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Developing self-awareness, raising self esteem and promoting participation for students with language and communication needs


I run a centre for secondary aged students with Communication Difficulties, including Autism. Through embarking on the Masters in Education Studies at the University of Sussex focusing on Person Centred Education, I have become increasingly interested in student voice (Fielding, 2001, 2005) and enabling the voices of students with communication difficulties within mainstream environments to be heard. Through my own writing of a learning biography (Lawrence, 2002), my subsequent literature review and the small research project, I have become increasingly focused on devising a programme using the action research structure.


Action research methodology comprises of cycles of observation and evaluation of current practise followed by implementation of changes, then a review of the results leading to further possible cycles of research. I wanted to improve the possibilities for my students through effective intervention. Students with communication difficulties including Autism can have difficulty understanding their own emotions and expressing them. I was interested to see if using alternative means for self expression such as colour, movement, sounds and foods students would develop their self confidence to explore their emotions non-verbally and this would lead to development of their confidence to communicate verbally.

Research question(s):

  1. Can students with language and communication needs express their feelings non-verbally?
  2. Can students with language and communication needs express their feelings about school non-verbally thus allowing them to participate in the student voice agenda?
  3. Can expressing a student’s views about school non-verbally increase their confidence to communicate verbally?

Research method(s):

Please see attached report  (my MA dissertation) for full details of the research methods and findings. To summarise, this was a fairly large-scale Action Research project (consisting of a pilot and then a longer project) with Year 7 students with communication needs including Autism in a Specialist support centre based in a mainstream secondary school.


Extremely successful.  The students communicated non-verbally and then increasingly verbally when retested on a pre-intervention and post intervention questionnaire. Their verbal interactions in small group work and main class settings were monitored and they increased their verbal confidence in class. They also increased their verbal confidence in social situations.


This study provides strong support for the use of alternative methods (i.e. non-verbal, as well as traditional, word-focused communication methods) for students with communication needs. Please see the full report for details.


This research project has been beneficial to the students, the staff involved, and myself. It has led to changes to practice in the High School in which my Facility is based. I have given presentations about the project as it has been evolving and I have spoken to colleagues about it in my school and other schools. Other schools have expressed an interest in taking part in a similar project that might be adaptable to suit their setting and students. I would like to extend the research further into the High school where I am based along with other secondary schools, special schools and primary schools. I believe the benefits of effective inclusion could be far reaching for these students and for schools as a whole.


  1. Fielding, M. (2001) Beyond the Rhetoric of Student Voice: new departures or new constraints in the transformation of 21st century schooling?, Forum, Volume 43, No2, pp.100-109.
  2. Fielding, M. (2005) Putting Hands Around the Flame: reclaiming the radical tradition in state education, Forum, Vol 47, No. 2 and 3, pp.61-69.
  3. Lawrence, R., (2002) Adult Development from the inside out: constructing knowledge through life history writing, Paper presented at the Midwest Research to-Practice conference in Adult, Continuing and Community Education, Northern Illinois University, Dekalb, IL, Oct 9-11, 2002.


  2. ICAN
  3. National Autism Society

Featured image: Pixabay

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