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Podcast: supporting young people with learning disabilities

Last updated: 09 Dec 2019 Topics: Podcast

Hear about our Love Life resources aimed at young people with special educational needs and learning disabilities

We developed our Love Life films and supporting resources in partnership with Elanor Stannage and Connecting Youth Culture for young people with learning difficulties or special educational needs.

The films and resources help adults in starting conversations with young people aged 11 to 25 about topics such as feelings, privacy and boundaries, relationships and online safety.

Listen to our episode to find out:

  • why and how the films and resources were developed
  • how you can use the resources in your conversations with young people
  • the benefits our resources provide for young people

About the speakers

Helen Westerman is joint acting Head of the Safeguarding in Communities team at the NSPCC and has been working at the charity for the past 13 years. She is also the Local Campaigns Manager in the North of England, running local and regional campaigns in partnership with health, social care, police, education and voluntary sector agencies which aim to safeguard children and young people.

Elanor Stannage has a PhD in Arts in Mental Health and has worked as a theatre practitioner, director, writer, and producer for over a decade. This involves creating projects and performances with marginalised communities and specialising in the areas of mental health and learning difficulties. She has also developed and worked with Connecting Youth Culture on Fuse Theatre - an inclusive youth theatre for over 10 years - which has helped inspire the concept for Love Life.

About Connecting Youth Culture

Connecting Youth Culture (CYC) is a service within the North Yorkshire County Council that specialises in arts for young people and have been involved in co-developing the It’s Not OK campaign with the NSPCC and York St John University. Fuse Theatre was one of their primary projects and has been running for over 10 years. It is an inclusive youth theatre project that aims to get young people with special educational needs and disability (SEND) to work with young people from mainstream schools. 

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Related resources

> Read more about safeguarding children with SEND

> Hear about our study into safeguarding disabled children from sexual abuse

> Read our blog on exploring emotions and relationships with young people with SEND


Podcast transcript

Welcome to NSPCC Learning, a series of podcasts that cover a range of child protection issues to inform, create debate, and tell you all about the work we do to keep children safe. At the heart of every podcast is the child's voice, and how what they tell us, informs the work we do.

Hi and welcome to the latest NSPCC Learning podcast. This week, we're focusing on our Love Life resources, which have been developed for young people with learning disabilities aged 11 to 25. Love Life consists of three films and supporting resources. And explores topics such as emotions, relationships and identity and they help young people with strategies for staying safe as they grow up and gain independence.

The NSPCC developed Love Life in partnership with Dr. El Stannage and Connecting Youth Culture. I met with El and Helen Westerman, the NSPCC's join Head of Safeguarding Communities, to talk about the resources. Why and how they were developed, how the resources are delivered, the benefits these resources provide for young people, and how El worked with young people to make sure that the content was realistic, current and reflected their views and experiences.

This will be the last NSPCC Learning podcast for 2019. Many thanks for listening over the past nine months, we'll be back with our first podcast of 2020 on the 6th of January.

Can we begin by an explanation from you both about what the Love Life resources are?

On the NSPCC website, there are three films available and a selection of resources to accompany them, and those films are aimed at young people with learning difficulties or special educational needs and are aimed as a way of teachers or parents working with those young people to develop a vocabulary around relationships, around keeping themselves safe and around managing tricky moments within those relationships.

So, there are three films. The first one is 'You, Me and Us', and that explores how relationships might develop and certain emotions that people have and emotions to look out for that might tell us when things are going well in a relationship and also emotions to look out for that might warn us when things aren't quite right, or things don't feel okay.

And then building on that, the second film 'PANTS' explores the NSPCC PANTS rules and uses those, but it has the same characters from part one. So, we look at Ash and Jim and their friendship and they explore the PANTS rules. Then they have Ash's big sister, Steph, who is like an adult, going through that material with them and talking to them and having those conversations with them.

Then the third part is more of a drama where you see how Ash and Jim became friends and how their relationship has developed. And then they come up against difficult moments. Steph, the sister, then talks them through that. So, they have really tricky conversations and Steph kind of works as a model for teachers, for parents, as a way of opening up those conversations. A way to begin to answer those questions when they come up. So, it hopefully offers a kind of a whole way and an approach to talking to young people and allowing them to find a language to talk about relationships.

I think what we've got is some really lovely resources that help tackle quite difficult issues that parents, practitioners, teachers, can find quite tricky to start conversations about. So, you know, relationships, sex, consent - they're quite difficult concepts.

And so, these resources, the films and the accompanying resources really help parents, practitioners and teachers navigate that in a way that isn't patronising, is age appropriate. These are resources designed for young people aged 11 plus. And probably the third film is more 14 plus, we think. But it talks to people where they're at, in a way that is inclusive, at the right pace, but still tackling those tricky issues.

Can we explain why these resources were developed? Was there a gap? A need for them?

I met El and colleagues in Connecting Youth Culture some years ago now. And we've been working on local campaigns around child sexual abuse and exploitation. And for us at the NSPCC, we did find a gap. We had some really lovely products for children in mainstream education, but what we didn't have was the same resources, so plays, online resources, for those working with SEND young people. It just happened that at that time El and colleagues at Connecting Youth Culture were wanting to develop, were thinking of developing something - the fit was perfect.

I was a theatre practitioner working with Connecting Youth Culture on a long-term project, which was a youth theatre for young people both from mainstream settings and from special educational settings. And I'd been working on this project for a long time and through that experience had come across lots of young people, had worked with them for a number of years, and observed how their support staff talked to them about relationships, how they talked about relationships, how their relationships developed and the challenges they faced.

Within those kinds of two-hours every week, I worked with quite a few groups and I'd seen some amazing examples of the way that staff were talking with them and the way that they were talking to each other. But I'd also seen some things that I'd felt quite concerned about in terms of just them not being supported and maybe being kind of, I suppose, a bit dismissed. So, I've seen both good and bad examples. And I realised that maybe there was no consistency and nobody really had a sense of how to approach these. And sometimes really good practice happening and sometimes not.

I've kind of thought I'm sure theatre can be used to do this over time. So, I've been mulling it just on my own and then I've come across the PANTS resources because I have a young child myself. And I was like, this would be really good through theatre. This is a really good framework to then begin to expand and maybe explore then, through drama, ways that we can apply those rules, how to start thinking, when relationships get tricky, when young people want to have relationships and parents aren't sure how to talk with them.

And so, I talked to CYC, Connecting Youth Culture, and they then invested in the project and we developed it as a series originally of four theatre productions that develop on each other.

Then the NSPCC saw it and we wanted to check that using the PANTS rules, that was okay, and Helen to view the theatre offer. And then from there we toured the theatre. So, we went and took it to young people and explored how that worked in a real setting and got their feedback. And over and over again, these young people were saying things that were just wonderful like, “oh, I didn't know I could say no if somebody wants to touch me or someone wants to kiss me”, “oh, this is really important to talk about”, “oh yeah, this happened to me at school and it's really difficult” - and conversations were beginning to happen.

From then, I think that feedback and that really positive experience and seeing how well it worked, Helen commissioned us to make the film so that it could be more widely used.

It's been a really positive partnership. I think that we recognised that there was a lack of this type of resource available, not just to support a campaign, but support parents and practitioners more generally. Parents were saying to us that they didn't know how to start the conversation. They were quite nervous about their young person entering into a physical relationship with another person. For some parents, they didn't even want to think about it. It just wasn't on their radar. Their child or young person wasn't a sexual being and was never going to be a sexual being. And as we heard from El, young people do have feelings. They want to have relationships. They want to have close and sometimes sexual relationships. And so, we needed to develop something that would validate that but also help young people stay safe.

Can we just talk a little bit more about how the resources are delivered?

The resources are the three films. What El and colleagues at the NSPCC were really keen to ensure was that they could be delivered almost in a bespoke way for the needs of a particular individual or group. So, it's not a series of lesson plans because that might not work. It's a film which can be stopped at any point and activities that come under that.

The practitioner, the parent, or the teacher could work with an individual or group to look at and explore some of the themes that the films present and allow young people to work at their own pace to explore those themes through a range of different fun activities. And all the resources are available on the NSPCC Learning site.

And I think from my experience as a practitioner, so before we developed the theatre programme, we were also working with a small group of young people talking about relationships which provided an amazing kind of testing ground for some of the ideas that have gone into the resources.

What we realised was that some young people within that cohort - it was really mixed. And I think they were 16 to 21 the group we were working with, with learning difficulties, and some of those young people were going to go on and want to develop quite independent lives. They might live in supported living. They might live independently. And some of those young people might not and might never go on to be interested in any sexual relationship.

And so, the development of the resources and the films really is aimed at having modules that work for everybody. 'You, Mean and Us' looks at emotions and how our relationships develop. PANTS is just brilliant as a way of talking about that we have permission to say no when something doesn't feel okay and has worked for everybody. But then part three is more complex and is maybe aimed at people who might go on to be living independently. And the ages at which young people might want to engage or need to engage with that resource will vary massively from individual to individual.

I think maybe that's been part of why this provision, this type of provision hasn't been provided before, is because it's so complex, the needs of each individual and the context of their family, and yet these resources are aimed them having lots of different ways in and lots of different levels at which to talk to those young people at different times so that something is there to open up those conversations when they're needed.

What's great about these resources is actually we talk a lot about transition for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities. But actually, sometimes we think transition is just from primary to secondary school. This is a transition, emotional transition about how you kind of grow and develop and I think these resources really do that brilliantly.

I think for me when I was working with those young people, I realised that, as Helen has already said, maybe about some parents were really concerned about having those conversations with young people. And so, some people, as they were transitioning to perhaps being more independent or as their caregivers might not be there for them, because that happens as life goes on, potentially, that those young people might not have those resources and the ways of talking about things as those different transitions happened.

So, it was finding a way to really offer that support in those transitional experiences as young people start making decisions outside of being in a school setting, you know, pre-25 and when they transition out of that.

And I've actually worked quite a lot with adults with learning difficulties who say at that point of leaving the educational support, there feels like a massive drop off in terms of that support and the way that people talk to them and the expertise that people talk to them with about relationships and about the challenges they face with those, is often not there. And sometimes they feel like that's really lacking. So yeah, I think transitions is definitely much in our mind.

I think for all young people going from primary to secondary, secondary to maybe higher education or independent living, there's lots of challenges in terms of relationships, identity, knowing who you are, what's okay, what's not okay. But actually, this group of young people, we were almost embarrassed or felt awkward to address some of the issues that we would do with other young people.

We wanted to give everybody permission to start the conversations in an age appropriate, emotional age appropriate way, to ensure that no one was missing key messages around their own bodies, their feelings, consent, the fact that they are allowed to be sexual beings. It gives everybody an opportunity to talk through those subjects at a time and age when they feel it's most appropriate.

What are the benefits of these resources?

I think the young people we've worked with, with the resources, have really begun to talk and find ways to talk in ways that I suppose we weren't expecting. Sometimes when you take theatre into a group and you work with them, you may get some response. But I think it was really surprising how much young people in that setting would then talk about some of the tricky situations that had happened to them. And also, just tell us, “this is really important, I feel like this is really important” – and that came back to us a lot. So, the hope is that the films also then fill that kind of need.

For teachers, I think often they'd been wanting to talk about this. And again, when we went into schools with the theatre programme, we found that teachers often had very different ways of approaching it and hadn't had a consistent way of talking about these relationships with young people with special educational needs. Often that was down to the individual teacher and so all of them seemed to find the resource really helpful and really beneficial as a way that they could approach the subject. I think for us it's how do we offer that more and get it used more so that really could become an embedded way of talking to young people.

I think it gives people permission to start the conversation. And certainly, some of the teachers and parents that we spoke to at the beginning of the project felt this was a difficult subject. It was embarrassing. And actually, if I use these resources, then I know that I might be getting it right. I'm not going to be saying something that is going to be putting my young person at risk, or I'm not going to be saying something that I feel embarrassed about. It gives me a set of tools that I can use in the confidence and knowledge that they've been worked up by people that really know what they're talking about.

El, could you talk us through developing the resources and working with the young people on this and bringing their views and opinions into it?

Yes. As I mentioned before, we'd been working with a group of about six young people, exploring relationships and using lots of different materials, lots of different creative materials with Connecting Youth Culture, who also have had a vast array of experience working with young people with learning difficulties and working with lots of young people over the years.

And what we found was with those young people, they really needed some characters, some way of talking about relationships that was outside of themselves. Because if it was talking about themselves and what they were wondering about, and what they found difficult, it was too close to home. If it was facilitators in role, so trying to explore some of the difficult relationships or friendship issues, that was too close as well. And actually, what they’d been using really interestingly was soaps on telly and children's dramas. And they were what they talked about as reference points for their relationships. So that sparked us to think about how we could create a resource that had these characters that felt familiar, that felt comfortable, that felt really relatable too, but we could watch their dramas unfold in ways that then could be used to talk about relationships.

Then once we developed the theatre performances and once we developed the films, we were getting feedback from the youth theatre groups that we worked with. So, we would show them and we would get their feedback and that really helped us.

For example, in part three, where we do explore quite a lot of problems and challenges that Ash and Jim face in their relationship and some of those are a little heated because they get upset. In that group that we were talking about, we found our first treatment of that story. Young people felt that it all happened too fast so we slowed it down a lot in terms of delivery in the theatre programme and in the film. The pace is slower. The heat is taken out so people talk a little bit more calmly about those challenges.

And also in the film resources, we really invite practitioners to pause them and stop them and watch a short bit at a time. There are elements that talk about online safety and it might be that you want to stop it and then have conversations, do some work about online safety before you come back to what's happening for Ash and Jim next. That real flexibility is at the heart of it and that was in response to sharing it and getting feedback from young people.

And how did the young people enjoy working with you? Was this really interesting for them?

Yeah, I think it was really interesting and challenging. I think a bit of both. But I think it was just so sorely needed. We had quite a lot of feedback from young people that said, “oh, but actually I can't talk about that. That's rude. I can't talk about wanting to kiss them. And that's rude” or “I can't talk about my private parts because that's rude”.

And that message came back quite a lot and felt like it was really problematic because then what happens if something goes wrong? What happens if somebody approaches you and you're not comfortable about how they approach you? How are you going to talk to someone if you've been told that is wrong to talk about that? So, it really stirred us to keep the work, even if sometimes it felt uncomfortable for the young people and for the practitioners. Although the teachers usually and the support workers usually said, “oh this is so needed. We need this. We really want this”.

Did you see a change in young people's attitudes then from saying “oh, I can't talk about this”, actually by the time you'd work with them, were they like “oh, no, I understand it”?

Yeah. Some of them had a transition within the space that we were talking with them and they had ways of then talking about particularly consent, I think. I think the PANTS campaign is so strong on really helping young people to understand consent. And the way that we've used it within the film really opens that up more to young people with learning difficulties. So that was the strongest message that I think people were taking home, the ability that they could say no in different situations that didn't feel okay. That was a first port of call and then they could ask questions and then they could go.

Another really important element of the work is having a trusted adult, someone who you who you feel is safe and talking about who that safe person might be and where you might find a safe person. Often it was people's mums or dads, but otherwise it was somebody at school. And trying to help people in those workshops understand who that might be. And so, there's also resources about exploring who a safe person might be and how you might feel around that person that might let you know that they're a safe person to talk to and that's really tricky for young people with learning difficulties.

But yeah, I think there were shifts. For us again, it was about how we'd really love to see that work being more long term and embedded. And I suppose in the campaign going forward, it's about maybe how to work with schools, how to work with parents, about seeing that work roll out for a longer period of time so young people can have more of a journey with that.

I think for me when I've seen parents receive the resources and look at it, they almost look relieved. That this was quite a difficult thing to talk about even with the NSPCC or with their care provider for the young person.

I remember going to one setting who said “we've got to get parents on board before we show any of these resources to young people. We don't want to be sharing the resources and then these young people going home and talking about these issues without parents approving of these”. And these were young people, some of them 16 plus, but there was a real nervousness about getting it wrong, upsetting parents. And as El said, some young people really not being allowed or not believing they're allowed to talk about these issues.

So, I did some work with groups of parents to say these are the resources, what do you think? And you could absolutely see a sea change in the parent's feelings about these issues. During the course of watching some of the films, it was really, really noticeable. And the conversations that we had pre-and post were so different based on just one watch of some of these resources.

Have we had feedback? Do we know how people received them? Both young people, professionals, parents?

We have had feedback and the feedback so far has been really, really positive. I mean, we've used the resources as part of local NSPCC campaigns. So, it's great to have resources for all young people now when we talk about healthy or unhealthy relationships, sex and consent.

We do need to get the resources out there more widely. And as El said, we'd really like them to become embedded in whole communities where young people, parents and practitioners understand the language of feelings, the importance of being able to talk about them regularly, revisiting them as a child or young person gets older, emotionally develops. It's about embedding them and shaping them over time because we realise that we've developed these but they will need tweaking, they will need developing and they will need revisiting as young people come up with more things that they need us to be talking about.

Helen, El, thank you so much for coming to talk to us about the Love Life resources.

Thank you very much.

Thank you very much.


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