Wellbeing Hub: Exemplification of Effective Practice

Harberton Special School

The following information and resources, including photos and videos, are from Harberton Special School, Belfast, and describe the new training programme to support their pupils with emotional awareness and emotional regulation.

This video demonstrates how Attention Autism strategies help pupils to self-regulate.

Teaching Pupils with Severe and Complex Needs how to Self-Regulate

In 2021, as a result of the significant increase in the number of pupils with challenging behaviours and emotional needs, Harberton staff identified the need to develop:

  • Social and Emotional Learning (SEL); and
  • how to support pupils to self-regulate.

To meet the needs of individual pupils, the school invested in an extensive whole-staff training programme. In this programme, the staff:

  • developed a greater awareness of the sensory needs of the pupils;
  • learned about co-regulation as a strategy to help reduce pupil stress and anxiety levels; and
  • learned how to support pupils with self-regulation.

The school introduced new approaches for developing co-regulation and self-regulation, including an intervention approach: Attention Autism.

Attention Autism is now successfully embedded in classroom practice and supports pupils with managing their emotions and self-regulation.

Attention Autism is an intervention model designed by Gina Davies a specialist speech and language therapist. It aims to develop natural and spontaneous communication through the use of visually based and highly motivating activities.

Find out more about the whole school process of development – the training programme, Attention Autism, and how these impact on pupil emotional regulation:

Introduction and School Context

Harberton Special School, Belfast, was established in 1959. The school currently caters for Nursery to end of KS4. There are 312 pupils based over two sites: Harberton South, and the satellite provision Harberton North. Harberton South is based in Harberton Park and Harberton North is based In Fortwilliam Park.

There are 68 teaching staff, including a Principal and two Vice Principals. Harberton employs 126 classroom assistants, who provide essential support to the teachers and the pupils of the school. The staff are highly skilled and trained in working with pupils with severe and complex needs.

There are two Outreach Departments that work across the Belfast area. The Harberton Outreach Learning Service supports pupils experiencing difficulties with reading and early literacy development in mainstream primary schools. The staff are all experienced in supporting pupils with reading difficulties and use a range of teaching and learning methods to develop these important skills. Intervention plans are written to support the pupils and one-to-one and small-group teaching sessions address the learning targets.

The Outreach Behaviour Team works to support pupils with Social, Behavioural Emotional and Wellbeing (SBEW) needs. The team provides training and support for class teachers and classroom assistants and writes intervention plans for the pupils, sharing good practice with strategies and resources to help pupils and the staff. There are several behaviour classroom assistants, who support pupils with SBEW and provide a model for managing challenging behaviour within a mainstream setting.

Provision and Connections with Outside Agencies

There is school-based provision for speech therapy and occupational therapy on both sites and counselling services are available for pupils. Harberton is linked with the Education Authority (EA) Sensory Service, and they support pupils who are Deaf and/or Visually Impaired. The service makes regular visits, and staff receive training as required to continue the support.

Any pupil with physiotherapy on their statement can be treated at Harberton School. Allied Health Professionals (AHPs) are heavily involved with the school and provide training and support for teachers in toileting, diabetes, peg feeding, anaphylaxis, asthma and CPR.

Creating a School Ethos which supports pupils to Self-Regulate

At Harberton Special School we believe in the concept of lifelong learning and the concept that learning should be a rewarding and enjoyable experience for everyone. School ethos is a crucial factor in prompting pupils’ learning and development in all areas and Harberton promotes a learning culture which recognises everyone’s potential, builds self-esteem, and rewards success at every level.

A key factor in promoting pupil self-regulation is staff wellbeing and this is central to the ethos of the school. Harberton adopts a trauma-sensitive approach towards emotional health and wellbeing for both pupils and staff. To understand and respond to pupils’ emotional needs, staff need to be able to look after their own health and wellbeing. The school supports this by providing links with counselling and support services, promoting staff activities to encourage good health and wellbeing, and providing a free gym facility on the Harberton South site. There is also at least one staff wellbeing day a year.

Our highly-skilled, knowledgeable and hard-working staff are committed to enabling every child to achieve his/her full potential. We place equal emphasis on education and care, and the staff seek to develop pupil self-worth and build pupil self-esteem through nurturing secure relationships in highly-structured and stimulating classroom environments. Many of our pupils are the most vulnerable in society, with complex needs, including communication difficulties, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and SBEW issues, and it is vital that pupils feel safe, secure, and comfortable in their learning environment. We use a trauma-informed approach, building an ethos within each classroom that ensures pupils learn ‘Social and Emotional Learning’ (SEL) skills and how best to self-regulate. They are given the opportunity, support, and encouragement to succeed and to have access to programmes of learning which match their stages of development.

Developing ‘Social and Emotional Learning’ (SEL) skills in pupils helps them develop relationships, interpersonal skills, resilience, responsible decision making, social awareness and self-management. These core competencies are skills for life.

Teaching Pupils to Self-Regulate: The Process of Development

Whole School Audit

In 2021, as part of a whole school audit, staff identified the need to evaluate how we support pupils with emotional awareness and emotional regulation. There has been a significant increase in the number of pupils with challenging behaviours and emotional needs and this was becoming more difficult to manage in the classroom. Developing SEL and focusing on helping pupils to become more regulated became a key area for development. This exemplification describes the process involved in taking this forward and successful strategies introduced by the school, including training and resourcing.

Whole Staff Training

As learner profiles had changed, and pupils’ needs had become more severe and complex, training for all staff was crucial – to empower staff and give them the necessary skills and knowledge to meet the needs of the pupils, and to help them self-regulate.

A programme of training for all staff included:

  • The Middletown Centre whole school support programme.
  • Staff Training, including:
    • Attention Autism
    • Autism: learning style and visual methodologies
    • Sensory Processing
    • Make and Take.
  • Two staff members completed the 5-day TEACCH training programme.
  • Specific staff training from AHPs on meeting the sensory and communication needs of pupils in the classroom environment, including Make and Take sessions.
  • TACPAC and Sensology training, including resources for all staff.
  • Developing Engagement and Interaction in Early Learners.
  • Aided Language Stimulation (ALS) and Alternative, Augmentative Communication (AAC).
  • Team Teach refresher training, with a focus on co-regulation and de-escalation.
  • Refresher sessions from AHPs on meeting sensory and communication needs.

To embed and further develop good practice within school, a Core Team and Core Groups were set up for: Wellbeing; Sensory; Environment; Communication; and Attention Autism. Staff, in groups, were empowered and skilled to model and share good practice across the whole school.

The training developed and embedded skills and knowledge for staff, and improved the learning environment, resources and structures/routines for pupils with severe and complex needs including ASD.

Co-Regulation and Self-Regulation

For all learners in Harberton Special School, co-regulation and self-regulation are integral and essential parts of Social Emotional Learning (SEL). Many aspects of the whole school training programme created a greater awareness of the sensory needs of the pupils and taught the staff about co-regulation as a strategy to reduce pupil stress and anxiety levels. Co-regulation is a foundational starting point or building block towards pupil self-regulation. As all pupils are at different stages in their emotional development, the training ensured that staff were better equipped to respond to pupils’ emotional needs, by using co-regulation as an initial step towards pupil self-regulation.

Through co-regulation, our staff help pupils to recognise their emotions by commenting on their emotional responses with empathy and by modelling/providing coping strategies, for example staff may comment: ‘I can see your body is clenched tight and your eyebrows are scrunched, I am wondering if you are feeling angry? When I feel angry, I blow some bubbles, or I go for a walk, or I use a fidget toy.’ Providing predictable routines, structure and coping strategies help pupils develop a sense of security and they know what to expect. This practice is an everyday occurrence in all classrooms.

When a pupil is in an extremely heightened state, we have agreed steps that staff members can take to co-regulate with the pupil. It is essential that:

  • The adult is in a calm state and not emotionally heightened.
  • The individual pupil needs are considered, as well as the environment that the pupil requires: there are breakout spaces and sensory areas available for pupils who are emotionally dysregulated. Using a visual cue or an object, the staff member can prompt the pupil to go to one of these areas. There are also in-class pop-up blackout tents that are more appropriate to use if the pupil prefers to stay in the classroom environment.
  • Through co-regulation, staff lead by example. They do this by:
    • providing a warm and responsive relationship for each pupil; and
    • modelling how to deal with different situations and emotions, for example how to stay calm in challenging situations.

By calmly modelling how to respond in various types of situations, pupils learn how to respond and self-regulate in similar situations.

Key strategies (including Attention Autism) were introduced and embedded as approaches for developing co-regulation and self-regulation and were integral to the School Development Plan.

In 2021 the Harberton Social, Behavioural Emotional and Wellbeing (SBEW) Outreach Team led the training in these strategies for the whole school. The team continue to provide advice and support to teachers, including providing interventions for individual pupils, and support and links with parents and carers.

Attention Autism

Harberton has adopted the highly successful Attention Autism strategy. Attention Autism was devised by Gina Davies, who is a specialist speech and language therapist and an expert in her field of work (see Practical Help with Autism – Gina Davies Autism Centre for more information). Co-regulation and self-regulation underpin the Attention Autism strategy. Fun and engaging activities capture the attention of the pupils – there is a shared focus and joint attention, with all pupils and adults focusing on the activity being presented to them. It is a highly visual, very motivating strategy, and a fun and interactive way to teach many areas of the curriculum. This approach is used throughout the school and is supported by the Speech Therapy Team. Attention Autism can be used as a strategy to teach SEL, as pupils are fully engaged with the activity and more attentive. The teacher can model self-regulation strategies, and the pupils get a chance to practise them in Stage 3. There are four stages in ‘Attention Autism'.

Stage 1: The Bucket: Attention-Grabber 1

Stage 1 uses a bucket or other age-appropriate container such as a bag or a toolbox (something that is topical and motivating for the pupils). The bucket contains fun and appealing colourful toys or objects to engage the pupils. The teacher sings the ‘bucket song’ and introduces the toys or objects using simple language. The bucket song is a short catchy tune such as ‘Here we go round the Mulberry bush’ and is sung by the teacher. The lyrics are, ‘I’ve got something in my ‘bucket,’ in my ‘bucket,’ in my ‘bucket.’ I’ve got something in my ‘bucket,’ I wonder what it is?’ Stage 1 is very quick and snappy. Please note: other songs can be used at this stage. It is important to adapt this stage and use age-appropriate songs or even raps. Similarly, the toys or objects in ‘the bucket’ can be chosen to be as motivating, topical and appropriate for individual pupils and/or the whole group.

Stage 2: The Attention-Builder

Stage 2 is a visual activity that holds the pupil’s attention for a little bit longer than Stage 1: it can be multisensory, exciting, and messy! The teacher demonstrates and rehearses skills with the aim of holding the pupils’ attention for a longer period of time.

See Photo 7: Building attention using ‘emotions’ faces.

Stage 3: Turn-Taking and Shifting Attention

Stage 3 is a turn-taking activity which teaches children to wait, and the children model taking turns. The children could enjoy their turn-taking activities in the classroom or outdoors. Examples include taking turns to blow bubbles, or to fly a kite. Waiting for your turn and participating in the activity promotes children’s self-regulation and develops their Social and Emotional Learning (SEL).

See Photos 8, 9 and 10: Attention Autism: Turn-taking activities.

Stage 4: Shift Attention and Re-engage

In Stage 4, pupils need to shift their attention and work individually to complete a short creative task. The teacher provides all the materials. The teacher models and supports the task for the pupil.

See Photos 11 and 12: Individual pupil work.

Our monthly planners show:

  • the different activities within each stage of Attention Autism;
  • the resources required; and
  • the key language.

All the activities on the Attention Autism planner link to other regulation strategies, and in the Harberton Attention Autism Emotions Planner the focus for the group of pupils was to get an opportunity to practise different ways to regulate and record what they like on their personal regulation tool kit.

The video highlights the use of the Attention Autism strategy as approaches to Social and Emotional Learning (SEL), and how pupils can develop self-regulation.

We have also collaborated with the speech therapists on approaches to help pupils with communication difficulties. Communication boards are used throughout the school and complement and support the Attention Autism strategy. We use ‘Communicate in Print,’ a desktop publishing program for creating symbol-supported resources throughout the school to make information more accessible while providing consistency for the pupils. ‘Communicate in Print’ is an app available to all schools on the My-School page (see MY-SCHOOL–Login).

Figures 1 and 2 show examples of Emotions Communication Boards. 

Please note: other software packages and resources such as ‘Writing With Symbols’ and ‘Makaton’ are available to help pupils to communicate. To access a range of editable templates to create visual supports and learning materials, see Design Symbol Materials to Print.

The Impact

As a result of the implementation of Attention Autism and other regulation strategies, the Harberton staff have observed that pupils have more emotional awareness and are able to self-regulate more effectively. Staff have indicated the success of the strategies in developing co-regulation and pupil self-regulation. Staff report that pupils really enjoy and engage with Attention Autism, can take on the language associated with and modelled in various situations, and as a result, become more aware of their emotions and most importantly, can regulate better. One class teacher noted that the pupils have all made progress in developing awareness of their emotions, and that many pupils can verbalise or use the Communication boards to say ‘why’ they are feeling a particular way.

Next Steps

Our regulation strategies, which include Attention Autism, are successfully embedded as part of the ethos of all classrooms in Harberton and are integral to all aspects of daily lessons and routines. Their success in supporting pupils to achieve self-regulation is the rationale for continuing these strategies into the future. The SBEW Outreach Team will continue to lead refresher training for regulation strategies: all training will be revisited this academic year to ensure that practices become further embedded and links with parents further developed over this year, and beyond.