08 SES 09, Engaging with Stress and Difficult Emotions in Schools
Over the last 20 years, the development of ‘health promoting schools’ has been a primary focus across Europe expressed in the European Union’s Council Resolution on the Health & Wellbeing of Children (European Union 2008) and supported by the Schools for Health in Europe (SHE) network. Mental health is a vital dimension of this health and wellbeing agenda (EU 2016). Scotland has been an active participant in the SHE network since 1993. Health & wellbeing has been embedded in Scottish education via the ‘Guidance on the Schools (Health Promotion and Nutrition) (Scotland) Act’ (2007) linked to the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) (2004).
Individuals with autism are particularly at risk of mental health problems. They experience difficulties with communication and social understanding, sensory issues and flexibility of thought that affect the way that they perceive, process and make sense of the world (Ravet 2015). One British study (Simonoff et al., 2008) found that 70% of young people with autism age 10-14 yrs had a mental health disorder. About half of these were anxiety disorders, whilst the remainder were divided between Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Though rates vary, other studies corroborate high levels of mental health issues amongst this group (e.g. White et al. 2009, Hebron & Humphrey 2014). These studies suggest that poor mental health can be attributed, at least in part, to impaired emotion regulation i.e. ‘difficulties modulating emotional experiences or expressions to achieve individual goals or social adaptation’ (Jahromi et al. 2013 p235). These difficulties can lead to anger management problems, social avoidance, behaviour that challenges, and, in the worst cases, deliberate self-harm and suicidal behaviour. Arguably, fostering emotion regulation is pivotal to improving mental health and wellbeing amongst learners with autism.
In mainstream secondary schools in the UK, health and wellbeing support mechanisms include peer support, buddy schemes, and solution-focused approaches. Health and wellbeing issues are also explored in relevant secondary subjects e.g. Personal & Social Education, and via programmes in social and emotional literacy embedded across the curriculum (Watson et al. 2012). However, these mechanisms and approaches are not always suitable for young people with autism as they are generic and not tailored to their needs. They are also essentially talk-based and relational, requiring the very skills that learners with autism find most difficult. An additional problem is that many mainstream secondary teachers lack a sound knowledge and understanding of autism and the unique learning style associated with it (Humphrey & Symes 2013). They therefore find it difficult to adapt teaching to the needs of these learners. Where adapted programmes do exist, they do not specifically isolate and address in sufficient detail the key underlying problem of emotion regulation. The Health and wellbeing curriculum in secondary schools therefore lacks specificity, individualisation and differentiation for learners on the autism spectrum and may cause more harm than good.
In order to address this gap, we have piloted an intervention to foster emotional expression and regulation amongst learners with autism, based primarily on a nonverbal, sensorimotor approach. Our intervention was developed as a transdisciplinary collaboration between educationalists and clinical neuroscientists, drawing upon evidence that emotional regulation is effected by sensorimotor systems that serve the social communication of emotional states (Williams 2004). We draw on techniques from drama education to support sensorimotor control and emotional expression through imitation and rehearsal. Drama ‘therapy’ has been widely advocated for autism (Blythe et al. 2014), but studies have not specifically examined its efficacy in supporting emotion regulation.
“Can drama education enhance the emotional self-regulation and wellbeing of learners with autism in secondary schools?”.
Blythe, A., Corbett, J.R., Guther, D. et al. (2014) Improvements in Social Deficits in ASD using Theatre Based, Peer Mediated Interventions, Autism Research 7, 4-16. Cowie, H., Boardman, C., Dawkins, J. & Dawn, J. (2004) Emotional Health & Well-being: A practical guide for schools, London: Paul Chapman. European Union (2008) Council Resolution on the Health and Well-being of Children http://ec.europa.eu/health European Union (2016) European framework for action on mental health and wellbeing http://www.mentalhealthandwellbeing.eu/assets/docs/publications/Framework%20for%20action_19jan%20(1)-20160119192639.pdf Hebron, J. & Humphrey, N. (2014) Mental health difficulties among young people on the autistic spectrum in mainstream secondary schools: a comparative study, Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs, 14/1, 22-32. Humphrey, N. & Symes, W. (2013) Inclusive education for pupils with autistic spectrum disorders in secondary mainstream schools: teacher attitudes, experience and knowledge, International Journal of Inclusive Education, 17/1, 32-46. Jahromi, L.B., Bryce, C.I., Swanson, J. (2013) The importance of self-regulation for school and peer engagement with children with high-functioning autism, Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders 7, 235-246. MacKay, T., Knott, F. & Dunlop, A-L. (2007) Developing social interaction and understanding in individuals with autism spectrum disorder: A groupwork intervention, Journal of Intellectual and Developmental Disability, 32/4, 279-290. Newman, C., Cashin, A. & Waters, C.D. (2010) A modified hermeneutic phenomenological approach toward individuals who have autism, Research in Nursing and Health, 33/2, 265-271. Simonoff, E., Pickles, A., Charman, T., Chandler, S., Loucas, T. & Baird, G, (2008) Psychiatric disorders in children with autism spectrum disorders: prevalence, comorbidity, and associated factors in a population-derived sample, Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 47/8, 921-929. Watson, D., Emery, C. & Bayliss, P. (2012) Children’s Social and Emotional Wellbeing in School: A Critical Perspective, Bristol: The Policy Press. White, S.W., Oswald, D., Ollendick, T & Schill, L. (2009) Anxiety in children and adults with autism spectrum disorder, Clinical Psychology Review, 29, 216-229. Williams, JHG., Whiten, A., & Singh, T. (2004) A systematic review of action imitation in autistic spectrum disorder, Journal of Autism & Developmental Disorders, 34/3, 285-299.
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