By Signe Lo Scott Larsen, MA in Educational Psychology
(Translated by Kirstine Dupont, Professional Communicator)
Coping strategies, low arousal or stress transactions are some of the terms Pindstrupskolen live by. Every day the practitioners at Pindstrupskolen, a special school in Jutland, Denmark, are using the specially designed Atlass stress reduction programme. The Atlass programme, designed by Dr. Michael McCreadie and Professor Andrew McDonnell, delivers a comprehensive set of tools both teaching skills and practical information – a programme today used in several Danish schools and institutions for children with additional needs.
What makes Atlass different from other approaches and how can practitioners use the tools in their work? Michael McCreadie explains more about Atlass and Hans Henrik Dupont, headmaster at Pindstrupskolen, elaborates on how they have implemented the programme at their school.
Dr. Michael McCreadie is a health psychologist from Scotland, who has been teaching and counselling Danish practitioners within the field of autism for the past 9 years and is one of the founders of the Atlass programme. Atlass evolves around children and young adults with special development disorders such as autism, ADHD among other conditions. The programme is based on science within the fields of health research, neuropsychology and development psychology and promotes an approach towards wellbeing and stress reduction.
Michael McCreadie explains how Atlass holds a comprehensive approach towards learning:
”Atlass is systemic in its approach. Rather than trying to do something to the child, Atlass looks at stress within the system. And that can be referenced to as a public health approach, by us not trying to treat the condition, but what we are looking at is the stress within the system and the interaction between the child and the environment – relationships as well as buildings”.
When asked the question about how Atlass can make a difference for teachers and care takers working with special needs children, Michael McCredie responds:
”Atlass is about changing relationships and finding meaning. The term meaning relates to being able to understand the issues for individual as they arise. So in terms of teachers it is about helping them finding meaning in the child’s behavior and being able to look at that behavior and adjusting learning expectations and differentiating the curriculum to learners’ needs.”.
Focus on stress transaction is key
Atlass is more an approach than an actual tool and the understanding of challenges within the child are essential. Mindfulness and knowledge about coping strategies are part of the programme. According to Michael McCreadie it is primarily about strengthening the child’s ability to cope in different environments. And also for professionals to be aware of their own stress.
”The intervention within Atlass is about looking at the stress transaction and focusing on the transaction in the child’s environment relationships. And looking at those factors that mediate within that relationship, so that can be professional knowledge and understanding – and not only in terms of understanding the distinct and unique conditional support needs of each learner, but also the stress transaction within ourselves and how we as professionals need to be centered and emotionally aware when working with vulnerable groups of people”.
Some of the methods being used in Atlass might for some people resemble a therapeutic practice. Michael McCreadie elaborates:
”Atlass is for everyone. There are none of the aspects or theories behind it which are distinct to a single profession. Any professional teacher or pedagogue can use these approaches – there are no reason why they cannot. I feel that behavioral approaches are quite reductionist, as they look at trying to stop or prevent a behaviour from occurring, which are very short term. The Atlass approach focuses on the challenges to the learner through the stress relationships and trying to do something about that. This enables the child to learn and derive meaning from his og hers learning experiences”.
Is it possible to use the Atlass approach in a normal school to include special needs children? Michael McCreadie explains:
”We all experience stress. And if we all experience stress, then every learner experiences stress in different aspects of their development. So the Atlass approach is being used in mainstream schools in Scotland and with great benefits. It has been able to get teaching staff and children to look at their own stress and improve the health and well-being at both parties – and improve opportunities for learning. I do not see learning as something that occurs within the four walls of a classroom. Learning occurs across of a range of different environments”.
Knowledge about stress reduces number of conflicts
At Pindstrupskolen Atlass has been implemented in the school’s pedagogical approach. This means that on a daily basis focus is on how the learners, for many different reasons, walk around with a high state of alert due to their diagnostic challenges. Frequent mood swings, behaviours of concern, tiredness or anxiety are signs of this and are some the challenges teachers and pedagogues need to cope with everyday. As a result stress is something that has an enormous impact on learning, development and general well-being.
Atlass has influenced the practice of the school, as the staff has a greater knowledge of the causes of stress and what you need to be aware of, as you plan your teaching. Hans Henrik Dupont, headmaster at Pindstrupskolen explains:
”At our school it is all about being able to challenge our students, but to a certain limit. It is about finding the balance between what the children are capable of, at what point they experience stress and about how and when we can teach them at their level. We want the children to feel good and be able to receive learning. And within that taking it all to the next level and at the same time being aware of our limits”.
The implementation of Atlass has had a positive influence on the school practice by for example reducing situation with physical restraints. Hans Henrik Dupont believes that this is due to the increased awareness of being attentive to signs of stress and how to react to the signs as professionals:
”This means that we rarely experience situations, where we as professionals have difficulties coping and act out in desperation. Our staff now has the tools to handle difficult situations and I believe that this example is a measurable result of the Atlass approach”.
Focus on the individual
Part of the school’s pedagogical approach is to find ways to reduce the level of stress within each learner. Therefor the school has a broad range of different stress reduction initiatives and each learner has an individual stress reduction plan. The plan contains elements of physical exercise, mindfulness and different support systems, all with the purpose of helping the individual child to cope with his or her day.
The key view in Atlass is that stress is individual, which is why they at Pindstrupskolen actively focus on the individual – also when the consultants of the school are out guiding mainstream schools about special needs and inclusion.
”The most important part in a successful inclusion is looking at the stress level at the individual child and through that visualise how you can create the best environment for both the child and the rest of the class”, Hans Henrik Dupont says.
At Pindstrupskolen 20 out of the 59 teachers and pedagogues have attended the Atlass Masterclass in Birmingham. They have also had follow up days with staff members from StudioIII and the school organise internal seminars where the entire staff participates.