The learning environment at The Wherry School provides small group teaching with high levels of adult support. This allows for highly individualised teaching approaches, including quiet working spaces with minimal distractions to support children’s learning throughout the day. The classroom environment is highly structured and predictable, with clear and consistent routines for learning and other curriculum activities. The structure within the classroom is such that large scale environmental changes are rare and minimal, thus reducing the likelihood of increased levels of anxiety within the school day due to changes of the physical environment. This allows children and young people to feel secure and have a good understanding of the order of events during the time that he is present at school. Day-to-day use of a room means that a child may see smaller objects move, but every individual is supported to cope with this change and to be part of the change within the environment to normalise this.
The children’s time at school is characterised by developing independent learning behaviours, moving children, often from a linked one-to-one teaching assistant, to functioning in an environment with high staffing ratios, but developing independence in key learning and social skills. In the time within the Primary classrooms an integrated exploratory and play based approach is used to support learning, alongside teaching of social skills and rules to enable them to engage successfully in activities with their peers.
The classrooms are spacious, with furniture proportionate to the physical size of the pupils. Consideration of the correct learning environment for Autistic learners includes careful choice of the colour scheme (white walls, muted colours, grey carpets and furnishing), consistency and repetition of furnishings across the school, acoustics, access to toilets (all individual cubicles with handbasins, but no hand-driers), wide corridors without displays and distractions, which lead to wider spaces (shared spaces) in all phases of the school, Primary/Lower Secondary and Upper Secondary shared spaces – the school has been designed by architects with regard to best practice for Autistic pupils. Within the school setting the children have constant access to sensory equipment e.g. trampettes, gym balls, spinning cones, which are available for the children to use as part of their development of self-regulation. Children also have access to alternative seating (in the form of gym balls) within classrooms. This increases vestibular input, allowing constant movement for the children who need to move, and promotes good core control and stability which is also something that many children have a weakness in.
In addition to the classroom learning environment, children also have access to the outside play space, which includes outside learning resources and the large Wherry boat climbing apparatus. children are encouraged to access these resources alongside peers, providing further opportunity to engage in physical activity which contributes to gross and fine motor development as well as sensory regulation. These less structured activities also provide further opportunity for continued development of social skills, social communication and social imagination as well as relationship building with peers.
The Wherry School also has the provision of a padded calm room. This space includes sensory calming resources, such as fibre optic lights, light bubble tubes, image projector, barrel roll and soft play cushioning. Children have access to the calming room, with adult support, at appropriate times throughout the learning day. The aim of the calming room is to support the development of sensory and emotional self-regulation strategies, enabling children to feel more regulated and thus ready to positively engage in their learning. The space can also be used when children are heightened.
At our school we have Occupational Therapy staff who can provide functional support and also Sensory Integration occupational therapy. Sensory Integration theory provides a therapist with a useful lens through which to view the individual and their environment, but it is important to remain firmly child/client-centred in practice, since the expression of the patterns of Sensory Integration difficulty are determined by an individual’s environment and contexts, thus different settings and contexts have different presentations. The Wherry School is a very low stimulation setting, deliberately created to be low sensory and therefore Occupational Therapy provision at the Wherry school focuses on enabling children to engage successfully in meaningful childhood and educational “occupations” such as engaging in activities of daily living, learning, playing and socialising during the school day. This is predominantly offered within the context of the school environment, with additional support and advice offered to the home environment as appropriate.
Occupational therapy provision at the Wherry School includes functional support within the classroom, such as handwriting support, fine and gross motor development and whole school engagement in programmes such as Sensory Circuits on a daily basis and Zones of Regulation, supporting the development of sensory and emotional regulation for all children. There is also provision for sensory-based occupational therapy assessment work and the provision of more individualised sensory based programmes and therapy according to identified need within the school environment.
Occupational therapists commissioned by the school are able to offer functional strategies that support a child in regulating their sensory experiences. At The Wherry, children are supported initially via co-regulation, with the aim of children being able to self-regulate. Functional strategies can be defined as any strategy that the child can engage in without significant specialist sensory equipment.
Sensory processing can be defined as a neurological process that responds to sensations (inc: registration, orientation, interpretation, organisation or response, execution of response). Sensory integration is defined as the brain synthesising all the sensory information it receives at one time. Sensory information is organised and integrated so that it can be acted on in a purposeful way. The Sensory Integration Network acknowledges that for most children, small environmental adaptations ‘make a huge difference’ and those that are relevant to school-life are addressed on a daily basis, at The Wherry School.
OT’s direct and indirect input
The two Occupational Therapists working at The Wherry School offer direct Occupational Therapy assessment and therapeutic input to identified children, working within a needs led approach that is identified by the Multi-disciplinary clinical professional team, that includes Educational Psychology, Clinical Psychology, Speech and Language Therapy and a Specialist ASD Advisor and supported by the senior leadership team and teaching staff.
Occupational Therapy input is provided either as group work or individual sessions, depending the desired outcomes. Currently group provisions focus on handwriting and motor skills and areas such as visual motor integration, bilateral coordination, directionality, core control, crossing the midline and visual perceptual skills are addressed in these groups. Session plans, devised by the Occupational Therapy teams, and activities are available to all staff via The Wherry’s internal computer system so that teaching and support staff are able to draw on these activities during lessons if they need to.
Individual work with children is much more varied but always outcome focused, functional and child (client) centred. Examples of current individual work includes supporting children with their emotional well-being and helping them develop their Visual Motor Integration (VMI).
For the vast majority of pupils in our school, the primary focus of all approaches, including occupational therapy, is to support them in engaging in learning and developing appropriate peer relationships for the time that they are in school, and preparing for life after school, as well as reducing anxiety and anxiety based behaviours.
This is also offered by way of teacher and support staff training to support whole school interventions such as Sensory Circuits and Zones of Regulation.
- Sensory Circuits: is the application of a sensory motor programme (the approach was designed by Jane Horwood - occupational therapist) that aims to prepare children to engage effectively with tasks in their day by supporting them to develop a calm and alert state for learning. Tasks are sensory motor activities that focus on stimulating the vestibular system (alerting), praxis (organising) and proprioceptive system (calming) – these are carried out 1-2 times daily, based on the needs of the individual child, and equipment that the children use are available within the classrooms and shared spaces, to allow children to independently access these and utilise these (whether self-directed or encouraged by staff), to maintain regulation during the school day.
- Zones of Regulation: This of particular importance for many as they struggle to cope with anxiety and this influences their ability to concentrate and interact with those around them. Heightened anxiety will increase a child or young person’s sensitivity to sensory information. Zones of Regulation is a programme, designed by Leah Kuypers (occupational therapist) and is a framework that supports students in consciously regulating their actions, consequently developing control and problem solving skills. Strategies, typically sensory in nature, are used to regulate emotion, supporting children in being able to stay in a particular zone or transition to another – again training and monitoring of the programme is undertaken by the school Occupational Therapy Team and clinical staff.
- Occupational Therapists commissioned by the school, along with other clinical professionals work alongside teaching teams by providing ongoing communication and support as required. With regards to supporting students with their sensory needs, this typically takes the form of recommending activities for sensory diets and supporting the delivery of the diet, training for staff and monitoring the impact of programmes and altering where a new need or approach is required
- Occupational Therapists with all staff to ensure that their individual professional development allows for a focus on developing their individual knowledge, skills and experiences
- Clinical professionals, including the Occupational Therapy team lead parent training on topics such as The Role of The Occupational Therapist at The Wherry School, Making Sense of Sensory Processing and The Use of Zones of Regulation within the home environment.
- Occupational Therapists in school are supporting the development of sensory rich spaces, such as the calming room and occupational therapy assessment room (known as the Wooden Spoon Room).