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Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Work Experience - The Children's Trust, Part 1

I would like to use this blog post today to write about a week of work experience I did last December at The Children's Trust's School For Profound Education. The Children's Trust is a large-scaled charity very close to my home, that provides care, education, therapy and rehabilitation to children with an acquired brain injury (through a car accident or a viral infection, for example). I spent a week in the Trust's school which the children attend daily. The charity's website can be located here.

I have always had a strong family connection to the charity, as my mother is a perennial fundraiser and I myself have gotten involved organising a few quiz nights to raise money over the years. It seems to be the local charity of choice, and nearly everyone in the village is aware of it and all generously support it. However, despite all of this, I had never actually been to the Children's Trust's grounds, let alone see what happens inside. Shocking, I know.

To be honest, I had never really considered the sorts of children who resided there. Even eating breakfast on the morning I started, I assumed these children only suffered severe 'learning difficulties' of sorts. To put it less bluntly, my expectation of what these children would be like was a very underdressed image indeed. Even more shocking, I know - as I was soon to discover.

So on a freezing December monday morning, I lumbered up to the main reception (absolutely lavish building) where, soon enough, I am taken over to the school, a good 300 metres away. The grounds are enormous. If I didn't already know, I'd assume I had entered a palace! The school was a cosy little block in the middle of it all, and it wasn't long before I was introduced to Class 2 - the classroom I would be helping in during the week. My immediate impressions - overdressed! Unsure of the dress code, I had gone for the timeless smart-casual look of a shirt, a v-neck and some jeans. But it appeared my colleagues-to-be had not received such a memo, instead deciding to deck out in sweatpants and baggy hoodies. Were these pyjamas? Either way, I felt like a pretentious snob...

They seemed nice enough however, offering me tea and biscuits, seconds after the customary "hello I am.." The students themselves were not in the classroom at this point, they were being transported from the residential buildings next door. But when they did the place was packed. Each student has a personal carer, and there were a multitude of physiotherapists, occupational therapists, linguistic therapists,  classroom assistants, nurses, volunteers and teachers. Altogether? About 4 staff a pupil (luckily not all worked in the classroom at the same time!) Wow. I was expecting my class to be similar to my own one at school - a decent number of children. But I was stunned to see my class had no less than 4 pupils. 4!

Admittedly beforehand when I was told my role would include "helping out around the classroom", I had dandy visions of helping the children to colour in pretty pictures of flowers, or play hopscotch, even sing Ring a Ring o'Roses with them. But my hopes of such an experience were dashed immediately by their physical condition. I was truly shocked to see all of the students were wheelchair-bound, unable to communicate any language other than a few involuntary noises, and with all sorts of physical twitch - their arms would swing around in the air, they would jerk their heads and drool. It was a very unpleasant feeling that came over me next, as I realised the suffering these children must be going through, and the suffering that the parents go through on a daily basis. Note, all of the children suffer from an acquired brain injury. At one stage in their lives, these children were perfectly healthy, but unfortunately had suffered a catastrophic tragedy that had left them in their current state. I wondered if these children were aware of their current condition, or if they were mentally and emotionally trapped in their body.

I tried to make contact with one of the two girls. Encouraged that they would respond to stimuli, I stroked the her hand, calling her name and greeting her. She seemed responsive enough, turning to face me and (I think) offering me a heartening smile. It made me realise that not all hope was lost, and I remembered the success stories the Trust had conjured. Men and women struck down in traffic accidents, severely brain damaged, but recovering to full functionality and becoming part of the working community. These are certainly encouraging stories.

The first task of the day, as it was everyday, was the good morning game. Before I proceed, I should say that the curriculum of this school is not one that you would find at my school, for instance. The students do not sit learning the nuances of biology and chemistry and maths all day. Instead their curriculum focuses on their rehabilitation: of speaking, of listening, of walking. The good morning game consists of the staff in the room (about 8 of us at this point) singing lyrics of "good morning" and other phrases, to the tune of a nursery rhyme. The aim is to greet each student personally, in order that they (hopefully) respond by attempting to say good morning back. I was struck when one student did indeed repeat blurred words to that effect. The second part of this game focuses on object-interaction - the main teacher holds up a sari, a fan and a mirror before singing a collective song about these as well (yes, I thought it was madness too). Each student had, on their wheelchair tables, a large button which they could press that, on contact, would relay to a speaker along with the words "[X] wants to play!" and, although it took a few fair moments, one student did actually push the button. The songs about the objects would then be repeated and the student would have to choose one by saying the name of the object. This next part positively surprised me because the student, and everyday that week, promptly made a noise that effectively resembled one of those objects. It was amazing to see these children aren't completely isolated in their thoughts! So anyway, yes, a sari - to be placed over the student, who would realise this to be an 'uncomfortable' situation, and try to wiggle out of it; a mirror - to be placed in front of the student so they can see their reflection; and a fan - to be blown at the student, who would wiggle their face in amazement. And yes, each object had their own individual song. I was beginning to wonder whether I really was in a neurorehabilitation centre, or had unknowingly floated into a West-End production of Mamma Mia. All jokes aside though, it was clear the songs had a proven function, so I was happy to singalong.

So that was my initial experience, come back soon for the second instalment of my week at the Children's Trust!
Thanks as ever,

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