“I am going to school.” Transition and autism

Making connections

Project author:

Project summary:

This project is a narrative account of the impact of introducing ‘I AM… Digital Stories’ into my nursery. It tells the story of a boy, his mum and his teachers as they approach the transition from nursery to school.

Introduction

Judith Newman ( 1984, p.3) wrote, ‘We are used to seeing what children don’t know.’

Recent experience of form-filling to secure additional support for a number of pupils reminded me how such a ‘deficit-model’ view that can creep into classrooms. The information shared on these forms did not tell the whole story nor did it celebrate the whole child. Looking for something to augment these forms drew me to the Autism Community Research Network, (ACoRNS), ‘I AM …Digital Story Guides.’ The aim of these short video stories is to ‘…place the child’s view at the centre and focus on who the child is, rather than assessing or describing what they can or cannot do.’ (ACoRNS, p.1, 2022).

I decided to trial this method with one child who displays autistic traits at home and at nursery and who is heading to Primary 1 in August, also in the hope that it could be replicated in the near future.

In what ways could a digital story enhance or support the transition and help the whole child to be known? This view of the whole child, unity and connectedness are foundational Froebelian principles for this case study.

Context

Nationally 30.9% of Scottish school aged pupils face barriers to learning (The Scottish Government, Morgan Report, p.4, 2020). Within our nursery we too have children facing barriers. Currently 63% of our pupils have additional support needs, double the national average. The needs we see at the nursery are diverse and vary in longevity, stability and complexity, often arising from family circumstances, rural poverty and inequality, or developmental conditions from birth. 25% of our pupils are awaiting an autism diagnosis, some of whom will be transitioning to the multi-composite Primary 1-4 class after the summer holidays. The nursery is set within a rural Primary school and moving on to school is usually a smooth transition for our pupils.

Facing change and times of transition for a child with autism, though, can be overwhelming as familiar routines and relationships are disrupted. Strongly linked to the condition are difficulties with communication and social interactions. However, facing change when you are known and within a context of emotionally stable relationships with adults attuned to your needs adds a protective coating for the child (Werner, E., 2005).

It was important then to think about transition for children with autism or additional needs in terms of being or becoming known and making connections with new adults.

The method of creating this digital story included observation, mapping, filming, describing and editing over a month-long period. Alongside everyday observational videos and photographs, filming included the child filming using a ‘Wearcam’. ‘I’ statements were written as text slides. These included the child’s statements from mapping as well as the parent’s view of the child. Because I could see that this process would be lengthy and involve learning new technological skills, I decided to focus on one child only. During the creation of the video I kept a reflexive diary and tried to suspend preconceptions. Adding to my account, the child’s parent shared descriptions and thoughts about their child and the child’s future move to school, whilst nursery colleagues gave verbal feedback and three Primary colleagues wrote their responses to watching the digital story. I wanted to find out what insights they had gained. Had they got to know the child better; and on the strength of the video alone, could they choose the child a suitable birthday present? This latter question was suggested by ACoRNS’ Co-Director, Sarah Parsons, who also gave feedback about the video.

You can view the video here.

Ethics

Consent was given for all involved. Video content was stored safely and securely.

Together this ‘mosaic of perspectives’ (Clark, A. and Moss, P., 2010, p.11) would help me co- construct meaning about supporting transitions.

Having the digital story as an end product kept me rooted and very mindful of the ethical imperative to represent someone faithfully and fairly.

'Start where the child is.'

A Froebelian maxim

Findings

For fellow educators the unanimous response was an increased awareness of how to meet the support needs of this child and a gained sense of the whole child. They highlighted that the video told them more about the child in an efficient, effective, engaging, sustainable and insightful way than a written assessment. This was irrespective of having met or seen the child before and irrespective of teaching experience. Three of the respondents had never met the child. Out of the four who watched the video, two are experienced Primary teachers, one is a third year B.Ed. student on placement at the school and the other is a Professor at the University of Southampton. Their response to watching the video engaged them at a level that promoted personal investment and positive anticipation in getting to know the child. For instance, the Primary 1 teacher talked about how much she was now looking forward to the child coming to her class and that she would not have known how ‘smiley he is’ from a written report. The teacher questionnaire attached to the video added direction and purpose to the viewing experience, in particular inviting the teacher to reflect and draw on personal and professional values and skills. Had the video been a stand-alone experience, would it have achieved the same sense of investment and connection to the child?

My reflections written over a four-week period highlighted the importance of giving children unhurried, deep and full attention (Clark, 2023). This was brought home to me watching the Wearcam footage; seeing the lived experience as the child lives, breathes and sees it. I could hear the child’s breathing as they built a robot, as they moved or sat still. I could hear other busy children, see their actions and sense how that made the child feel. It was an eye- opener. What I perceived as a calm environment was actually full of stimulation and provocations. Clark (p. 80. 2023) drew my attention to Rinaldi’s (2005, 2006) concept of ‘opening up to the perspectives of others; and visible listening, which creates a tangible record of this process’. This was evident as I shared my first edit of the video with Sarah Parsons. I had concerns that one of the text slides included ‘teacher talk’ but her reply to consider ‘…if the child could put this in their own words what would they say about themselves?’ helped me edit the text from ‘I use transitional objects’ to ‘Robot likes to see what I see’. I then added video footage to illustrate this. Her opinion that, ‘The viewer of the Story will be able to apply their knowledge’ was evident in the responses gained from educators and this phenomenological approach was powerful.

Other reflections were more practical. Sharing the video in Term 3, rather than written assessments at the end of the academic year, means the teacher can start to plan and prepare for the child’s transition in advance and plan for potential follow-up visits. The video could become a possible reference point for future progress. Learning the editing process and how to use a Wearcam was time consuming but gave me a new skill. I can see that in-house training in creating a digital story for Key Workers is my next step to make this a sustainable part of our transition programme for those with additional support needs.

Conclusion

This project made many connections; between research and practice; child and adult; nursery, school and home and between colleagues, even between a novice and technology. It was a strengthening, affirming experience. Creating a digital story made ‘visible listening’ real. The goal to make the child known was achieved in an authentic and respectful way and one that afforded colleagues time to apply values and skills. Trisha Lee (2016, p.56) suggests that we are hardwired to think in story terms. Stories help us process experiences, construct meaning and memories.

I love that the digital story connected with the Froebelian principles of starting with the child and always linking, even physically, as images and text were linked on the digital story. For this story it is not the end.

Research implications

My colleague’s project has had a positive impact on our setting. The implication of this project has been inspiring and well thought out on every aspect to capture the learning of a child in one of the biggest transitions of his life. As a setting the percentage of children with Autism has gone up but to capture the learning is so significant and a huge part of an Autistic Childs life is transition and my colleague sourced the cam which really gripped the team to see it through a child’s lens and was really gripping to watch, the music with the video really took you into the individuals world and almost would make you emotional to see the quality of play and how far they have come. Froebel highlighted Freedom with Guidance for children to think for themselves, make choices and problem solve and in my colleagues research it highlights the importance of supporting a child this is evident for allowing them to problem solve and being able to step back and observe and intervening where necessary. The project was well resourced the time, thought and effort to capture the significant parts of the learning for this child highlights the dedication and passion to support and nature children with Autism the best way possible and certainly has influenced this for future practice especially for parents and primary one teachers to capture the learning from a child’s perspective and support going forward. As a setting our ‘I am included Policy’ really supports this piece of research it is inclusive to support and extend all children’s learning. It supports our belief in Froebelian Principles and this is embedded in our practice which this research demonstrates! It has been shared with our Primary 1-4 Teacher and Head teacher as well as primary colleagues who agree the positive aspect of this research, and how valuable this is. This piece of research has influenced future observation and will be such a valuable aspect to encourage and use within the setting going forward it’s a natural way of capturing the learning and sharing progress. It is a triangulation of learning including the setting, children and parents, It is really wonderful!!

Practitioner enquiry

I highly value this piece of research it really captures learning for our children especially when daily life in the nursery can be challenging. It is from their level and highlights the importance of how much support is required for that individual but also how much intervention they need and knowing when to step in and stand back. I think as a region this is something that would be very valuable to share and integrate as part of observation for our children’s learning and moving on. The more it is shared and understood I think it would benefit many people to understand children more deeply! My colleague is really thorough and I know from start to finish this project has had the highest of expertise which makes it even more valuable, as we say “Sharing is Caring”!

Leadership learning

I have learned a massive amount from this research programme, it has taught me how important it is to liaise and share practice together. It has supported and extended my own learning to share, reflect and evaluate practice, allowing room to make progress. It was reassuring in your own learning that you are researching and capturing the most significant part of practice and documenting it professionally. The learning shared has inspired us to want more it is like a book a new chapter begins!

Author and role

Jill Murray, Colleague

Comments from other network members

What did you appreciate about this research? What forward-looking questions did it raise for you?

  1. Jacqueline Craig
    Jacqueline Craig
    13 Jun 2023 at 8:36 pm

    I absolutely loved this project. It has inspired me to do better about capturing the perspective of our wee ones with autism. What a gift your video will be to a P1 teacher, providing real insight into what matters to this child. I loved the question -does the video give you enough of an understanding of the child to buy a suitable birthday present. I am going to use that as a reflective question for all the transition information I send to colleagues.
    Well done on an amazing thought provoking, inclusive project.


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  2. Ruth Johnson
    Ruth Johnson • Post Author •
    13 Jun 2023 at 9:54 pm

    Ah thank you so much Jacueline (sorry the 4th letter of your name is the only key that doesn’t work on my keyboard! It’s a real pain!).
    I cannot take any credit for the birthday present uestion or even idea of digital stories, I was so inspired myself by the I AM Digital Stories project that I wanted to trail it. I found it a very powerful way of capturing the whole child. Thinking about a birthday present helps you become more invested in the child and makes the child more relatable. Thanks for taking the time to read my project.


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  3. Anya Wright
    Anya Wright
    14 Jun 2023 at 3:10 pm

    It was interesting to see you used media instead of a end of year assessment. It seems to have had a positive impact on everyone involved. You have really brought the child to the centre. Well done.


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  4. Ruth Johnson
    Ruth Johnson • Post Author •
    14 Jun 2023 at 5:19 pm

    Thank you Anya. I have continued to write an end of year Progress Report but I sent this to the teacher in March so that she was prepared about the child.


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  5. Nikki Smith
    Nikki Smith
    16 Jun 2023 at 12:38 pm

    Your project is amazing Ruth and your children are lucky to have you as their teacher. Your project shows you knows them so well and are able to share who they are as an individual as part of their transition in a way that meets their needs. This is an inspiring project for me as I have already recognised children in my setting who would benefit from a digital story as part of their transition next year. I hope you continue to implement more amazing projects with your class 🙂


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  6. Ruth Johnson
    Ruth Johnson • Post Author •
    20 Jun 2023 at 4:51 pm

    Thank you Nikki. I’d encourage you to give it a go! Visit the I am Digital stories website as it gives a comprehensive list of what to do. I’d do it in Term 3 when It’s a bit more uiet-say Feb/March. Use the Mapping sheet and then look for pictures or videos to back up your observations. Then have a day or time when they wear the WearCam. Editing it all together was lengthy but once you get the hang of it not too bad. Definitely try to dedicated time off the floor to do it. I left the Wear Cam on for a very long period of time and then had to view it all back-maybe limit the time your child wears it. And start with ONE child only because it’s a big time commitment. However, I reckon once you’ve done it once, it will become easier next time.


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