Hunter River Community School has recently completed its pilot program of Seasons for Growth with an initial group of four students. Principal Tracey, teachers Tash and Carly, and School Learning Support Officers Suzanne and Shelley, all trained in Seasons for Growth last year. Together they worked to adapt the program to suit the needs of the students who live with varying levels of intellectual ability.
Children with intellectual disabilities face unique challenges, with many people seeing the disability and behaviours, not the person. This can mean there is little recognition of the losses and grief they may be experiencing. The Companions noted that the boys in their program had experienced significant loss and yet had not been given the space to communicate this. Shelly reflected that the children’s mental health was often overlooked. The power of Seasons for Growth has given these children the time to communicate their emotions, their feelings and to know it was “their story to share”.
Some of the key adaptations the Companions made to the program included expanding the session from the normal 40 minutes to almost a whole day.
The Seasons day began with the Companions dressing in the colours of the season they were focussing on and preparing the room with seasonal items. The students and Companions shared lunch together and then moved into the first part of the session content. This was done using various resources, including Boardmaker and other visual tools that assist with communication.
Once the content had been shared and an activity completed, the participants and teachers all enjoyed a bus ride to a property where the children took part in Equine therapy. The children were taught how horses show their feelings (using their ears), how to brush and care for the horses, and how to lead them around the yard. This activity allowed the children to become familiar with the unknown, to journey from feeling scared to feeling comfortable with the horses, and to process some of the emotions that may have been evoked during the session focus and content.
During this time, the Companions noticed the older boys in the program demonstrating leadership skills, showing concern for the younger children and helping them to take part in the activities. The return trip in the bus provided a safe space to continue to process and reflect on what the boys had learnt and experienced that day.
The children in the pilot benefitted so significantly that the Companions are keen to run the program again next year.
Suzanne and Tash talked about one boy who came up to them in class and started talking about how he was feeling. He needed to offload - he was having a tough day. He understood from his Seasons for Growth participation that it was “his story to tell” and had the words to talk about how he was feeling. The Companions felt that this interaction would not have occurred without the program.
The children learnt the importance of listening, using a “talking rock” to show when they wanted to contribute to the discussion. Developing respect and compassion were also key elements of the program. One participant, a boy who is non-verbal, took a while to communicate, and the Companions noticed how patient and kind the other children were, as they waited to hear what he had to say.
The capacity of the children to empathise with each other, to get outside themselves and to develop trust was very powerful.
Tash shared that another one of the participants, her classroom student, became noticeably more independent and mature, using what he had learnt in Seasons for Growth to manage in the classroom. She felt that the validation the program gave to the boys’ feelings and emotions was a significant contributor to this change.
The Companions themselves were deeply impacted by their involvement in the program. Practitioners with years of experience were deeply moved by the boys’ responses. Their debrief times were often mingled with tears of joy, wrought from their understanding of the many challenges these children face every day.
Looking back, Tash, Shelley, Carly and Suzanne began a journey of hope to provide tools and language to enable their students to access the grief that they encounter on a daily basis. Little did they know that their training in Seasons for Growth would launch them on a journey of transformation, both for the students in their care as well as for each of them. It is perhaps an understatement to say that they are delighted with the outcomes achieved.