Learning from lucy

So today Lucy asked me if i thought a risk was a good thing. Yes, Lucy asked this. Lucy who is 6.

..and so ensued a conversation about where she had heard the word ‘risk’, what she thought it meant, what it actually meant and to be honest I think I’ve not had as educated a conversation in a long time. And it was with my 6 year old!

Lucy is an enigma. She’s an old soul. Don’t get me wrong, Lucy can be 6 with the rest of them, but she has this wee air of ‘I’m playing along with this’ that is a wonder to watch. We learn a lot from Lucy. Her observations often sum up a conversation in a phrase or two (remember like Jerry Springer used to do in his piece to camera at the end of each show?!).

Lucy is a sensitive wee soul. In more ways than one. Sensitive in that from across the room she can give you a look that says ‘you need a hug.. I’ll be there in a minute.. here’s a special air hug to do you until I get there’. Sensitive in that if we meet people she’s not met before she feels the need to explain Amy to them.. sensitive in that she picks up on details few adults do and can make your day by complementing them..sensitive in that she has princess and the pea syndrome (it’s a real thing).. she cannot wear jeans. Can’t. She can’t wear tops with lines on them, trousers, anything baggy or anything with a collar. We’re limited to the dallas cowboys cheerleader look (shorts and welly boots). But she rocks it.

Last week was mothers day. We tried on about 8 dresses before we left the house. She tried to hold it in but couldn’t… in the end she said ‘mum, I’m sorry, you just can’t make me a different person’.. and you know what, I don’t want to. I’m so proud of my fiesty cheerleader. Those traits that make her headstrong, bossy and a wee know it all will make her a decisive, single minded leader in her own time. So why would I want to change that?  Sure, the 6 changes of clothes a day, all of them trampy, are a pain.. but she knows what she likes..

I do however need to work on her self image. It’s so important with wee girls that they don’t feel the need to please others or dress for others. As adults you know we do it. When dressing for a function or event, you dress to impress the other women, not the men (not that the men would notice anyway?!). With girls I think we need to work on making sure we are dressing for how you feel, not how you look (I can say this as a size 18.. there I said it!).

What’s really sad though is the power that clothes have over how Lucy feels about herself. This goes beyond how the clothes physically feel, which in itself is a very real issue for her, but how she actually feels wearing them. It’s unfortunate that unless her skirt is grazing the top of her thigh (at 6!), she feels frumpy. Now i hasten to add that she didnt learn that here! Her sense of self needs some work.. she has so much to feel good about.

Not school yet though. Lucy thinks like a(n at least) 9 year old. She has an auditory processing issue which means that she’s struggling to break words down to spell or to read. Lucy is however so expressive and when she describes a feeling or analogy, she’s just got it.. she also has wisdom beyond this lifetime. She can see through an issue right to the lesson to be learnt from it. We often sit back and smile (sometimes even when we should be telling her off) as she describes why she’s doing the thing we’re telling her not to do, rather than just stopping.

Talking to her in the car the other day I realised that of course teaching her like a just turned 6 year old won’t work. She doesn’t think like a just turned 6 year old. She asked why the ‘y’ on the end of her name didn’t sound like ‘yu as in yoghurt’.. oh the perils of English eh?! So I explained that letters are clever. They sound different depending on where in the word they are found. So on the end of her name it sounds like ‘ee’.. like Amy, Mummy, Daddy, Granny…  that made sense to her. Phonics teaches each letter sound first. Then you relearn digraphs and then relearn phonemes…

Whilst i am totally subscribed to the ‘they learn when they are ready’ camp, Lucy has been born ready and is just not getting it. I’m going to go off piste and teach Lucy the facts..and respect that she’ll be able to cope with that. I’m also making ‘flash cards’ (boy i dislike that title) to stimulate the visual learner in her, by giving words like ‘there’, ‘this’ and  ‘she’ pictures for her to visualise.. She loves to write and always comes to check if what she’s written is spelt properly. It completely wrecks her head if you say no. So i usually explain that she’s got the sounds right. I can make it out..


I lof yooy mum. (Y as in yoghurt sound at the end of the word ‘you’)

Choosdaay (tuesday)

Brd tbll (bird table).. we can’t  master vowels.

My granny loved the English language. Most years we got English grammar books for Christmas and you often got your thank you letters posted back to you with the corrections done in red pen. She felt that grammar was so important that the worst thing you could do was let yourself down with poor grammar. She’d be very disappointed with the number of sentences that I’ve started with ‘And’!

But (there’s another no no!), time moves on and styles change, teaching methods change and our understanding of learning adapts and progresses.

Plus, I live with Lucy. Things will never be the same again, including my understanding of learning. I think it’s so important to respect what she does know and how she thinks and above all to ensure her self esteem doesn’t dip at all.

I’ve learnt more from this tiny adult than I’ve ever learnt in a book and I’m excited to see how much more there is to know. Xx






each child matters…

As part of my topic at the conference last week, I showed some data slides to the delegates, demonstrating how whilst working with a small child, they have the opportunity to influence the family and the wider community (the child not registered with a GP by age 5, will be the child who has poor attendance at school and the child with poor results on leaving school and the young adult with little in the way of job prospects). Interestingly this is true no matter where you live. I was challenged by a delegate for implying therefore that disadvantage doesn’t matter; doesn’t impact on life chances.

Of course it does – all the evidence shows that children from disadvantaged areas (usually measured by indices of deprivation, NIMDM 2010) have significantly more obstacles in their lives, which impact on their ability to learn and their future life chances. However, in researching for last week’s conference topic, I thought it important to point out to delegates that they should not be complacent when dealing with children who do not live in wards that have been deemed as ‘disadvantaged’.

The reason?  I believe that disadvantage is not necessarily linked to your postcode, but to your personal circumstances – it is therefore unique to each child, and what may be seen as an obstacle to one, may not be to another, mainly due to factors such as personal drive, family’s involvement with education, vision etc…variables if you will…

This is a controversial opinion, as most initiatives are targeted  within designated areas of  disadvantage as all of the evidence shows that this is where resources should be targeted to make the most impact. I’m not disagreeing with the theory behind this at all. Especially with public money, a lot of time needs to be taken to work out where the best outcomes can be achieved for the £1. Undoubtedly taking a family specific approach costs more money. But in the real world, where we are not spending public money, we are not trying to ‘turn the curve’ and we are not trying to measure benefit realisation, we have the opportunity to think about each child and their barriers to learning, not as decided by the ward they live in, their parents employment status or the household income. This makes perfect sense, but unfortunately it is not how the powers that be spend money on our children, and whilst money does not make the world go round, it is handy when you need some services.

Take my children for example:

  • both were born to the same parents in and live in the same house within a Super Output area (SOA) which is ranked 606 out of 890 therefore within the top 1/3 of  SOAs in NI in relation to affluence
  • neither parent claims benefit
  • education status within the household is degree level +
  • high level of parental engagement with children’s education
  • children attend a school with a low rate of FSM entitlement (free school meals) *

…2 children who find learning difficult.

*how deprivation is measured at school level…

Can you see how the needs of the children are lost here amongst statistics?

It is a sad fact that disadvantage is often described in terms of household income, or relative income deprivation, but despite the outcomes based accountability approach being taken by many (most?) agencies at present, these tend to be described in terms of outcome for the £1 spent, as opposed to outcome for the child the £1 was spent on.

Of course, not every issue requires money spent on it, but it does take time and engagement to address them. And time costs money.

So my message to providers of early education and care within NI is:

  • do not make assumptions about your cohort of children within your catchment area – look at each child and remember that, more than most, you can make a difference in the life of this child, their family and the community – you can do this by looking at the whole child in your care
  • do not assume that if a child has a label, that is the reason for what you are looking at in terms of behaviour for example – it is not the reason, it is your cue to look further for the reason.
  • remember that children do not behave in a particular way just to annoy adults, they do so because they don’t have all the answers yet (indeed often I want to stamp my feet, but resist in case I’m asked to leave Tesco). For example, the tantrum that you are looking at is not the issue, but a cry for help – if you remind yourself that the child is distressed rather than irritating this may influence how you react
  • often a word is attributed to a child where many others may also apply, it just depends on which therapist got there first – forget the word, just look at the child.
  • be sensitive to the needs of all of the children – not just those which are noted as ‘special’. Many more go undiagnosed with anything (which I personally think might be better).. but this can also mean they are overlooked or labelled as something else eg ‘loud’, ‘trouble’, ‘antisocial’.
  • no matter what the age of the child or young person in your care, although I would urge you to trust your professionalism at all times, never believe that you have all the answers – always look, observe and observe some more. This is the key to ensuring that your practise truly meets the needs of each child in your care.
  • and finally, care. Always care. Each child matters.
so in terms of disadvantage – I truly believe that this is person specific. it doesn’t have to be about unemployment or income deprivation. It might be the amount of time spent with the child, it might be parents assumptions of their child’s abilities, it might be too much doing and not enough being…It is impacted by each child’s ability to process the information provided to them by their senses.
Long sleeved shirts are not necessarily a disadvantage to most, but if made to wear one under a cardigan there would be no learning done for Amy at all.
Some disadvantages are invisible. And we don’t need to see them.. we need to truly feel them for each and every child if we are to make a difference in their lives, either as a parent or a professional.
but lets not forget the (my) theory of relativity – for every disadvantage, there is an equal and opposite advantage – you just have to look for it. Today was a flat day for me, for no particular reason. I was telling Amy this and she said ‘so you’re having a water day then?’ (cue curious look from me). She said ‘some days are like tap water, some are flavoured water, some diet coke’. She’ll go far this one. x





Just walk with me..

I’ve lost count of the number of times in the last couple of days even that ive read posters or facebook articles about autism friendly events. Eg closed screenings of particular movies, closed access to soft play, a shop open specifically for the purpose at a specified time, even a cruise specifically for autistic children and their families. These events may be either just for autistic children, or some let siblings attend also.

I really think this is the least ‘autism friendly’ thing ever. Here’s what it says to me:

  • A business has jumped on to the autism bandwagon and drawn attention to it
  • Your child is awkward and we need to do everything differently for them to be able to come here
  • It’s a great idea to put so many children with difficulty understanding social skills in to the one place at the one time
  • Something else for the siblings to be excluded from (or included as tokens as the case may be)


I’m not criticising those people who find these events helpful,  as no doubt there are many accommodations made to suit the attendees.. but, it’s not for me.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. These children are children first and foremost. We need to work harder to ensure that businesses become truly autism friendly, without having to shout about it. And not just autism friendly, but people friendly.. And this is simple.. and would benefit everyone. It would truly be inclusive. . Not divisive, stigmatising or patronising. Sounds better already,  doesn’t it? And how hard would it be? Not hard at all as it happens..

I’d like to start a quiet campaign ( I say quiet as i dont want to have to rub anyone up the wrong way. I’m not arrogant enough to believe everyone will agree with me, but the smart ones will😉).. I’d like to work with local businesses to show them how to consider the needs of their catchment population without segregating them. Simples.

I can say this after having endured (the best word to describe it) the downside of a manic incident with Amy last night. It’s hard. Having registered at a local autism charity a couple of years ago, in the car on the way home I knew I’d not go back, that I didn’t agree with the focus being on what was ‘wrong’ with your child. I’ve spent years trying so hard to focus on what goes well.. The ethos of many ‘support’ organisations goes against my grain as they get drawn into all of the commonalities in the room,  and those are never positive things.

I don’t doubt that parents need a support mechanism, but I believe this should be a positive and constructive support. Parents are let down by a system where the end result is a word, which is left hanging for parents to do with as they will, and for schools to do very little with.

I don’t often talk to my friends about the hard bits. But I really talk about the small victories. Because they are not small. They are huge achievements. In a world where Amy struggles to make sense of everything she is bombarded with by her senses (6 of them..), when there’s a gem of wisdom and insight from her, you dine out on it for as long as you can. The rest is forgotten.

Tonight in the midst of the madness, I saw a frightened child. One who needed me to be an adult. She told me she felt like a caterpillar but she should be a butterfly.. how profound is that?

So let’s encourage the butterflies. Let’s not remind them that they frequently behave like caterpillars, lets not put caterpillars in a room with only other caterpillars and expect them to learn how to be anything other than a caterpillar.. let’s show them the skills, the behaviours, the reactions that normalise the metamorphosis. You learn from watching others, … so we should be integrating our children in as many normal situations as we can and giving them wings a little at a time. One day they will fly.

As I was just about to hit ‘publish’, I have just remembered a song which makes me cry every time I listen to it – it will do more so now! Link attached.. Enjoy. A x



sunday night

Sunday nights are different now that I’m not having the Sunday night blues… I love to sit now and plan how my week is going to pan out and reflect on how the previous days have worked out. This week has been busy, with a busy weekend as well and I’ve loved thinking back about how many friends it included..

On Friday night I went to see Educating Rita in the Lyric with a really good friend. We had front row seats and as we took our seats I was thinking we might actually be too close. But no, the seats were perfect. I could hear them sighing when they needed to, see every facial expression and almost smell the books on the fabulous set. I’d not seen the movie and that was just great as it all unfolded in front of me. Literally. I’ve never been so moved by a play in my life. The story of a longing to learn really resonated with me. I love that Rita didn’t know what she wanted to know, but knew there was more to know.. That’s the great thing about this life we are in – there is so much more to know. Apart from the actors being so well chosen that I couldn’t imagine anyone else ever in the roles, and the script being crafted to fit an NI audience, the story itself was so fitting that I spent so much of my time simultaneously thinking of the parallels and enjoying the show.

In my first year of university I studied English.. I have all the famous writers gracing my bookshelves.. but I can take as much pleasure and meaning from a well chosen quote on a facebook photo to be honest. It depends on the moment and the frame of mind that you are in at the time as to what you read in to the words of others. I was clearly not in a good (literary) place during A level English, as one of the texts was the play ‘Joan of Arc’. I didn’t read it.. didn’t get past the first 2 or 3 pages. That might have been a problem by the time I got to sit my A level.. I can’t remember the question on the ‘drama’ paper – but I recall the outline of my answer – I very succinctly and (in prob about 2000 words) outlined how I refused to answer the question under the drama section, as it wasn’t really a play, but political view points given names of characters.. no marks obviously, but I got it off my chest. And so my dalliance with words began.

Today I was lucky to attend a lecture by Professor Robert Winston at Queens as part of the NI Science Festival. The topic was ‘what makes us happy’, but I’d say 90% of the content was not necessarily on the topic, but directed at me and the fab friend I was with. I have always loved the prof, and have many of his books (quite a few more after today). He appeals to the student in me and makes me want to know more. Everything trips off his tongue as though he’s not really having to think about it and you don’t see time passing as you listen to him. The fact that I can listen to him is no mean feat for me. Anyone who ever sat in a lecture theatre with me will know that my concentration span is crap. Totally crap. I either slept (no matter how interested in the subject I was) or had to write my notes upside down under the line and back to front in order to keep me awake. Really. I’m unfortunately the type of person who reads the executive summary of the 200 page report and skims the appendices and has taken enough in to do me…

Almost as good as the content today, was the company. I am lucky to have some really wonderful friends. By wonderful, I mean not just in quality of friendship, but in who they are as a person. Without exaggeration, I think A (you know who you are) might in fact be here to change the world. I certainly feel more enriched by being in her company.  If Lucy was old enough to drink wine (or Southern Comfort) with A and I, she’d tell us that we knew each other in a previous life (Lucy’s views on this from the age of 2 are a whole other story, but one I might write some day). I hope we all have friends like that that, who although we are very different people, on different paths, with different views, have similar beliefs, the same heart, and a shared understanding.

In between my literary and scholarly events this weekend, was a night with lots of gin and dancing. I call it balance.

But it too, was filled with lovely friends. I think that if we learn nothing else in this life, we need to learn people. Everyone is different, that’s my mainstay belief, and you should ‘know’ each one of your circle in a different way, but definitely know them. Life is enriched by people and shared experiences. Contrary to popular belief, its not money that makes the world go around, but friends putting their hand on your bum. ( there’s a story here about me climbing a mountain with my best friend, our kids and several other families as part of a family support event,.. at one of the tough steep bits I could feel a wee hand under my bum, giving me a wee lift up, even though she literally has no blood in her.. there was no words, just a wee hand on my bum. I love her). But here, I climbed a mountain!

Professor Winston subscribes to the evolution theory. There’s a lot in that – I’m not sure where it all sits with religion – he has written a book on that that I must get round to reading, but my current attention span is ‘Take a break’. My issue with it though is the survival of the fittest part. What I’ve learnt is that you survive best when you’re supported by people, and supporting them in return, not competing against them.


21st century children – language, learning and literacy (and me)

I’ve been asked to speak at a conference next week, which is entitled ’21st century children – language, learning and literacy’ and I’m chuffed to have been asked. The audience are providers of early years and childcare services and I’ve been asked to speak on sustaining a quality business..

So in relation to my field of interest, how is this linked?

If we assume that the attendees know how to deliver a quality Service, we need the service to be delivered by a business that works efficiently, professionally and in line with best practise. The business should also be there for the long haul.. ie not dependant on short term public sector funds, but with a strategy for growth, learning and development.

Thankfully I love this stuff.. the stuff most people hate.. the tape. if you see it, not as tape, but in fact as a guide, a safety net, its ok.

But if I’m truthful, the biggest link to ‘learning’ is for me. I’ve spoken to conference delegates before. Hell I’ve written other people’s speeches for conferences before (including 3 Ministers and a secretary of state for Northern Ireland in fact), but these are my words. spoken by me. and that’s a bit more daunting. When I was sheltered by the public sector world, if the topic was boring, it was because it had to be.. but if this one is boring, its because my words were.. why did I agree to this?

Of course no pressure at all by the lovely lady who asked me to speak – ‘you can make all those things less frightening for people’ she said.. (all I’m hearing is ‘be a keynote speaker’ they said,…’it’ll be fun’ they said…).

It is a serious topic and one I want to do justice.

..but what will I wear?!

All joking aside.. what will I wear?! I have a dinner dance to attend this weekend (I know – you are of a certain age when the phrase ‘dinner dance’ is trotted out).. I visited a friend yesterday and we were talking about the underwear curse of fancy events. So this morning I’ve been trying on underwear like a mad thing. If you know me well, you will know my roller shutter door story.. if you know me really well you will have been outside the loo as I’ve tried to  get myself back in to the hook and eye underwear. If you don’t know me, I apologise – you have now just got the strangest image in your head.

so, back to the conference. Its not about me or what I’m wearing. Apparently. Mums are good at bringing you back to earth with a bump. I got all As at GCSE and one B – Mum wanted to know if I would be resitting the B.. I had an inspiring conversation with a business advisor about my latest ‘hare brain scheme’ and I’m not to ‘get carried away’ by (all that positivity). We didn’t do positivity in our house. That’s not to say it was a negative place to live, but you didn’t get a chance to get a big head about something if you did well. I hope mum doesn’t read this – she’d be gutted.. but its true.

So I am determined to be positive with my kids. That is not easy.. take this morning for example..

I woke Amy at 7.15 (not 7am as my phone battery had died and we rely on it to wake us, unless the cat needs a wee) – that did not go well

Amy got water in her ears in the shower – that did not go well

Amy did not like the tights in her drawer (any of about 8 pairs) – that did not go well

Amy’s bra strap was twisted – (you’re getting the picture).

..and meanwhile I’m doing the ‘come and sit on my knee and I’ll hold you tight until you feel better’ routine and inside feeling ‘why could you not have had a shower last night when you were asked to’. We have a poster you see which has all the times and days for showers so that nothing is a surprise (this was a good idea at the time). We’ve done all the posters for ‘how I’m feeling’, ‘options of things to do to calm me down’ etc.. I am all learnt out when it comes to autism, but the thing they cant teach me is how to feel about it.

Anyway.. the bit about the conference title that is so interesting to me is ’21st century children’ – why is language, literacy and learning so different in these times? we are a family of teachers (mum says I am a frustrated teacher as I have the buying sticker books obsession without the job to justify it) and I suppose when my granny was teaching in the wee white school in Killyleagh there were probably equally as many children as there are today who found learning difficult, but they didn’t have a word attached to them. And that was probably better. You see the word comes with a bit in brackets after it, that is never written down and never said, but always thought..

She’s autistic (that’s why)

He has ADHD (that’s why)

She’s dyslexic (that’s why)

but that is not why.

Everyone learns in a different way. Everyone. Some people are unfortunate enough to have their needs boxed off with a word, but I truly believe that their needs aren’t ‘special’. How their needs are met may be different, but they are the same needs as anyone else’s.


Our World of Learning

Not just a clever expansion of the acronym ‘OWL’.. but that is good.

Learning is what motivates me. I love to learn. I love the process of learning. I love learning about obstacles to learning and I have two children who find learning difficult, both for different reasons. This is ‘my world of learning’.

Amy is 11 and has autism. I struggle with that descriptor on many levels not least because it doesn’t describe her, but draws attention to some traits which are difficult to manage. Difficult to explain to others perhaps, as I think we manage quite well. That’s not to say that it is easy – it isn’t, but neither is Sudoku and there are less books and facebook pages dedicated to it. It pains me to see families hiding under the ‘autism family’ banner. It does not define my family any more than it defines Amy. Its not an excuse, nor the main topic of conversation when I meet friends. Neither do I feel the need to stick it on the back of my car. Amy has dandruff too.. who wants to know that? So we don’t hide under it, we don’t advertise it, we are not intimidated by it, its just there. Amy was a tiny baby (1lb 2oz) and we are grateful for everything she has achieved as her chances were slim. As is she.. she’s a petite wee pet and people assume that I am her childminder.. (read into that what you will)..

Lucy is 6 and doesn’t ‘have’ anything, primarily because you need to fail before the system wants to know why.. Since Lucy was a toddler I’ve known that things just don’t come easily to her. Her milestones were late, although it clear to anyone who spends time with her that she is a smart cookie.. she just thinks differently to most people. I love her observations on life and indeed those could be the subject of a blog of their own – her wit and wisdom for someone so young belie the fact that she cannot read and knows few letters. She can talk the talk though. I’m going to try my hardest to help her to learn in a way that will work for her. Lucy is so like me and yet so unlike me.. learning came easily to me, in fact I may have been lazy as I knew I didn’t have to work too hard. I’d love the light to click on for Lucy as it would open the world to her. To be fair, if it doesn’t click no one might notice, as Lucy is the most enchanting wee soul and will sail through life anyway.

I’m particularly interested in autism, ADHD and dyslexia – the aetiology of these conditions fascinates me and indeed my thesis for my degree was on automaticity in dyslexia – little did I know that 20 years later I’d still be fascinated by this. It’s scary now how many children in a class of 25 are affected by one or more of these conditions. The impact on their learning, not just in school, but in life, socially and in the world of work is immense. I intend to focus my attentions on the lifespan of learning within this arena – wouldn’t it be lovely if the tags didn’t need to be used and the needs of each person at each stage of their life were paramount, whatever they were, but at this stage that would be a pipe dream. But leave it with me…