Down time / relaxation – crucial for well being

People with autistic spectrum conditions often experience high levels of stress and anxiety, these can build up during the school day. This stress build up can have a detrimental effect on the well – being of learners, leading to a difficulty in engaging in lessons and an increase in behaviours that can be challenging for the rest of the class.

This is something we have to address through the activities we provide in special schools in order to improve the success and enjoyment experienced of our learners.

A report by Public Health England on the link between health, wellbeing and attainment states that pupils with better health and wellbeing are likely to achieve better academically (public health England, 2014).

In contrast, poor emotional well- being can lead to detrimental effects on physical health, income, work, social and family relationships and work and educational outcomes (Layard, Clark and Senik, 2012).

I have recently introduced a relaxation session in the middle of the school day. This acts as a buffer between lunch/play and the start of the afternoon activities. We turn off the lights, close the blinds, play relaxing music and offer massage, blankets, mattresses etc. If you want to recreate this in your class then do consider the individuals you have and what they might prefer.

In my class the learners are working on asking for a massage using communication methods that they can access (refer to speech and language), recognising and selecting body parts for massage using body maps and picture symbols, selecting music, identifying their own sensory needs and feelings, accepting touch, selecting preferred individuals to work with, following our rules for massage (always ask before touching, have clean hands, say thank you),  as well as more general objectives such as sharing space with other people.

This session came about accidentally; a few weeks ago a number of the learners in my class of 5 each displayed signs of anxiety simultaneously, at the same time a couple of staff members also reported feeling stressed; we recognised that there was a bit of a pattern emerging with anxiety being heightened after lunch. This could be because staff change over lunch times, there are a number of transitions between the class, hall and playground, they have to share space with louder, unpredictable learners from other classes, there is a change of temperature between the class and playground, staff feel pressure to get lots of things done in a short time, etc.  Our response was, on this particular day, to avoid any problems by switching off for a few minutes, giving everyone a chance to refresh their emotions. After 10-15 minutes the atmosphere in the room was transformed and we went on to have a really fun, engaging afternoon. The effect was so pronounced that we have started doing the same most days and have found a continued benefit.

We have anecdotal evidence that stopping, relaxing and calming down is beneficial for the engagement both of learners and staff; this reduces the level of anxiety and challenging behaviour for the rest of the school day.

The research evidence supports this idea that downtime is beneficial. Sports coaching and business each find that productivity is increased by alternating intense work with times for renewal (Coleman, J., & Coleman, J. (2012, December 6). The Upside of Downtime. Retrieved January 27, 2016, from This benefit is universal; children and adults all reduce stress through downtime when they are not following instructions and can recharge emotional reserves (Baddeley, A., & Alan, B. (2000). The episodic buffer: a new component of working memory? Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 4(11), 417–423) and especially for people with autism (Woo, C. C., Donnelly, J. H., Steinberg-Epstein, R., & Leon, M. (2015). Environmental enrichment as a therapy for autism: A clinical trial replication and extension. Behavioral Neuroscience, 129(4), 412–422.)

Although the approach described above works for my class at the moment it is important to remember that  individuals will have different preferences during downtime. Some young people may have too much energy to benefit from this kind of approach, they may need more aerobic activity during the day. Some may need more structure to their relaxation such as using atmospherics, yoga/tai chi/ dance movement etc. Others may wish to explore the environment during downtime and benefit from favoured objects, textures or pictures being made available.



LEGO Club – bricking it for social interaction

Children with autism often relate well with each other, this can be a source of resilience and comfort (Karim, Ali, Oreilly, 2014). As we seek to support learners to develop spiritually, that is, their sense of self and their ability to express their personality, encouraging relationship building and tolerance of others are important skills. More importantly facilitating feelings of joy and happiness can drastically improve the well-being of people with autism.

With this in mind I have started a LEGO club in our school. Learners can come and join in from any class and with any aim. They be are seeking to be independent in leisure activity, develop fine motor skills, follow instructions, communicate with new people, cope with unfamiliar people or express their creative ideas, whatever the reason they come, all are welcome.

The sessions are quiet; seeking to be a calm place to end the week on a Friday afternoon. We have traditional ‘little’ LEGO as well as larger Duplo. Some learners like to sit back and watch whilst others dive right in, (we shouldnt have favorites but I am particulalry fond of the person who comes because he likes tidying the LEGo away!)

The resources needed are quite pricey but thanks to LEGO brick  donations from staff, families of pupils and some money from the school fundraising group, we now have hundreds of bricks.

Having started the group only recently I can’t say if it is going to be a massive success but I am very optimistic; the atmosphere has felt like it is going to be an activity that thrives for years to come.


Happy Boxes by Nicky: Achieving well-being through promoting joy

The aim of this blog is to support education professionals to promote the well-being of their pupils with severe autistic spectrum conditions through encouraging development of the self, spirituality, not in the sense of religious practice but relating to the mind, a growing understanding of personality.

In her book, Ways of the Spirit, Siobhan. Bryant, D, ed. Suggests that a core element of the spirituality of each of us is the self. For people with autism in special schools, with limited communication or interaction with their peers the sense of self can be ignored as an important area for development. Dr Peter Vermeulen points out that interventions, such as the activities we use in special schools, tend to be measured by the assessment of measurable aspects such as number and degree of autism symptoms, levels of cognitive functioning, skills and behaviour. However, in focussing on these areas we fail to support our learners in the important area of well-being and happiness. To read his article go to:

Dr Vermeulen, working from the perspective of positive psychology suggests that we should concentrate on developing strategies to help our learners experience happiness. Of course, happiness can mean something different to each individual and be derived from a myriad of different experiences – one person’s dream is another’s nightmare (think Marmite or peanut butter dipped in celery!)

If we are going to succeed in teaching learners how to modify their feelings in times of stress then we must help them to experience and identify positive feelings such as joy.

Happy boxes

Teacher, Nicky R, completed a Mental health research project in 2016 with the aim of identifying a practical resource useful in supporting young learners with profound learning difficulties.

She came up with Happy Boxes to help promote spiritual well-being in learners with ASC and profound learning difficulties.

Nicky focussed on connecting with people and taking notice, both factors identified through research evidence as being helpful in improving well-being and resilience by the New Economics Foundation (2008).

She decorated and filled boxes with ‘happy’ stimuli, objects or references to activities chosen for the learner to enjoy by using a happiness checklist in conjunction with their family. Staff conducted observations of the learners using their happy boxes reporting an increase in energy, facial movements and pleasure, unhappiness seemed to decrease.

To make this activity work in an autism specific classroom each learner will require their own box with chosen items in it, families and previous teachers may offer advice about what to offer the learner but they should have the final say over what goes in it.

Learning objective can be around making choices, communicating choices, recognising photos of themselves and others, recognising specific facial expressions, matching these to symbols representing facial expressions.

Extend this activity by using the happy boxes as a prompt to build a feelings wall display. Have a large section of wall devoted to the things that make us happy, consider having a small section of wall displaying things that make me sad. You may want to cover this with a curtain/sheet of card and put a warning on the outside with a sad face on it.


What follows is Nicky’s original project.

  • Mental Health Research Project
  • 2016


This short research project briefly looks at what mental health is and how it affects learners with profound and complex disabilities. The aim of this research is to identify a practical resource which will be useful in supporting 2 young learners whom have profound multiple learning needs within a Special School in Cornwall. The learners will take on fictitious names throughout this project in respect of confidentiality.


Facts – All people who have profound and multiple learning disabilities will have a greater difficulty communicating. Many of these people will have additional sensory or physical disabilities, complex health needs or mental health difficulties. The combination of these needs and/or the lack of the right support may also affect behaviour. 

    Children and adolescents with learning disabilities are over six times more

likely to have a mental health problem than their peers who do not have                                                  learning disabilities

(Children and young people with learning disabilities -understanding their mental health DFE)

 Children and young people with learning disabilities may not understand their feelings and often find it hard to communicate these feelings.


What is our mental health?

 We all have mental health. Mental health relates to how we think, feel, behave and interact with other people.


Where young people have a good mental health they are likely to have high levels of mental wellbeing.


This doesn’t mean that they will be happy all the time or not experience negative emotions such as grief or loss as these are a normal part of life. It simply means if a learner has high levels of wellbeing they are more likely to be able to cope better if they experience such feelings which will have less impact on their mental health.


It can be helpful to understand wellbeing as being made up of two key elements:


  • Feeling good
  • Functioning well

Feeling good means experiencing positive emotions like happiness, contentment and enjoyment. It also includes feelings like curiosity, engagement and safety.

Functioning well is about how a person is able to function in the world. This includes having positive relationships and social connections, as well as feeling in control of your life and having a sense of purpose.


How can we help?

Through this research project my aim is to provide a resource which can enhance good mental health through supporting and focusing on a learner’s emotional wellbeing and happiness.


The New Economics Foundation (2008) has identified and set out five evidence-based things that we can do to improve wellbeing and resilience. These are:


  1. Connect– with the people around you, family, friends and community
  2. Be active –exercise makes you feel good
  3. Take notice – catch sight of something beautiful…the seasons, a smell, sound
  4. Keep learning – try something new
  5. Give – smile, do something nice for someone


We will be concentrating on connecting and taking notice, however the hope is that the resource will also encourage the learner to be active, be engaged to learn, have fun and smile!

We are all unique and our brains are therefore ‘wired’ differently which means we will all view the world in a variety of different ways. This will also mean that we have different values and emotions…however it is fact that we are all at our happiest when we feel secure, valued, safe and in a happy anxiety-free environment. It is here and only here where our moods and emotions can be channelled usefully and productively.


Emotions are identified in 6 major areas and were portrayed beautifully in the Disney film ‘Inside Out’ (2015):


       Joy (pleasure)fearsurprisedisgustangersadness


The resource I wanted to make would focus predominately on happiness which is part of ‘joy’ and to enable me to gauge what made a learner happy I needed to partake in number of observations on them.


Why a Happy Box?

It’s important to remember that emotions like happiness are very powerful and take superiority over all that happens in our brains. If a learner is happy it can therefore provide an optimum framework for learning.


The Resource

When doing this research I was well aware that Teachers and class teams did not need any additional pressures to produce more resources for learners – it needed to be ‘ready to go’!  Therefore, with great thought and prior successes from a resource ‘the happy box’ I trialled in the Early Years Department, I will be developing this resource with the support of the learners Parent/Carers.


Firstly I liaised with the Josh and Jordan’s parents and we discussed the project and suggested the idea of creating a personal ‘happy’ box. We went through the happiness checklist and also started this at school. Brief observations were taken over a period of time using the sheets enclosed. Happiness could be seen by observing an increase in energy, facial movements and pleasure whereas unhappiness seemed to display a drop in energy, decreased enthusiasm, not wanting to take part in activities, withdrawal and sad faces.


The chosen box was decorated with the parents and learners together. Josh was particularly excited as his was shiny – a known visual like – and Jordan’s    was painted in ultra violet paint with a tactile quality to support his severe visual impairment. We had a team meeting and went over the idea behind the boxes and went through the happy box guidelines.


Happy Box Guidelines – How to create a ‘Happy Box’ sensory tool


Start a baseline assessmentyou can use the enclosed observation sheets or make your own up


Making the box

Make the box itself personal to the learner – favourite colour/texture/pictures. A shoe box is a good start. The learner can be as involved as much or as little as they want in this part. They can do this at home with a parent or carer. If preferred any item can be used to store ‘happy items’   – a bag, special box.



Parent or carer involvement is crucial to the beneficial effects of this box, as they know their child the best and can provide a wealth of knowledge and ideas in which to put in this special box.


A happy box is full of great sensory items and much more to awaken, integrate and stimulate the senses with the emotion of happiness as being the main focus or intent. THE THINGS WHICH YOU HAVE OBSERVED.


The happy box can be shared with the learners’ peers at any time with the aim to help others understand what makes their friends happy. The idea is that it is shared with the learner over the course of the day – not timetabled but led by the child or young adult. The aspirational intention would be for the learner to work towards making a request using their own form of communication for their happy box.


What to put in

A good happy box should have:


  • Movements that I like – Fine motor (manipulatives for use by the hands), spinning top, riding.
  • Multi-Sensory – items with different textures and feelings known to the learner as a ‘like’, taste, smells, what I like to see
  • Personal Words/sounds I like hear – which are known to make that learner smile/giggle. These could be recorded on talking tin lids.
  • Appropriate touch like from humans – tickles, firm touch, blowing my fingers
  • Personal music – favourite songs put on a CD or rhymes noted down which can be sung by a familiar adult
  • Class team observations – brief notes on what has been seen to make that learner happy – this maybe a walk to see a particular person in school
  • NOT EVERY ITEM IN THE BOX NEEDS TO BE AN OBJECT – SEE ABOVE –it can be a statement i.e. I like it when you blow on my fingers


Using a happy box to fulfil its maximum benefit:


Where are you planning to use it? The happy box can be taken anywhere


What would you like to accomplish with it – Feelings of emotional happiness therapeutic …play…sharing…exploration…


Have you explained the purpose of the happy box to the learner? Can they share it with anyone? Can they request the box as needed?


Checking that items are in the box are clean and discussed with learners parents when it’s reviewed or updated to re-interest learners.


Size – small enough to be portable…individual to the learner





There is very little research on happiness and learners with special multi-needs. Conclusions were simple – when Josh and Jordan were given their ‘happy boxes’ for short periods throughout a day to explore, sometimes alone, sometimes with peers, it was clear to observe an increase in happiness. Their emotional happiness was an excellent framework for learning providing the optimum environment for learning. When both Josh and Jordan were happy they were keen to engage, interact and respond.


The ‘happiness’ assessments can be further used to plan and extend activities in the class i.e. we knew that Josh showed joy when he heard funny noises therefore this was to be included into an intensive interaction session for him.


Parental involvement proved crucial in developing these ‘happy boxes’  and to help in interpreting the learners behaviour i.e. Jordan would scream out and cry when he felt anything crackly or shiny…during conversation his mum recalled how he loved crackly items and noises so much that he would cry with delight and happiness when given. At school staff interpreted this initially as a stimulus that Jordan did not like. Partnership conversations could be used to engage with the parents in the exploratory stage if they were clearly discussed as happiness…these could then be reviewed regularly.


I feel if we do a baseline assessment on our learners’ happiness these indicators can help us ensure that we offer these elements of happiness within learning experiences within our specialist curriculum. These observations need to be used to build up a picture of happiness over time.


Overall the ‘happiness boxes’ were excellent in becoming a ‘quick grab resource’ during downtime or in providing quick bursts of happiness throughout the day which can be easily incorporated into the learners individual curriculum plan. The team were very optimistic about the positive impact this project could have on all learners and found the guidelines and recording sheets easy to follow and understand.


It is a resource which could become part of an admissions activity within the first partnership conversation and also created with the support and close liaison of our family support worker.


We must enable each individual to engage with their world and to   achieve their potential so that their lives go beyond being ‘cared for’ to being valued for who they are as people (Mencap 2010)

Nicky 2016


Children and young people with learning disabilities – Understanding their

Mental health DFE


The New Economics Foundation (2008), Five Ways to Wellbeing: The Evidence


National Association of Special Schools (2013) Making Sense of Mental Health. Accessed October 2013.





Sharing a cuppa – our ‘island of hope’

Sitting together for a drink is an important part of the spiritual development of my class. It is an opportunity to share space with others which can be a struggle, to experience calm when we can all relax and overcome stresses, to try new tastes and to express preference through choosing a drink and sometimes a snack.

When you think about the noise and stress of our classrooms for much of the day you can well imagine how wonderful this moment of calm, our ‘island of hope’ as I call it, can be.

Learners work on their communication, ability to be together, to make choices and wait and to be independent in making drink.

One aspect of this which has been an issue for debate in our school is that I offer tea, a hot drink. Of course, safety precautions are taken to ensure that no injuries are incurred.

Research has found that drinking tea can help us recover more quickly from the stresses of life as it reduces the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the body.

Steptoe, Gibson, Vounonvirta, Williams, Hamer, Erusalimsky and Wardle (2006) subjected 2 groups, 1 of tea drinkers, the other a placebo taking group, to stressful situations (threat of unemployment, criminal accusation or an incident in a nursing home), which triggered raised blood pressure stress in both of the groups. However, 50 minutes later, cortisol had dropped by 47 per cent in the tea drinking group compared with 27 per cent in the placebo group; the tea drinkers reported a greater degree of relaxation after the task.

‘Professor Andrew Steptoe, UCL Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, says: “Drinking tea has traditionally been associated with stress relief, and many people believe that drinking tea helps them relax after facing the stresses of everyday life. However, scientific evidence for the relaxing properties of tea is quite limited. . . our study suggests that drinking black tea may speed up our recovery from the daily stresses in life. Although it does not appear to reduce the actual levels of stress we experience, tea does seem to have a greater effect in bringing stress hormone levels back to normal.”


If you would like to recreate this time in your own class then do feel free to copy what I do and if you can think of a way of improving the session let me know.

We sit together, I show a symbol and makaton sign for drink, each learner makes a choice as to what drink they want. I mark on a chart the number of each drink required.

An adult brings an urn with hot water over teaspoons, tea bags, a jug of juice and water, cups and milk. The learners take part in making the drinks.

When we have our drinks we calmly discuss the what has happened in the day so far. I display the visual timetable and ask the learners which activity they have enjoyed most. I then write post-it note rewards and stick them up on photos of the learners. On Friday we go through all the post it notes from the week.

When drinks are finished one of the learners returns the cups to the sink for washing up, if there is time one of the learners does the washing up.

Sherborne – supporting pupils with autism to build a social life using gross motor skills

I have documented in great detail in other blog posts (see ‘Concern for the well being of those with autism in the special school’), that the mental health is concerning due to disproportionately high occurrence of mental ill-health amongst the population of people with autistic spectrum conditions.

In special schools we see and participate in the early stages of the journey each of our learners will take. If we can include in the curriculum the right activities to develop the spiritual side of our learners then perhaps we can limit the potential for poor ill-health in the future. These activities could be those that reduce the level of anxiety experienced by our learners with severe autism, teach them skills that will help to achieve independence and to develop their ability and willingness to express their personalities .

Social groups, in which learners with autism can spend time together can be very important in developing relationships. Children with autism often relate well with each other, this can be a source of resilience and comfort (Karim, Ali, Oreilly, 2014).

The Big Lottery Fund National Well-being Evaluation found that social interventions to improve relationships and reduce social isolation such as focussing on befriending and self-help groups were key in projects aimed at improving well-being for pupils with autistic spectrum conditions (CLES Consulting and new economics foundation, (2013).

Although schools are inherently social places where large numbers of people meet regulalry, they do not necessarily prioritise social interaction as there are other priorities. However, I would argue that for learners with autistic spectrum conditions this would be a crucial area of learning.

Social relationships are crucial for maintaining emotional well-being and learning to be around others, to share and enjoy a space alongside other people are all helpful skills for our learners which will help them to stay healthy and calm throughout life.

In our school, in an effort to encourage learners to socialise, communicate and extend their interests, we have had a push on encouraging learners to be part of social clubs. This was initially very difficult because the learners all travel to and from school on minibuses and taxis that are scheduled by the council and cannot collect the learners at different times on days when there are clubs. However, as we are introducing a new curriculum we have been able to include clubs as part of the weekly offer, learners can choose to attend the clubs they want, each of which relate in some way to their EHCP intentions. At the moment we have dance club, rambling Club and football club. There are plans afoot for a gardening club and LEGO club.

In class we have a Sherborne session each morning. Sherborne Developmental Movement is used regularly in our school for a wide range of learners including those who have autism. We have always found the approach to be useful for our learners but in the course of researching this blog I have come across evidence that supports the use of an effective form of therapy, the positive impact of which has been shown to be significant improvement in the cognitive, emotional, social and motor development in children with autism (Zawadzka, 2014).

What is brilliant about Sherborne as a social intervention for our learners is that it involves touch, a significant aspect of human behaviour (Denworth, 2015), within a safe, relaxing environment.

Our sherborne session takes place at 11am each morning. We turn down the lighting, play music that is calm but has a beat, this helps us relax whilst remaining alert, the learners and staff remove their shoes. Learners check their visual schedules, remove the ‘sherborne’ symbol then match it to the corresponding location on the group carpet area. We say and sign Sherborne (in the absence of an official makaton sign I use the Yoga sign). One learner, who is learning to recognise more complex instruction symbols, looks at our visual instruction board and tells us what movement we do first, the order of movements remains constant although once learners have all learned to participate to the best of their ability we add in another movement. When ready to move on we count down from 10, the learner removes the symbol of the movement we have just done then reads out the next one, we work on that movement until we finish counting down from 10 again and move on to the next. The first and last movement is always walking around in a circle around the outside of the classroom. I have found that this is the movement that most learners can participate in so means that the session starts and ends with full participation so everyone has achieved success and ends on a high. Most of the movements involve two participants working together. We encourage learners to work together if possible or pair a learner with an adult, to help build a relationship the pairings remain constant for a term or until the learner expresses who they would like to work with.

If anyone else uses Sherborne and would like to talk about what you do I would love to hear about it to improve my own session.



Changing the curriculum to bring about success, well-being and progress.

The Big Lottery Fund National Well-being Evaluation found a number of factors key in improving wellbeing including better academic achievement – this suggests that learning interventions must be considered for learners with low levels of well-being in special schools.

Teachers from mainstream schools are often shocked when I say that some of the recent education secretaries, loathed by much of the teaching profession, are quite popular in special schools, having done a great service to SEN teaching. In my school we are delighted to be free from being shackled to the national curriculum, which stipulated that we must teach skills and subjects that were irrelevant to most of our learners, at the expense of addressing what really mattered to them.

Now we are free to use individualised study plans that allow learners to progress in skills and activities that are relevant to them. Imray and Hinchcliffe (2012) argue that people with profound learning difficulties are unlikely to achieve anything at school unless a distinct, relevant style of teaching is used.

Special schools, if they are serious about the mental health of their learners, must ensure that they are working on relevant areas of learning and giving learners the chance to achieve success in skills that matter to them.

Education professionals in special schools have complained that the national curriculum does not meet the needs of their learners. Barber and Goldbart (1998) report that the teaching of National Curriculum subjects to children with severe and profound learning difficulties is of little use. As such we have had the frustration of trying to shoe horn what we know the learners really need into a one-size-does-not-fit-all curriculum. We know for instance that learners with severe or learning difficulties require longer to move along developmental pathways than their mainstream peers, they have different learning styles and may also have neurodevelopmental barriers in regard to some areas of development. This means that learners should have individualised teaching in a flexible curriculum directed by individual need. The focus of this curriculum must be on functional skills to prepare them for their next stage of life whilst maintaining breadth, and progression.

This recommendation has been taken on by Equals, the national organisation seeking to provide the best possible resources for learners with special needs. Under Peter Imray, who has questioned whether the national curriculum is fit for the purpose of providing children with serious learning difficulties with the best possible education, they have started focussing on areas of learning.

This is the approach that our school has taken with learners now working on learning intentions across 6 areas of learning – My Communication, My Body, My World, My Creativity, My Thinking, My Independence.

When setting targets in these areas, aimed to support learners in their primary areas of need and interest, I have found useful the Preparing For Adulthood Outcomes across the age ranges for children and young people with SEND guidelines.

If you think you have tried everything with a young person and they still struggle to engage – perhaps it’s time for drastic measures, have a revolution in the curriculum! And don’t worry about OfSted, they want to see progress, if your learner isn’t making any now then it can’t get any worse!

Supporting Learner Well-Being through Staff Well-Being


This blog aims to help teachers in special schools to help their pupils with severe autism to reduce their stress and anxiety. This blog entry is relevant but a bit off topic. It is also a massive area that I do not have the opportunity to research at this time. For that reason I have not gone into much depth but raise some points that someone may want to follow in the future.


In special schools the staff have, in many cases, become deeply concerned about the mental well-being of our learners, particularly those profoundly affected by autism who often experience high levels of stress and anxiety. This state of mind can have a long term detrimental effect on their mental health. Schools have an important role to play in overcoming anxiety as we seek to support learners to be aspirational, confident and independent. We can seek to achieve this through working to reduce anxiety and stress and promoting well-being in schools.

School staff well-being is an important factor in meeting this need.

Roffey (2012) found that children’s well-being is linked with educational outcomes and their teacher’s own emotional well-being, a teacher’s emotional well-being influences their pupils; “happy teachers produce happy pupils” (Paterson and Grantham, 2016). A survey by Wellbeing Australia (2011) emphasised the relational links between increased teacher well-being, pupil wellbeing and improved school achievement, in the same study participants also reported wellbeing as being important in promoting student mental health.

Yet, despite recognising the nature of workplace stress, our jobs are getting more and not less stressful. This is significant in that it means that special schools must take seriously the emotional well-being, not only of learners, but also of staff.  The interconnectedness of the emotional well-being of teachers and learners means that what is in the best interests of teachers, may also be for students, or vice versa (Paterson and Grantham, 2016).

This is a crucial finding for those teaching in the special school context seeking to support people with profound autism; emotional well-being is vital if teachers are to be successful in supporting challenging and vulnerable learners (Bricheno et al., 2009). However, at present, many teachers find their work demanding, resulting in burn out (Schussler, Jennings, Sharp, Frank, 2016). A report by Special Needs Week (2016) revealed that SENCo’s are trying to manage over 60 different special needs and many feel inadequately resourced for the job.

As little attention has been given to the well-being of teachers in special schools more specific research is needed.

However, some research may be relevant. Paterson and Grantham (2016) suggest that promoting socially supportive relationships within a school between staff, including support staff and senior management can help maintain positive emotional well-being among teachers. Roffey (2012) highlights the positive response of teachers to having their strengths and successes identified by senior management in their setting as this build self-esteem and confidence. It is suggested that positive relationships can be constructive as they provide an emotional outlet for frustrations and anxieties and offers useful opportunities for work load sharing.

The Big Lottery Fund National Well-being Evaluation found a number of factors key in improving staff well-being including improving employment chances, supporting those recovering from mental health problems, reducing stress in the workplace and reducing the stigma around mental health.

Schools can support staff health and wellbeing offering assessment of emotional health and providing support to enable staff to take actions to enhance their own wellbeing and by promoting a work-life balance.

Turning a school into a healthy workplace conducive to positive mental health is, in many cases, a huge task, far too big to go into much detail here.

Below are a few suggestions that seem to be effective but, as each school and staff body is so different, they cannot compare to a proper assessment of the needs of your own setting and implementation of setting specific culture. For far more help driving positive change consider implementing the Workplace Wellbeing Charter National Standards; see the Charter website (

  • Shared relaxation at work

When investigating on the internet what makes a school a healthy workplace it is clear that there is a huge trend at the moment – Mindfulness. There has been a reasonable amount of research conducted across countries suggesting that Mindfulness helps staff to reduce stress and increase well-being (Shadi et al, 2016). A course on mindfulness can lead to more constructive thought patterns going forward so the benefit is long lasting.

Mindfulness is an example of an activity that is beneficial for well-being, other options may similar offer benefits; consider yoga, fitness classes such as boxercise, pilates or dance, group running, gardening, walking. The downside of these is that if stress is the result of workload the work will still be there when the class is over.

  • Collaborative working

It is one of life’s great ironies: schools are in the business of teaching and learning, yet they are terrible at learning from each other. If they ever discover how to do this, their future is assured (Fullan, 2001 p92).

School staff can improve their stress levels through improving their work practice around collaboration.


  • Positive understanding of behaviour

Student behaviour has a massive impact on teacher stress levels (Schaubman, Stetson, Plog, 2011). However, it has been found that training staff to understand and explain challenging behavior as having an underlying cause, using a proactive, positive approach significantly decreases teacher stress. For more information on positive behaviour support visit the website of the British Institute of Learning Difficulties,

Understanding emotions – supporting the well being and spiritual development of learners with autism through learning about feelings

A child’s emotional, social and psychological wellbeing influences their future health, education and social prospects (Lawson, 2015).

A significant area of challenge faced by people with autistic spectrum conditions (ASC) is that of emotions (Hadwin et al, 2009); this area affects the way in which they interact with both their own feelings and those of others.

For many people the more immediately pressing of these, for those with learning difficulties, sensory processing disorders, behavioural difficulties and many other traits often experienced by people with autism is in understanding and controlling their own emotions, especially when these emotions are negative (Well, 2012). Struggling to understand and control ones own emotions can effect behaviour, social relationships, family well-being, achievement in school, levels of stress and anxiety and mental health, having a massively detrimental impact on an individual’s life and that of their family, class mates and school staff.

The second area of emotion-related challenge is a difficulty with empathy – understanding and responding to the feelings of others. Due to an underdeveloped theory of mind (ToM) people with ASC can find it difficult to attribute mental states to others, to work out what someone is thinking or feeling. Importantly, people with ASC do not struggle with all aspects of empathy, most are caring people who feel a drive to respond appropriately to another person’s emotions, this is called Affective empathy (Cohen, 2015).

People with autism often struggle to process faces, this leads to a difficulty in recognising emotions from facial Expressions (Ryan, Charraga´in, 2010). Although people with ASC and more severe learning difficulties can learn to recognise facial expressions, it is more difficult, for them to learn a genuine understanding of the mental states of others, including emotions (Hadwin, 1995).

Feelings are an important part of our selves so learning about them is significant in our spiritual development. Thus schools hoping to improve well-being should seek to help learners to identify and respond to emotions, perhaps to even be able to modify them in times of stress.

A number of attempts have been made to teach emotion recognition skills to children and adults with autism (Bo¨lte et al. 2006; Golan and Baron-Cohen 2006). Swettenham (1996) reports that using computers to teach emotions is reasonably effective because computers involve no social factors; they are consistent and predictable; and they allow the learner to control the work at their own pace.

In recent years books and resources have been produced to support people with Asperger’s syndrome or high functioning autism, for example the STAMP treatment manual or Zippy’s Friends Special Needs Supplement.

Whilst these have been found to be useful for high functioning children with ASC, they have not had the same results in children with a specific diagnosis of autistic disorder with co-morbid intellectual disability (Williams, Gray and Tonge, 2012) such as those with severe communication and cognitive deficits, severe autistic features, relationship and engagement problems (Lawson, 2015). While these and other resources are worth investigating for ideas, there is very little produced specifically for people with severe learning difficulties and autism.

Some ideas to include in your curriculum to work on feelings are:

Feelings – The Transporters – The Transporters is a DVD series which was produced in association with the autism research centre in Cambridge, the result of research into the difficulty children with autism face with theory of mind. It uses vehicles onto which human actors’ faces have been transposed as its characters to teach about emotions. The sessions can be extended with a further pack of resources available from the website but these look as if they may be more suitable for higher functioning individuals.


The blurb on the website tells us:

“Children with autism tend to love vehicles. In particular, children with autism love vehicles that move predictably – like trams, cable cars and trains. They tend to dislike objects that move unpredictably.

With The Transporters, children who don’t naturally want to look at real people’s unpredictable faces are encouraged to do so because they are “grafted” onto beautifully predictable, attractive vehicles.”

The series has been evaluated by the Autism Research Centre for its effectiveness for children aged 4 to 8 with ASC (autistic spectrum condition). “The results suggest that The Transporters DVD is an effective way to teach emotion recognition to children with ASC and that the learning generalises to new faces and new situations.”

However, an Austrlian study (Williams, Gray, and Tonge, 2012) found that the effect of using The Transporters is most suited to children with high functioning autism as the effects are negligible in people who have ASC and severe learning difficulties.


Feelings – Talk about feelings – Discussing and matching feelings in class groups is possible in some settings, depending upon the ability of the learners. One colleague finds that her learners engage well in a feelings sharing task. Each learner has a board onto which are printed symbols for happy, sad, poorly, tired, excited, feelings symbols and photos of their classmates and staff. Learners and staff take it in turns to use symbols to say how they feel and they record each other’s feelings on their boards. This prompts an opportunity to make a comment on how many people’s photos are in each feeling category.

The aim of these sessions is to recognise symbols that can be used to communicate feelings, to listen to their peers, match symbols and use appropriate language to express feelings.

Feelings – iPad apps – I have not found anything that has worked for all learners in my class but this app, Autism Emotion, has been popular and useful with 2 of the young people I have taught. In both cases it has seemed to help extend their vocabulary and led to one of them using relevant words to describe her feelings before getting too anxious.

The maker’s blurb:

Autism Emotion™ is a great visual teaching tool for helping your child learn about different emotions through photos, text, narration, and music. The App includes four emotions; Happy – Sad – Calm – Proud. Each emotion contains a photo slide show of a child experiencing a specific emotion.

Touch the forward and back buttons to move through the photos one by one. Or simply press the slide show button to advance photos automatically. The app also includes audio narration (English), descriptive text of each photo, and songs by Music Therapist Rachel Rambach.

For each of these activities learners are aiming to recognise emotions and use appropriate language to label them.



Our Class Feelings Session

Despite this contradictory evidence, my experience of using the Transporters in my classes has been very positive.

I try to have daily ‘Feelings’ session. We sit together in an environment that is not over stimulating, I show an A4 symbol for ‘feelings’ (made on the program Communicate in Print, a tool I find invaluable) then we sing and sign, using Makaton, a song about feelings in order to queue learners into the activity (I use The Feelings Song by KIDSTV123 available on, a colleague does something similar using ‘Lean on Me’). We then share a sensory story that involves signing each of the feelings that we have introduced. We then discuss our own feelings, selecting an emotion from a choice board, this supports learners with communication as they make a full sentence using either their voices or symbols to say ‘I feel (emotion)’. One of my learners has the ability to record information; he is supported to produce a bar chart to represent the spread of emotions within the class. We then watch an episode of The Transporters and end with a quiz on the interactive whiteboard; this is provided on the Transporters DVD.



Using spirituality in the curriculum to support the well-being of pupils with autism

In special schools the staff have, in many cases, become deeply concerned about the mental well-being of our learners, particularly those profoundly affected by autism who often experience high levels of stress and anxiety. Stress can have a long term detrimental effect on their mental health. Schools have an important role to play in overcoming anxiety as we seek to support learners to be aspirational, confident and independent. We can seek to achieve this through working to reduce anxiety and stress and promoting well-being in schools.

Research has shown that having a spiritual life may serve as a psychological and social resource for coping with stress (Koenig, 2010). Spirituality in this sense does not mean religious practice, although this does seem to help, but developing a sense of self. This provides coping strategies for difficult experiences (Minora, Grant, 2014) so protects well-being.

Hence it makes sense, and is a statutory obligation (Education Reform Act 1988, Chap.40, Section 1, Education Act 1944), for special schools, wanting to provide an education that meets their needs of their learners, to consider how to include a spiritual element into their curriculum.

However, little has been researched about what spirituality means for people with a learning disability (Swinton, 2002). Certainly, spirituality is a complex issue, for anyone, but particularly for people with a learning disability because of the different ways in which they communicate, engage and interact with the world, the environment and the people around them (Barber, 2013).

Flo Longhorn has written on developing spirituality through RE in special schools. She starts by explaining that we are all spiritual beings – we have a sense of self expressed through desires, feelings, beliefs and opinions which extend beyond our immediate impulses and shape our behaviour. This is true for people with ASC as much as for anyone else (Bogsdashina, 2013). Learners may develop their personalities, opinions and self-expression at a slow pace but this does not mean that their awareness of a deeper dimension to life is limited, indeed anecdotally, people with ASC have been reported to understand and apply spiritual ideas in a way that the mass of humanity struggles to do (Longhorn, 1993).

It is difficult to find consensus in defining spirituality (Van der Veer, 2009) but most definitions (for example from the National Curriculum Council 1993; School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, 1995; the British Humanist Society), include ‘meaning and purpose’, ‘values’ and ‘relationships (Baker, 2012).

According to Flo Longhorn, guru of SEN teaching, schools should promote an awareness of spirituality by developing the ability to choose, interpret and understand (Longhorn, 1993, p1). Learners can be stretched by considering this area of learning as the development of their whole personalities.

When considering provision for learners with learning difficulties we must be careful to offer activities and information that is useful at their particular level of understanding and development. For example when considering the provision of religious education it may be that a learner is unable to comprehend the ten coins but they can learn to receive and say thank you, they may not understand the parable of The Good Samaritan but they can care for others.

Flo Longhorn suggests having discrete RE lessons using multi-sensory approaches, working through a curriculum that aims to teach the following 8 areas of prominence. These areas are recognising me, being aware of others, recognising my needs, recognising the needs of others, seeing the world around me, the numinous sense, celebrating life, reflecting on life. For more information on developing this sort of RE in the curriculum see her book, Religious Education for Very Special Children (1993).

However, since the academisation process many special schools have moved away from traditional curriculum with discrete subjects and are looking for more effective ways of promoting spiritual well-being in learners who struggle to access traditional teaching.

All that I have written on this blog so far leads to the ultimate question that we face as educators of people with ASC in special schools. What can we be doing in special schools that may be of benefit for the spiritual well-being of learners? What can we do to promote their abilities to choose, interpret, understand in a way that is unique to them – to develop their whole personalities?

Thanks to the Farmington Institue, Univeristy of Oxford, I have had the opportunity to begin identifying, researching, planning and introducing activities that help in reducing anxiety and developing the spiritual character of our learners. Please browse and use as much as you like from the others blogs on this site.

Emotional well-being Vs. mental health

Important to note. . . 

One important clarification to make early on in the life of this blog is that the aim of this blog is to help staff in special schools to support the emotional well-being of young people with autism rather than their mental health.

Although mental health is mentioned regularly as a significant related field, most school staff will not be appropriately trained to take the lead in treating medical conditions, we are not trained medical professionals.

Mental health is not necessarily even connected with emotional well-being. For instance people who report high levels of satisfaction and happiness can be susceptible to depression whilst those who suffer trauma and distress may never develop mental health problems.

There has been a wealth of work on how best to treat people with mental health problems but not all of these are useful for people with learning disabilities or autistic spectrum disorders. For example, talking therapies are usually seen as the best way to tackle problems relating to the stresses of life (Karim, Ali, O’Reilly, 2014). Cognitive Behaviour Therapy is a commonly used, highly researched, therapy used to treat a range of problems including treating factors that lead to depression, but there is no evidence that it is effective in helping young people with autism (White et al, 2009).

Having said all that; as I have made clear in other blogs, what we do to support our learners now may have long term beneficial effects on their mental health. What we can do is try to relieve symptoms and causes of anxiety amongst those learners whom we know well and care about with the aim of preparing them for adult life. We can and must promote emotional well-being.