on lecture slides to the notes, especially when you’re mostly relying on sound and speech to learn like I do.  I found the social side of college much easier than the clique type thing that goes on in secondary school.  In secondary school, everyone’s fighting to become top dog and cliques form according to music taste, fashion sense etc.  Whereas in college, you have your class, societies and clubs to get involved in, and it’s much easier to integrate that way.  You (generally) lose that self-consciousness you had as a teenager and become more comfortable in your own skin, disability or no disability.

 

To be honest, I do think some of my dislike to school could have been avoided had my parents known what supports I’d need.  Special needs education was only really in its infancy (pardon the pun!) when I started school, and there was a definite “them and us” mentality when it came to approaching the Department of Education for supports.  Because most parents with their first child in school with special needs won’t know what supports their child needs.  Of course they don’t, they’ve never dealt with this before!  The parents are trying to navigate what supports their child needs and how to get them, and they generally did that with the help of a department official who was constantly worried about their bottom line.  Simply put, when I was in school, the parents and kids never had an advocate, there was no third party there to say “I think this would help your child – let’s apply for it”.

 

When I saw the NCSE (National Council for Special Education) had printed a booklet to help parents out with this in recent weeks, I was delighted.  I really was!  It’s great that parents will finally have impartial information from the body that is there to support them and their children during their school years.  Having read the booklet myself, which is available here, it’s extremely comprehensive.   The moderators have fully explained exactly what services children can avail of, and what they may need to do to get these, in terms of evidence.  They are very honest about what services a child should or should not get, and they deal with real practicalities for children starting school with any kind of special need.  I think this type of publication will go a really long way to helping give parents a direction when their kids are starting school, which is a massive help to the child.  However, one thing that the NCSE has failed to address within this publication is the vast amount of cuts across the board to children with all manner of special needs.  With the number of cuts to special needs children’s’ supports in recent education budgets, its vital parents begin now to acquaint themselves with the supports their children will need along the way.  Above all, parents are the ones who will do the most amount of fighting for their children (whether the kids ever realise this or not!), and they have a better chances of winning battles with the Department of Education when they’ve fully equipped themselves with the information.

 

I’d like to finish this blog post by asking for some feedback.  What are your experiences of dealing with the support networks for your child, or perhaps for yourself?  Were there some major roadblocks you came up against when fighting for your right to education?  I’m really interested to hear the stories of some others and I’d love to get a bit of conversation going, especially for something as vital as this topic.

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