Potential Plus UK’s Senior Education Consultant and Director of the DME Trust, Rebecca Howell, distils the important factors in providing high quality education for young people with dual or multiple exceptionality (DME). These 10 keys to unlocking the right support for DME learners will show an increase in their wellbeing, engagement and achievement.
1. Educate Yourself
Educating yourself about learners with DME is the most important step in catering for them in their education. Whether you are a teacher, a parent advocating for a DME learner or a home educating parent, finding out about what constitutes suitably adapted education for this group will empower you to meet their needs and thereby impact positively on their achievement, wellbeing and future. Areas to learn about include how to foster creativity, divergent thinking and problem-solving skills, as well as how to incorporate their interests in learning and support the development of lifelong skills.
Understanding more about the individual learners with DME that you are supporting is also vitally important. What are their sensitivities and overexcitabilities? What are the strengths you can work with? What are they interested in? What are their concerns? What areas do they need to develop skills in? All this information is crucial to understanding how to meet their needs and support them to meet their potential.
2. Develop a Trusting Relationship
Young people with DME are routinely misunderstood, so it is vitally important that they have good relationships with people they can trust. DME learners are often perceived as disruptive, inflexible, lazy or bossy and this has a detrimental impact on their wellbeing. Unless they have trusting relationships with the people guiding their education, they will not be in a good space for learning. Trusting relationships with educators allow DME learners to push themselves beyond their comfort zone, leading to a better understanding about their own learning power, higher achievement and fulfilment.
3. Incorporate Interests
The key to engaging and enthusing DME learners is to incorporate their interests wherever you can. This group of learners tend to have specific interests that they want to learn about immediately and fully. Whilst this isn’t a good fit with traditional schooling, teachers and parents do need to honour this preferred way of learning so that DME learners are not left feeling constantly frustrated, feeling forced to do tasks that are already mastered or do not seem relevant to them. Adapting learning to incorporate their interests will enable DME learners to find a pace and level of learning that fulfils them. This means adapting some of their lessons to find materials on areas of interest to them, allowing them to self-select areas of learning related to class topics or some choice in what they write about. It is through their interests that DME learners will be best placed to take risks (combatting perfectionism) and develop skills that will assist them in future learning and the wider world.
4. Build on Strengths
Deciding on the right approach for DME learners can seem confusing: they have considerable strengths yet lack some skills and have difficulties in some areas. Despite their difficulties, ignoring the strengths of DME learners will only cause them to feel frustrated and misunderstood. Indeed, working in their strength areas will increase the likelihood that they will be able to overcome some of their difficulties or find a way to work around them. When working in areas of strength, you are likely to see much more determination to work through things that they would otherwise find challenging.
5. Encourage Risk-taking
Many DME learners suffer with perfectionism. To address this, encourage them to take risks through open-ended tasks, divergent thinking opportunities and problem-solving. New learning should be challenging enough yet attainable. Rewarding their efforts and allowing learning to move at the child’s pace will also help to tackle perfectionism.
6. Avoid Already-Mastered Material
Avoid asking DME learners to prove an already-mastered skill – they will find this highly frustrating. In a recent focus group, we carried out with DME young people, this was their number one gripe. Young people with DME should not be expected to tolerate a lot of wasted time – it negatively impacts their experience of learning and their mental health.
7. Teach Study Skills
Teaching young people with DME, skills that will support their learning and achievement in the future, is another important aspect of their education. Particularly where the child struggles with executive functioning or has processing or attention challenges. Whilst they may rail against it, these habits will stand them in good stead for the future. Such skills include time management, learning and revision approaches and organisation techniques. For example, explicitly teach skills such as:
- prioritising tasks
- updating a list of assignments
- using a calendar or planner
- organising their workspace
- using colour-coded folders for different subjects
- having separate spaces for completed and unfinished work
- keeping a clutter-free workspace.
8. Adapt the Environment
For young people with DME to feel comfortable enough to engage with learning, the environment will need to be adapted. Depending on individual challenges and sensitivities, this may mean:
- Table arrangements in the classroom need to have the flexibility to allow for independent as well as group learning.
- Supplies are kept in expected places so there is less of a trigger for frustration/disruption.
- Walls are uncluttered to avoid unnecessary distractions.
- The child can go somewhere to recover when they become overwhelmed.
- The child is allowed breaks or sensory breaks so that they can sustain a longer focussed time overall.
9. Put Mental Health First
Focussing on the mental health of young people with DME avoids power struggles and increases feelings of self-worth. Where there is disruption or negative behaviour, this is often caused by underlying threats to identity or self-esteem and, especially when young, DME learners struggle to understand their own feelings. Taking a cooperative, trouble-shooting approach to unwanted behaviours or low mood will mean young people with DME are increasingly able to address their sensitivities and challenges independently.
Supporting students to recognise when their minds and bodies are overwhelmed is part of valuing their emotional needs. It will benefit them to learn, during calmer times, how to recognise how this feels before the feelings become so big that they prevent problem-solving. This can be done using a colour (red-amber-green-blue) or number (1-10) scale. When a young person with DME has been overwhelmed, it will benefit them to know recovery strategies, i.e. ways they can return to their equilibrium. They will need to explore a range of strategies to find what works for them: it could be quiet time reading or playing, noise or exercise or just being in a different space. How they return to learning after an upset is also important for DME learners’ wellbeing – they should be allowed to return with grace and without immediate discussion about the incident. How to leave and how to return should be discussed in advance to make it as smooth and unprovoking as possible.
10. Review Regularly
The accommodations made for young people with DME should be reviewed regularly to ensure that they are meeting their needs as effectively as possible. This includes checking in on certain aspects from time-to-time as well as termly meetings with the young person and/or their parents to discuss the accommodations that are being made and whether they are appropriate and effective.
About the author: Rebecca Howell is Potential Plus UK’s Senior Education Consultant and Director of the DME Trust. She leads various aspects of the organisation, including oversight of the assessment and advice services. She is passionate about leadership and developing new services to support members. With a background in educational leadership, she has 3 children with high learning potential/dual or multiple exceptionality.