Up early, bleary eyed and barely able to speak in joined up words, Malcolm, Francesca and I set off at what felt like the crack of dawn to drive to Burgess Hill, a lovely town nestled in the West Sussex countryside. Actually, I’m not being fair. It really wasn’t all that early when we left at about 7.30am, and it was only me who was bleary and talking in grunts. But then again, it was only me who had been up half the night until just on 2am, knowing full well that we all had to be up and about barely 4 hours later. What else are you supposed to do with midnight oil other than burn it?
We were on our way to Woodlands Meed School, a beautiful and nearly brand new state-of-the-art special school, built in 2012 within the grounds of Oakmeeds Community College, which also happens to be Malcolm’s old school from many more decades ago than he’d care to admit.
Between us, Malcolm and I were due to be running three Workshops, with Francesca on board as our very capable assistant throughout the day.
Woodlands Meed is a fabulous building, light, airy and with amazing atrium alcoves all the way down the central corridor, letting yet more light and a feel of nature into the building every few yards. It caters for local children with disabilities, and the facilities are excellent. It’s not just the physical environment though. The whole ambience of the place exudes warmth and welcome, it just felt like a very happy place to spend your schooldays.
It was great to finally meet Sally Miller. Sally and I have exchanged a squillion emails in the past few months while we planned the whole day of our visit. She has gone out of her way to do everything she can to help and she has been so lovely throughout that it feels like we’ve known each other for years. We just looked at each other with huge beaming grins and then threw our arms around each other in a hug – getting together at last was far more significant than a hand shake could have conveyed.
Then the Workshop started. “Coping with Chaos”, and in a spacious classroom with lots of wonderful parents of special needs children, we laughed, cried, chatted and discussed our way through the morning. The aim of this Workshop is to give parents a chance to step back, take stock, look at their own family dynamic and work out what the trigger points are for the difficult moments, the moments when every special needs parent feels they are tumbling into overwhelming anxiety and stress, unsure of how to steer ourselves and the children clear of the emotional flotsam that trips us up at every twist and turn of what can be seat-of-your-pants parenting.
The sessions can be difficult for parents, and it’s my job to ensure that there is a safe, supportive and non-judgemental space for everyone to be able to unload all the tough emotions before finding more manageable ways to pack everything up again at the end of the workshop. During the morning we also did three stress-busting quick-fix exercises that they can use to de-stress in the future when those difficult times happen. Each of the three exercises take less than two minutes, but they lower heart rate and blood pressure as well as clearing the mind and creating a precious moment of breathing space.
However, although the sessions can be difficult, they are also cathartic, and looking around the room and hearing what people say, there were several light-bulb style “Ah ha” moments, when things fell into place and certain issues became much clearer. All I do is to lead these Workshops, it’s the parents themselves who do all the work. In small discussion groups they get down to the nitty-gritty of their own difficult moments, and it’s always so rewarding for me to see the support and care they give each other, and the beginnings of what may become lifelong friendships starting to form. Yes there were a few tears, but often they were of happiness, or because we had laughed so much that the tear ducts were working overtime.
The feedback was wonderful too – it is such a great feeling to know that people find their time together so helpful. The only complaint, and it was expressed by several parents, was that the session was much too short – they wanted to spend longer together! Other than that, here are some of the feedback comments:-
“so refreshing, absolutely loved it!”
Really enjoyed the session, met some great people I will keep in touch with”
“Great to be able to discuss things”
“Inspirational…..emotionally supportive….made me feel empowered”
“Fantastic Workshop – funny & informative”
“Great problem solving”
“Opened up sensitive issues and gave us time to discuss them”
Then it was lunchtime. Lovely rolls, quiche, wraps, fruit, and my absolute favourite – lemon drizzle cake that was crumbly fresh and melt-in-the-mouth fabulous.
After lunch, Malcolm got the yoga mats out, and spent an hour and a half teaching mindfulness, meditation, and encouraging the parents to completely let go of their stress and concerns during a 30 minute deep relaxation session. Sheer bliss seemed to be the general consensus afterwards.
Meanwhile, Teachers, Teaching Assistants, Inclusion Managers and Sencos were arriving for myafternoon Workshop on Inclusion in a Mainstream Classroom. Woodlands Meed School is the heart of the SEND Alliance, a
group of 15 local mainstream primary and secondary schools who come together to pool resources for special needs education and disability information.
I was thinking that after such a brilliant morning with some wonderful parents, that the staff Workshop was going to be a bit of a damp squibb of a session by comparison – the morning was always going to be a tough act to follow. I was so wrong!
Where do West Sussex get their staff from? I think they must only recruit from Planet Lovely – or at least that must be where all the wonderful staff I met yesterday came from. We looked at the different types of invisible conditions that children in mainstream classrooms may be struggling with, things like ADHD, Autism, OCD, Selective Mutism, Anxiety and many many more. We discussed different ways that these children may present their symptoms, and shared some strategies that can help these children cope better with the demands of a normal school day. We talked at length, both as a large group, and in much smaller and more intimate discussion groups, about some of the difficulties staff were facing, and finding solutions as a team to move forward with them.
What really made my heart sing was the obvious level of care, concern and compassion that they felt when they talked about the children in their respective classes. It was moving to hear teachers and Teaching Assistants talk so knowledgeably and with such fondness about the children in their care. The discussions flowed organically from one topic to another, with everyone focused on wanting to both learn from and help each other. There was also a lot of laughter, a lot of warmth, and again, the beginnings of new like-minded friendships between staff from different schools.
Here are some of the equally lovely and heart-warming feedback comments from the Inclusion session :-
“Very helpful and interesting, so informative and helpful to have real life examples from Francesca”
“Very helpful, useful session”
“Really enjoyable. Very good to share ideas”
“It would be great to have this course for the whole day”
“A great opportunity to discuss with other people my concerns and to be given different ways to help”
“A lovely, open, warm session which encouraged all to share experiences”
All too soon, it was time to head off home, happy but exhausted, and with my head full of some very special memories and of all the great new people we’d met. I always feel honoured that people feel safe enough to share their thoughts and experiences, that the group has bonded and developed a sense of trust with each other in such a short space of time. If you were part of the day and one of the group, thank you for making it such a wonderful day.
We run Workshops for Parents, for Healthcare Professionals, for School Staff or for other organisations interested in learning more about how to make life easier for people with special needs or disabilities. If you would like to find out more, please follow the links for more information and short videos on :-
Parent Workshops – http://yvonnenewbold.com/workshops-for-parents-2/
Healthcare Professional Workshops – http://yvonnenewbold.com/workshops-for-hcps/
Or email me on email@example.com for further details.
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Author of The Special Parent’s Handbook
HSJ Top 50 Inspirational Women 2014