Originally appeared in PosAbility Magazine December/January 2018/2019. We are becoming a more disability aware society.

Ever since the London Paralympics burst onto our screens with a bang way back in 2012, ‘diversity’ has been a bit of a buzzword.

With attitudes and understandings of disability changing and more and more people becoming disability aware, knowledge of needs and circumstances for people with disabilities has been steadily growing.

But with our children being the future, it’s important this shift in direction of awareness is being capitalised on and young children, whose minds are like sponges, grow up with these values. And one way to help children without disabilities see past additional needs is the implementation of Makaton in mainstream schools.

A form of sign language, it’s described as “a language programme using signs and symbols to help people to communicate. It is designed to support spoken language and the signs and symbols are used with speech, in spoken word order. With Makaton, children and adults can communicate straight away using signs and symbols.”

By breaking down those communication barriers between children with and without additional needs at the first possible instance, far-reaching benefits can be experienced by all involved according to Cranbrook Primary School Makaton tutor Catherine Smith.

“As a Makaton tutor I am passionate about Makaton and have trained staff in the school working as a SENCo as I know the real impact it can have,” began Catherine.

“I was trained by my previous job in a special needs school and have championed its use ever since – I continue to promote its use amongst staff.”

In order to ensure the language is being utilised thoroughly, Catherine ensures it is being used at every opportunity at the school and widely amongst the school community, from parents to teachers on top of the pupils, helping them become more disability aware, building the understanding and knowledge of it, but also helping control and calm behaviours.

“We use a number of methods in the school such as sign of the week, we use it in our weekly staff meetings but also through signing assemblies when it is easy to incorporate signing. I offer training to parents and we use visual aids across the school – mostly these are widget symbols as they are electronic and used more commonly in resources found on the internet.

“All staff carry visual aids to help children understand commands to reduce misbehaviour (as we often do not listen to language when we are angry) and to help children understand the instructions.

“Signing helps staff to reduce language, emphasise key words, slow down their use of language (especially beneficial for me) and the kinaesthetic approach helps children form connections in the brain to store vocabulary,” she said.

But for Catherine it isn’t all about teaching children a new communication skill and utilising the effects of the language in disciplining children. While Makaton has long been learned by children growing up with disabilities and additional needs, the benefits of teaching children without disabilities Makaton go further than extending the branch of communication amongst children, but also an acceptance and understanding of differences at a young, impressionable age.

“The benefits for children without a disability learning Makaton are immense,” the tutor enthused.

“We have had a sharp increase in complex SEN in mainstream primary schools across the borough so we have had to adapt and differentiate more widely than ever before.

“We also have a chronic shortage of SALT so using an inclusive and well researched intervention has been essential in supporting children’s understanding and increasing their inclusion across the school.

“The benefits are clear to see – children who are non-verbal can use it and respond to it as its kinaesthetic approach engages, motivates and helps children retain instruction. Children with language are motivated to use it and enjoy any signing sessions. They’re always eager to sign and this allows them to interact more with the children with more complex needs.

“Makaton allows children to interact and engage with others who would have otherwise been passive in the environment around them.

“It’s massively important for children with additional needs to have other kids know how to communicate with them.

“It gives them a voice and allows their voice to be heard. It is a building block to developing social skills and interactions, and it allows for inclusion and access to the curriculum.”

With Catherine and the national Makaton charity looking to further implement stages of learning the language in mainstream schools, they are working tirelessly to develop new styles of training and activities for teachers to get to grips with it moving forward.

“I try to involve teachers in using Makaton as much as possible through things like sign of the week and promotion in weekly briefings and I offer training to all staff and ensure they have the signs for special occasions such as Christmas signs so children can sign in carol concerts and the likes,” she added.

And Catherine stressed the importance of the younger generation without communication needs learning the language has in shaping their development, attitudes and understanding of diversity in the world.

She said: “Makaton encourages acceptance of differences. Any children with English as an additional language can also benefit from it as often it’s easier to use a sign.

“When you are in the early stages of communicating in a new language the children are very motivated to use it. The use of Makaton allows children to come together and interact with each other through a level playing field where all voices can be heard.”

With the continuing rise and success of the movement, as society becomes more disability aware national programmes and initiatives are being implemented to further support the growing demand and encourage other schools to get on board.

“The Makaton friendly award is being given to institutions who are using Makaton and able to understand its use,” Catherine explained.

“We have not applied for accreditation yet but hope to in the near future,” added the ambitious tutor. If your child attends a mainstream school where Makaton is used, get in touch with your experiences!


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