The 'welcome session' at the Rainbow Centre is an opportunity to develop the communication skills of our special needs children, who are split into two groups in the morning depending on their needs. During the session staff member Sandra asks each of the three children in her group (see box) whether they would like her to sing the 'hello' song to them. As she asks, she uses direct eye contact and the sign language Makaton. The children 'answer' in a variety of ways. One little boy puts his hand on his chest which is the Makaton sign for 'me'; another looks at another member of staff, 'Are you making eye contact?' asks Sandra, while a little girl in a special supportive chair presses a red pad which says the word 'yes'.
The common link for children attending our centre is that they have a learning disability or a global delay, which means a general developmental delay, with a wide range of additional disabilities. These can include sensory impairments, physical disabilities ranging from Down's Syndrome and cerebral palsy to autism, and medical needs including epilepsy, gastrostomy and other associated feeding difficulties.
The centre has adapted all the early years curriculum for the children who attend, and here we look at Language and Literacy, for which the term 'communication' is used. This is a key area for our children as it provides a foundation to their learning and understanding.
To help us plan the adaptation, we first looked at the reasons people communicate:
l to develop the capacity to express ourselves in a variety of ways
l to develop an understanding of the spoken word
l to match communication styles and responses to audiences and purposes
l to develop self-awareness
l to develop an understanding of others
l to develop an understanding of the environment.
We then agreed that our starting point must always be to give consideration to the individual child and their environment and to offer firsthand experiences of a variety of communication and adult interactions, spoken language, sign language, body signing (touching parts of the body to indicate change of position, for example, patting the bottom to indicate sitting down), object referencing (pointing out actual objects, such as a cup) and visual aids (showing pictures of objects and activities).
Applying the headings 'knowledge and understanding', 'skills' and 'attitudes', was also useful in adapting the Language and Literacy curriculum to meet a range of individual learning disabilities (see box).
For example, in the welcome session described above, the children are made aware of Makaton as a method of communication, and in the structured session which comes next in the children's day, picture symbols are used. The staff ask the children which of two songs they want sung to them, giving them a picture representing each, for example, a picture of a rainbow and one of five little speckled frogs.
Snack time is another opportunity for communication. Sandra will try to get the children to look at her when she asks them whether they want an apple, their body language usually shows that they all do! She will also ask them whether they want a drink of milk or water. The children touch the glass containing what they want. Different types of snacks are given daily. Because it encourages communication, if they want more they are encouraged to ask for more, even though as with most children, crisps are highly popular.
Outside, in the marvellous new playground which has colourful, artistic wooden equipment designed to a seaside theme by Kai Wharton, there are knobs the children can pull which cause coloured lights to flash and sounds to emanate like the crashing of waves on the shore. These help teach the children cause and effect, another aspect of communication.
Although teaching our children to read and write has to be a long-term aim, we have had some in the past who can recognise and write their names. The teacher believes that Montessori equipment will help the children recognise letters and numbers and develop their hand/eye co-ordination and sensory awareness, and we have introduced this as well as some appropriate computer software. l