Exemplary Practice: How a Circle of Friends and other easy adjustments change lives for disabled children

On SNJ, we aim to highlight injustice and call out unlawful behaviour. But among the doom, there is also a lot of amazing practice going on in schools, actively supporting disabled children to thrive. 

I asked parents on our Facebook group for some positive examples from their child's school, college and teachers to help inspire and educate others. If you work in education, we hope you will take these experiences to heart and also pass them on. If you're a parent, we hope this gives you hope and ideas to pass to your young person's school or other setting.

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Circle of Friends

The Circle of Friends approach aims to enhance inclusion in mainstream schools. It’s designed to support a child who is having difficulties in school – perhaps they are disabled, have behavioural issues, or perhaps they’re experiencing a home crisis. 

The Inclusive Solutions website explains it as mobilising a young person’s peers to “provide support and engage in problem solving… A major advantage of the approach is that it does not involve a major commitment of time from teaching staff, because the true work is done by the peers themselves, not the adults. The adult’s role is to meet with the circle and the focus child for around 20-30 minutes weekly to facilitate their problem solving in the early stages. Successful circles will often become largely self- sustaining and provide support for the focus child without the need for regular adult input. When there is careful planning and real commitment form the facilitator, results from the process are seen very quickly.”

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A Circle of Friends transformed my son's and his peers' lives

One parent on our group, Andrea Ellwood, described her child’s positive experience 

“Circle of Friends", is built up slowly, thoughtfully and with a well-considered "sales pitch" to those involved. It helps with social integration into the peer group, and the cultural change towards Inclusion. It means self-esteem is embedded at a young age. It also resulted in 30+ children having developed keen senses of justice, equality and empathy, more than other classes in schools who didn't/don't do this.

“It helps if it is built up slowly, quietly, with it being seen as a better choice. For example, a maths lesson for the whole class but little Freddie is going out to have a fun game with his teaching assistant (TA). 'Freddie' can choose ONE friend to join them to HELP and Freddie and the TA will choose the activity. Freddie and whoever he chooses always have a better time than whatever lesson is going on in the main class. 

"The circle is gradually increased over a very long period of time, until 'Freddie' now has a group of eight, for example. 'Freddie's' popularity slowly increases, and pupils like to be seen to be supportive of 'Freddie'. In reality, they also learn empathy and cooperation. Pupils are more considerate of sensory issues they might help reduce, for example, less rattling of desks drawers etc. It is a WIN-WIN. 

“Birthday parties, school trips and so on, also become more inclusive, teaching staff see that inclusive education can work in terms of integration into school life. That Circle of Friends set up in Primary, if done well, goes on throughout Secondary school into Adulthood.

“My son still has regular contact with his original circle, his "Great Eight", even now he is 20, long after it was initiated in Primary. Those original eight have since introduced him to their friends, and it evolved into friends of friends. Not all stay in touch all of the time, like any other relationships they ebb and flow, but I noticed that in Primary in particular, those going through their own struggles in family life or in other friendship circles would often naturally move towards him, perhaps because his world was more nurturing at a time when they felt a need for a slower and gentler environment themselves. Circles pay off in terms of social skills, social integration for the SEND child, but it also pays off in a wider social network in developing empathy and kindness that lasts into Adulthood IF done well initially and support for the circle continues into Secondary school. And THAT is one of key arguments FOR inclusive education.

"And by the way, those Eight and the extended circle, have gone on to train be social workers, SEN specialist teachers, building trades and professional sports players."

Andrea Ellwood, parent and advocate

You can find Circle of Friends resources on the TES website

“The values that underpin the Circle of Friends approach are, ‘full inclusion for all; the belief that there is not social justice until each belongs and has an equal place in our schools and communities,’ ”

(Newton and Wilson, 1999, p.5)

Taking a few moments to see a child differently

Teachers' lives, especially over the last year, are busy, often stressful, and challenging. Even though the law says, "Every teacher is a teacher of children with SEND", we know how little training in SEND most have. We try to help by highlighting resources on SNJ, especially Whole School SEND, because, to quote Daniel Boorstin, “The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge”.

“My son’s new [mainstream primary] headteacher would have him in her office each morning for a 15-minute play/chat. The school changed the whole way they looked at my son. From believing it was all behaviour oriented to agreeing with us and his paediatrician that he was autistic. Seeing the nice side as well as his violent side I believe helped her understand him a bit better.”

Parent

“The moment a teacher stepped in when my son was having a meltdown stands out. His violent reactions tend to be him being annoyed at himself. He had a massive meltdown because he’d done something wrong. I walked in and she said to me, “It’s fine, we’ll deal with it tomorrow. Just now he’s really angry at himself”, whereas other staff had always dealt with it as bad behaviour. She was like an angel had appeared, who saw what I did in my amazing son. She saw what I did! Just having someone who got him meant I felt more positive about his schooling and he would go and spend time with her from then on.”

Parent
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Using simple, reasonable adjustments 

“Reasonable adjustments” is part of the Equality Act 2010, but it can often mean small, simple and free changes that make inclusion a reality. It’s seeing the person as an individual and what they need or what will help them succeed – and then putting it into practice. Every day.

“Delivering learning in a way that is less complicated and uses resources that are taught to access with confidence” Parent

“My son, in a specialist base in a mainstream college, was over the moon last week to have work displayed on the wall.” Parent

“Actually caring for my son as a person, seeing beyond his diagnosis for who he is. He’s had the same needs assistant for nine years. She’s cared, taught, nurtured, and been like family to him. No money or EHCP could buy this amount of dedication. Without her, he’d never have reached his potential to do an A-Level. The school have supported him from day one. It took years of fighting and at times my mental health, but it’s been worth every tear shed. He’s happy, and is still progressing. That’s all I ever wanted.” 

Parent

“Offering an additional weekly hydrotherapy session (as it's the best type of therapy for my daughter), rearranging support staff hours to make it possible. So appreciated.” Parent

“Allowing my daughter to move and stretch instead of making her sit still. Also, allowing her to sit at the front on her own. Such a simple thing but it helped a lot.” Parent

“My son has a diagnosis of psychosis. The way his college team works amazes me. They are proactive and responsive. It means my son can continue to attend college three mornings a week.” Parent

“Understanding and kindness... We are constantly telling our children to be kind and celebrate difference when adults around them aren't managing it. It’s not all been plain sailing. But teachers at my son’s current school understand his behaviour is linked to a disability and not because of poor parenting or something he can control. It’s simple but life changing.”

Parent

“A lot of professionals seem to forget that they are real children with feelings. Numbness and jadedness and perhaps huge caseloads add to this. When you meet ones that actually remember they are supporting a 'disabled child' it’s so much better!” Parent

“My son’s SENCo. The process has run smoothly for this son because we had an active and supportive SENCo. The difference when you have a good one, is amazing.” Parent

Going beyond…

And then there are the teachers who go above and beyond on occasion to make sure a child is supported...

“Class staff and head teacher giving up a whole day of their Christmas holiday, two days before Christmas, because that was the only day the 'expert' they felt they needed to consult could make time to assess my daughter and give advice. It was life-changing! Never forgotten their dedication!

Parent

Do you have a story of good practice to share, whether you are a parent, teacher/school, or a health or social care provider? We'd love to hear from you! Please get in touch to tell us your experience of what's worked.

Some of the quotes have been edited for length and clarity only

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Tania Tirraoro
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