Penelope Cartwright, Special educational needs teacher and Psychology student, Birmingham City University, UK
Children and young people communicate best with practitioners who have positive wellbeing (Harding et al., 2019). This is even more important for practitioners working with children and young people with severe learning difficulties (SLD) because these relationships are built on the subtleties of communication (Kossyvaki, 2018). Therefore, it is important that education providers have access to interventions that support staff wellbeing as well as promoting communication for children and young people with SLD.
Guidance around practitioner wellbeing is generalised for all education providers and includes Ofsted (2019) recommending a positive and collegial working environment in which staff feel supported, valued and heard. Projects such as ‘Mentally Healthy Schools’ (2020) suggest that a co-produced staff wellbeing policy can be an effective tool. Specific guidance for SLD practitioners, however, is lacking.
Video interaction guidance (VIG) (Kennedy et al., 2011) is an evidence-based intervention designed to enhance communication in key relationships. A trained VIG guider uses video clips of children or young people interacting with the SLD practitioner. It works by actively engaging the practitioner in the video to give careful consideration to elements of their practice to which the child responds well. (see Bhogal and Cartwright, 2018).
In a typical VIG process:
- The VIG guider and practitioner decide on the intervention focus
- A recording of the pupil and the practitioner is taken by the VIG guider
- The VIG guider analyses clips and crops short recordings where the pupil initiates communication
- A meeting is then coordinated by the VIG guider where the clips are shared with the practitioner and discussed; the practitioner highlights the positive aspects of what they have observed and what they will aim to do more of in future
- Further recordings are taken and the same process is repeated at least three times.
VIG is reported to be a supportive intervention for practitioners, and the nature of the process empowers participants (Kennedy et al., 2011). This case study aimed to determine not only the aspects of the intervention that have been successful for the SLD practitioner, but also whether this impacted on their sense of wellbeing. Specifically, it asked:
- What challenges do SLD practitioners face in their roles?
- How has wellbeing been impacted by the challenges that SLD practitioners face?
- To what extent has VIG had an impact on SLD practitioner wellbeing?
In order to answer these questions, online semi-structured interviews were conducted with two educational psychologists who are also trained VIG guiders and are referred to in this paper as ‘Sally’ and ‘Grace’. Through thematic analysis of the transcripts (Braun and Clarke, 2013), the following themes were identified: tensions around meeting the needs of children and young people with SLD; advocacy; and ‘the power in seeing themselves’.
Tensions around meeting the needs of children and young people with SLD
Practitioners working with children and young people with SLD often feel that they do not have enough time to achieve curriculum goals or receive relevant training (Webster and Blatchford, 2017; Florian and Black-Hawkins, 2011). The practitioners Sally and Grace worked with were in mainstream settings and faced pressure from senior leaders to achieve measurable results and meet National Curriculum requirements, as well as pressure from parents or carers. They experienced ‘tensions’ related to whether they should focus on curricular outcomes, or whether they should prioritise supporting children and young people’s development and acquisition of life skills.
Both educational psychologists suggested that these ‘tensions’ affected the wellbeing of the practitioners they were working with, who were reported to be ‘anxious’, ‘stressed’, ‘pressured’ and ‘lacking confidence’ as a result. The VIG intervention helped to address these tensions to some extent – the VIG approach prioritises improved communication and supporting children and young people’s development, rather than focusing more narrowly on curricular goals and outcomes, so it improved practitioner confidence in this aspect of their work.
Grace highlighted a number of skills and values held by educational psychologists that make them ideally placed to deliver VIG as an intervention to support practitioner wellbeing – for example, by providing empathetic support to practitioners. This role also includes being the link between involved parties: school, parents, carers, the children and young people, and the community.
An advocate can be defined as a person who publicly supports or recommends a particular cause or policy. Advocacy promotes social inclusion, empowering people to speak up for themselves and influence their future. VIG facilitated this positive, professional and supportive dialogue. The non-judgemental aspect of the relationship built trust, and the information collected within the VIG intervention was used to showcase the work of the SLD practitioner.
The power in seeing themselves
Sally describes ‘the power in seeing themselves’ as an aspect of a person-centred intervention, giving the practitioner ‘time and space’, leading to ‘dramatic change’ and allowing for ‘growth’. She says that by the end of the intervention, the practitioner showed a renewed sense of readiness.
According to Ofsted (2019), only 36 per cent of teachers and TAs felt that their line manager often or always supported them. This could be because of the stigma around discussing wellbeing; 67 per cent of employees feel scared, embarrassed or unable to talk about concerns related to their wellbeing with their employer (Mental Health Foundation, 2012).
It follows that practitioners should make their wellbeing a priority to ensure that they are ready to support children and young people, particularly those with SLD. Within VIG research, available studies refer only to the improvements in wellbeing as a by-product or an advantage; they have not made practitioner wellbeing the aim of the study. The participating educational psychologists in this study were clear in their view that VIG is an intervention that should be considered when addressing practitioner wellbeing.
The use of VIG shifted the focus away from the curriculum and on to communication, relationships and personal development for children and young people with SLD, making practitioners feel empowered and more confident. The educational psychologists were also able to act in the SLD practitioners’ best interests, taking on the role as advocate in difficult situations. As a result, practitioners felt a sense of growth as their self-efficacy increased, resulting in improved wellbeing.
This study provided a valuable insight into the main elements of wellbeing for SLD practitioners as a result of VIG: confidence, growth, restoration and readiness, which is especially significant in a mainstream environment where the National Curriculum is prioritised over a developmental approach.
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