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Beyond exhaustion

Photo: Ethan's story: how he overcame concentration fatigue

After Ethan (13) kept coming home drained from listening, lip-reading and learning all day at school, his behaviour became difficult for the whole family. But with new strategies in place, this term should be a different story…

Selina glances at her phone; the kids are due home from school soon. Before she would have felt tensions rise, knowing she’d face battles when they got back. But then she reminds herself those times have gone. Ethan walks in smiling, happily chatting to his sister Grace (9) about his day.

“It was awful when Ethan started high school,” recalls Selina. “He’d come in exhausted after concentrating intensely all day on lip-reading, listening and learning. We could see it in him, a glazed expression, first noticeable during his Cognitive Abilities Tests (CATS) in Year 7.

“We’d get him to do homework but he’d refuse. That switch-off from school, where his brain’s gone into neutral, he couldn’t switch it on again. He wanted to watch Spiderman so the screaming and shouting would begin. His volume became louder as his self-regulation went. He’d blow out, get stroppy, slam doors.”

But that’s all changed thanks to the strategies put in place following meetings Selina and husband Nathan had with Ethan’s school.

Ethan is severely deaf, has worn hearing aids since six weeks old and uses speech and lip-reading. “High school is more challenging than primary,” says Selina. “He’s a visual learner, practical elements are easier for him to process so he’s more tired on days full of theory-based subjects.

“He had to learn to lip-read eight or nine teachers instead of one. In French he had three teachers with different accents – Welsh, French and Irish – it was hard! His auditory processing memory isn’t great and when he has to look at the whiteboard, lip-read and write, he can’t do it.”

Then a pupil started bullying Ethan, including calling him ‘Mickey Mouse’. “Ethan had always been confident in his deafness but he said he didn’t want to be deaf anymore,” says Selina. “It was heartbreaking.”

Selina and Ethan’s Teacher of the Deaf called a meeting with the school and they dealt with the bullying. Ethan got his confidence back and became the sociable outgoing boy he had been. At the meeting, Selina explained how tiring it is for a deaf child to concentrate all day and asked them to make reasonable adjustments to support Ethan.

They suggested Ethan spend lunchtime in the library, with access to a teaching assistant (TA), with other pupils who needed time out. “It provided a rest from playground noise and the pressure to have conversations, particularly after mornings with more theory-based lessons. On days with less mentally demanding subjects, like PE, he’d hang out with his mates instead,” says Selina.

Other meetings brought new ways to support Ethan. Some teachers started supplying Ethan with glossaries of new words and advance topic information so he could get visual information on YouTube. For spelling, Ethan works in the corridor with a peer buddy who gives him the word in a sentence for context.

Ethan found some classes too noisy so the school gave him a five-minute card, allowing five minutes out of a lesson. “It’s a good escape valve,” says Selina. “But we told him ‘Don’t abuse it or you’ll lose it!’”

He also has a red card for ‘mute the mic’ on his radio aid, a green one for ‘unmute mic’ and a ‘?’ card for asking a question.

All these changes have helped Ethan enormously but the key thing that’s defused the homework battles is homework club. “We only learnt of it when we spoke to the school about Ethan’s tiredness,” says Selina.

“It’s an hour after school. He does his homework the same day usually, his academic brain hasn’t switched off yet. He’s often the only one there so he gets 1:1 support and a cookie!”

“Being tired is difficult and your brain wants to close down,” Ethan adds. “Homework club helps because if I’m tired and I’ve gone to the club I don’t have to think when I get home. I can rest my brain and there isn’t any shouting about having to get homework done.”

Another problem was Ethan not hearing homework set at the end of lessons, with classmates scraping chairs and packing bags. “He relied on the electronic homework system but whenever it crashed he didn’t know what was required so got told off for not completing the homework which was unfair. Now the TA writes it in his planner,” says Selina.

Selina now feels optimistic about Year 8 and beyond. “Ethan loves school,” says Selina. “He’s outgoing, talks to all the teachers, not just his own. He’s meeting targets, other than in English and Maths. His effort is really good. He likes practical rather than academic subjects, like Design Tech and Food Tech. In Drama he did the lighting, watching for cues from kids on stage – he got it in 10 minutes, whereas most take all term to learn it because it’s visual.

“Year 8 will be harder but we’ve all these processes in place ready. Before the summer we met with the Year 8 head of year – who stays with the year group until the end of school – and the special educational needs coordinator (SENCO) to discuss Ethan’s needs.

“We’ve agreed to put in half termly meetings to ensure enough time for discussions. If I email the head of year, I’ll copy in the SENCO and Ethan’s Teacher of the Deaf so everyone’s in the loop. It’s about maintaining that communication.”