Mencap’s new All in Award: Can it improve children’s attitudes towards peers with learning disabilities? | by Sophie FitzGerald, UCL
By Katrina Scior, on 31 August 2017
Children’s attitudes towards their peers with intellectual disabilities (or in UK terminology: learning disabilities) have been found to be negative and children with intellectual disabilities are less accepted across a wide range of settings and countries. As attitudes are still developing in childhood, early intervention is likely to be more successful.
Contact with another group has been found to be most effective in improving attitudes towards that group. Carter, Biggs and Blustein (2016) highlight five core elements most likely to foster positive relationships between children with and without intellectual disabilities:
- sustained shared experiences,
- common connections,
- valued roles,
- relevant information,
- balanced support from facilitative staff which encourages but does not hinder new relationships.
The All in Award
The All in Award is a 10 week programme, involving children (aged 8-14) with and without intellectual disabilities working towards a shared aim. Activities were chosen by schools and ranged from first aid, to laughing yoga to healthy eating. 12 groups participated in the award from May 2016 to March 2017. An evaluation of the pilot of the award was conducted by Sophie FitzGerald and Katrina Scior at UCL to establish whether it is feasible to deliver the award as planned and evaluate it, and to gain a preliminary picture of its impact on typically developing children’s attitudes towards their peers with intellectual disabilities. Key findings from this evaluation are summarised below.
Feasibility of the Award and its Evaluation
In total 244 children were recruited to the All In Award and only 6 dropped out over the course of the study. Despite 238 children completing the award, only 56 fully completed pre and post questionnaires were returned. Feedback from children and facilitators is summarised below.
Recruitment: Facilitators needed more time to set up the award, especially when working with another school. A few parents’ negative attitudes towards children with intellectual disabilities were thought to adversely affect recruitment of typically developing children and some facilitators thought the word ‘disability’ may have prevented some parents from letting their children attend.
Challenges: A number of challenges were identified, including: managing a large group; balancing the needs of children with SEN; adverse weather changing plans; sessions being too short; and trying to fit the award into the school day.
Future plans: Most children and facilitators enjoyed the sessions, although a few children did not enjoy certain activities (e.g. yoga or dance). Every school interviewed said that they planned to continue with the All In Award in the future and would recommend it to other schools. 4 out of the 5 groups in the first term continued the project for another term and 2 of the schools decided to run an extra group.
How to capture impact: The questionnaires were considered to be clearly worded, asked challenging questions and the example children were viewed positively but were not accessible enough. Some suggested modifications, whereas others felt this would take away the meaning of what was being asked. Some facilitators felt that the questionnaires did not capture the impact and suggested other options, such as film or observation.
Small positive shifts in children’s self-efficacy scores and their acceptance of peers with intellectual disabilities were observed after the intervention. At the end of the All in Award sessions participating children typically felt more confident about interacting with peers with intellectual disabilities and more accepting of them. However, these results are based on only 56 completed questionnaires and therefore should be viewed with caution.
Promoting Interaction: Over time, children interacted more and their relationships became more equal. Facilitators felt younger children and high functioning children with intellectual disabilities found it easier to interact with peers that were different. Children and facilitators felt that bonds had been formed and some made new friends, whilst others felt that relationships did not quite amount to friendships. Past projects were thought not to have been as successful as they had been more focused on volunteering.
Interacting as equals? Facilitators felt it was important the chosen activity was new to all the children, allowing relationships to be on equal terms. Facilitators made remarks about typically developing children ‘coaching’ those with intellectual disabilities but children were not talked down to or disrespected. Facilitators commented that children with and without intellectual disabilities made mutual allowances for each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
Changing Minds: Some facilitators admitted having reservations at the outset and said the award sessions helped them recognise just how positive interactions between children with and without intellectual disabilities can be. Children’s responses to the measures and in group interviews indicated that they gained an increased understanding of their peers with intellectual disabilities and a greater willingness to interact with them.
Based on the results of this study, the All In Award appears feasible. The evaluation indicates that some modifications are called for, particularly with regard to measuring the impact through evaluation. The Royal Mencap Society will pilot the award in further schools in Kent and Bradford during 2017/18 and will seek funding to evaluate the award’s impact on a larger scale.