CREAB Research in Progress Seminar

Today I gave a work-in-progress presentation for CREAB (“Centre for Research Across Boundaries in theory and practice”). CREAB is based at Bristol’s Graduate School of Education. I’m only half-way through data collection and haven’t conducted any formal analysis yet.  However, I thought I’d write a blog post to share some of the emerging findings for those that are interested in the project.

Project title:

Examining the situated and emerging sociability of children with profound and multiple learning disabilities (PMLD) across educational contexts 


The aim of the research is to explore whether different school environments (e.g. mainstream and special) provide alternative social interaction opportunities for children with PMLD. The research also explores how children with PMLD respond to different kinds of social opportunities, and how this impacts on their emerging social awareness and communication skills.

Sample and time frame:

8 children with PMLD will be recruited to the project. Each child will be observed one day a week in a mainstream school and one day a week in special school for a 10-week period. A special school teaching assistant (TA) will accompany each child with PMLD when attending mainstream school.

To date, 1 reception and 2 primary school children have participated in the project. The next stage involves recruiting secondary school students with PMLD.


The methodology is similar to that developed for my PhD (you can read about that here and here).

The methodology is richly interpretivist and qualitative. It involves the researcher working with children, parents, and school staff. There are three components to this approach. First, parents and school staff are asked to describe children’s communication abilities (e.g. through semi-structured interviews). This gives the researcher a frame of reference for interpreting children’s behaviours. Second, the researcher works as a participant observer and gets to know children involved in the study by engaging with them in their daily routines. Third, the researcher generates data by writing “vignettes”, which are qualitative field notes describing observed social interactions between children with PMLD and the people they engage with in schools. The researcher and school staff then discuss observations/vignettes and share interpretations (staff are asked to comment on the researcher’s interpretation in order to help deepen his/her understanding of observed behaviours).

Impressionistic findings:

No formal data analysis has taken place so the following statements must be taken tentatively. However, an impressionistic reading of the data suggests that:

  • To date, all children participating in the project experienced meaningful opportunities for social interaction in both mainstream schools and special schools.
  • The nature of social interactions in the special schools was often respectful yet functional, and typically involved school staff. (For example, school staff interacted in order to teach children how to communicate.)
  • There was little interaction observed between children with PMLD and their special school peers.
  • By contrast, there was lots of interaction between children with PMLD and their mainstream school peers. The nature of this interaction was often spontaneous, playful, and unstructured.
  • One child exhibited a potentially new form of symbolic communication – a hand gesture – in his mainstream school that was never observed in his special school.
  • Whilst two children appeared reserved in mainstream school when they first started, they soon became more confident and learned to enjoy being in the presence of other children.
  • Groups of “friends” formed around children with PMLD in mainstream school. (These were peers who regularly played with children with PMLD, pushed their wheelchair, supported them in class, read to them, held their hand, gave them sensory objects , etc.)
  • Targets set by special school teachers were sometimes met in mainstream schools. (For example, one child’s target involved lifting his head for 30 seconds in the presence of others. Early on in the research we noted that he raised his head for 3-4 minutes in the presence of mainstream school peers.)
  • The success of mainstream school placements for children with PMLD depended on the flexibility of the school and the creativity, knowledge, and confidence of the special school TAs who accompanied the children.

Future research:

There are 18 months left of the project. The aim is to recruit 4-5 for more children/young people in secondary school and (if possible) post-16 settings. Formal data analysis will take place in 2017 and the findings will be reported in due course.


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