Mentoring and Wellbeing
Mentoring and Wellbeing
When it comes to working with students with special needs, building a rapport and a sense of trust is just as important as boosting academic achievement. An experienced SEN tutor will understand that behind a child’s hostility or reluctance to engage with schoolwork, there is probably a huge amount of anxiety coupled with low self-worth.
Because of this, the tutor will aim to develop a nurturing relationship with a young person before any learning takes place, says specialist teacher and tutor Kelly. “You can’t put the cart before the horse” she explains. “By the time a student comes to us, they’re often at rock-bottom. They may have disengaged with their education provider and their parents are probably worried. You have to find a way to bring learning alive again for them and help them to re-discover their confidence. We all do our best when we feel good about ourselves.”
Building Trust Takes Time
Realistically, however, it can take time to ‘connect’ with a new student, especially if they are fearful of change or find social situations challenging. And although it may sometimes appear that not much progress is being made, the fact that they are sitting down with someone they’ve never met before, is definitely a move in the right direction.
“It’s about being consistent” Kelly explains. “One student I work with, for example, is trying to get rid of me but I keep turning up! I’m always there when I say I will be and that’s the first step to building trust. And sometimes families also need to be guided to see that the session isn’t only of benefit when their child has completed lots of worksheets. Success is very different for people with special needs – just engaging with the tutor, even in a small way, is a success.”
Tutors Need to be Aware of How the
Student is Feeling
Gemma has worked extensively with children with a variety of SEN including ADHD, autism, and dyslexia and has three children of her own with special needs. She agrees that encouraging a sense of wellbeing is an essential aspect of the tutor’s role.
Aside from her teaching work, Gemma also works as an energy healer and although she never uses its techniques on her students (it would be unethical without permission) it has broadened her understanding of how to best support young people.
“I became interested in mindfulness, meditation and Reiki after I got divorced a few years ago” she explains. “As you start to work with these things, your intuition develops. I started to notice my students’ energy a bit more and if they weren’t feeling OK in themselves. This might be for any reason – maybe they were hungry or tired or they’d had a row with someone. Children with SEN often struggle with emotional dysregulation and if they don’t feel OK, they won’t learn.”
Listening to the Students’ Concerns
To help with this, she offers students the chance to explain how they’re feeling at the beginning of a lesson if something seems ‘off’. And although adults often feel they have to ‘fix’ difficult situations on behalf of young people, it’s better, Gemma advises, to just ‘hold the space’ – in other words, simply listen and acknowledge any difficulties in the child’s life.
“I might say, ‘When I’m upset, I try to breathe like this’, or maybe, ‘When a person is angry, they might want to bang their fist on the table’” she elaborates. “I don’t force them to try anything. I just want to open up the conversation.”
In return, she says, it’s useful for the tutor to be honest about their own emotions. “I’ve noticed that students can often tell if I’m not feeling great, either, even if I’m putting on a professional ‘face’” she points out. “I tell them the truth – that I’m tired or there was a lot of traffic on the roads, or whatever.”
Create a United Front
When children are complaining about the ‘pointlessness’ of something they are struggling to learn – nuances of grammar for example – it can be powerful to stand on the same side as them so that it’s you and them vs the work (rather than you and the work vs them!). In this way, you are demonstrating that you hear them, understand the challenges and will be beside them as they navigate their way through the system.
However, the most important aspect of encouraging wellbeing, Gemma maintains, is accepting the young person as they are. “Don’t try to change them or alter their experience of themselves” she cautions. “And get out into nature as much as you can, whether that’s a garden, a park or the countryside. Some of the best conversations happen when you’re side-by-side, out in the fresh air.”
Jess is a trained Art teacher, with 13 years of SEN experience within both mainstream and special schools, as well as lived experience of acquired brain injury and autism.
She lives in Leeds and tutors/mentors children and young people of all ages, with a particular interest in Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA) and conditions associated with chronic fatigue. She is also a practising professional artist and delivers art and wellbeing sessions online to adults and young people with Long Covid.
Jess believes that:
“Forming tutor/student relationships is the best part of being a teacher, whether this is in a classroom or in a tutor setting. I believe that kindness and empathy are the most important starting points when delivering a mentoring approach.
As such, it is vital that a tutor can adapt to the individual needs of a young person and ensure that they feel ‘heard’ and ‘seen’. To go the extra mile for them, especially when they may have been let down so much before.”
Jess’s approach when working as a mentor or teacher with children with SEN or SEND:
“I wholeheartedly believe in a broad curriculum that covers all subjects; including access to the arts, mindfulness, play and any creative way to spur a child’s personal interests. I have managed whole school Art Experience Days, during my time as Head of Art and have loved stepping back and watching a sea of happy, engaged students!
I enjoy delivering immersive art experiences, which include using music or sound, video, various scents, or textures. These multi-sensory experiences create a calm and purposeful atmosphere and are an opportunity for the students to focus the mind and hone other skills.
Whether it is making artwork; exploring game design, developing coding, walking in nature or making video projects, anything can be achieved if you focus on the wellbeing of the child/ young person first.”
Jess’s top tips for parents/carers with children with SEN or SEND:
- Try incorporating a creative element to your child’s learning or home-learning, whether this is a separate stand-alone activity or through a cross-curricular, project-based approach. This will allow them to feel as if they have ‘achieved’ when they may be having difficulty with other areas of their learning. This could be junk modelling or following step-by-step videos together on YouTube and does not need expensive art equipment.
- Explore mindfulness apps or YouTube videos, Yoga or Breathwork for children or young people. The calming properties of slow, nasal breathing cannot be underestimated and there are lots of different ways to make it fun and engaging.
- As a parent it is very difficult to not blame yourself for your child/ young person’s outbursts or episodes caused by their anxiety or condition. Look after your own mental health by reaching out to others and talk things through. Reflect on strategies used and consider any trigger points that occur. Try new ways to build on your child/ young person’s self-esteem and wellbeing, one step at a time.
Krista is a qualified SEN tutor and has a SpLD accreditation (Dyscalculia, Dyslexia and ADHD).
She mentions that she has “worked with many students with a diagnosis of dyscalculia in both school and one to one settings. Often high levels of anxiety accompany a young person with dyscalculia, especially around maths and memory.
I make relieving and reducing anxiety a key component of my lessons, focussing on encouragement and confidence building. Depending on the age and interests of each student I employ techniques and activities such as rhymes, maths games, revision and flash cards, breaking down tasks into bite size chunks, making tasks visual, lots of repetition, and of course by making learning engaging and fun.”