Rossmar School in Limavady has become the first ever school in Northern Ireland to be awarded ‘Centre of Excellence’ status for its use of a system to help children communicate.
Rossmar caters for children with varying degrees of special educational needs, including with multiple and profound learning difficulties.
Their use of the innovative ‘language system’ known as ‘Makaton’, designed to help those with difficulty communicating, has earned the local school the first accolade of its kind ever handed out to a school in Northern Ireland.
Nursery teacher Nuala McNeill explained Rossmar’s use of the language, which involves sign langauge and symbols: “We’ve been using Makaton in this school for about 20 years. We would use it with the very young children when they come in and other children as well who have language and communication difficulties. It gives children who have no language a means of communication and we would find that that then helps behaviour because if they are very frustrated and they can’t say what it is they want or what is wrong with them, this gives them a means of expressing themselves. That would be where I am starting, in the (Buttercup) nursery. With the young ones coming in, we would use signing from the word go with them.
“Throughout the school, we start off with the signing but we use the symbols as well. We use visual symbols in most classes in the school for the youngsters so that it structures their day and we would use the symbols for that so that the children that can’t read can see from the symbols what it is that is going to happen. We also use symbols with our reading scheme for some children who would have difficulty with reading.
“The signing goes on throughout the school, along with speech, so very often even though a child is talking they are still signing because it is really augmenting their speech. If they have a speech difficulty, for example maybe you are not too sure what they are saying and they sign along with it then you can make sense of what it is. Obviously that helps them to improve their own communication because you are encouraging them to speak and sign.
“The Makaton assessor who was out here had said that our use of symbols was beyond anything that she had seen anywhere else because we are using it very productively and very effectively with our pupils.”
Lisa Young is a Speech and Language Therapist who works at Rossmar. She said: “Makaton is a complete language programme and it uses speech along with Makaton signing and symbols to help children to understand language and to express themselves.
“Makaton works well with the development of language because whenever we’re signing we do it in the same order as we would speak, so the children are learning - they are actually developing language. We would tend to sign the key, most important words so that helps the children develop the whole concept of language.
“The idea is that when we are working on Makaton with a child in school, everybody is trained and able to use Makaton. That is carried over so that we offer training to the families as well and to the carers, brothers and sisters and grandparents so that, ideally, everyone working with the child knows the form of communication to use.
“When Makaton (the charitable organisation who awarded Centre of Excellence status to Rossmar) came to look at the school they looked at the system. We are doing all the signing with the children, basically from when they come into the school until they leave in the afternoon. Again, that was rolled out to the parents so that everyone knew how to sign with the child. Also, the symbol system that is used in the school - we would tend to be using all Makaton symbols. Makaton is adaptable so that if a child comes into the school from elsewhere and is using a different signing system, it is flexible and it can be used with other systems as well to develop language.”