How Do Museum Objects Impact Children with Special Needs and Disabilities?

Sarah Allen, Learning and Access Officer at Abbey House Museum and Kirkstall Abbey explores the positive impact of museum objects on children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities.

Pupil facing the camera handling a rock with a hole in the middle. He is trying to look at the camera through the hole. He has brown hair and a black sweater.
Pupil handling objects from the Leeds Museums and Galleries Geology collection

As a Learning Officer, I have a wealth of stories of how children behave when they visit my small museum. From the tiny nursery children who think I really must live in our Victorian Streets; to the to the wily Year 6’s who try to catch you out with questions about toilets; every day is different and has at least one little gem in it.

But I think my favourite anecdotes always include the dramatic progress in communication made by children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND). The number of times that a child – who the teacher has whispered to me ‘they won’t really join in, they are autistic’ – has picked up a museum object and come to life really is amazing. I think most Learning Officers have similar experiences and yet it is really hard as a sector to be able to prove or track that impact in a significant or robust way.

In 2015 Leeds Museums and Galleries were fortunate to be chosen to work with West Oaks SILC (Specialist Inclusive Learning Centre) on a piece of action research to track if working in collaboration could have an impact on pupils’ expressive communication. We worked with two classes, one KS3 [Key Stage 3 in England and Wales, normally known as Year 7, Year 8 and Year 9, when pupils are aged between 11 and 14] and one KS5 [Key Stage 5, students aged 16-18, or at sixth form] with a total of 17 pupils over 20 weeks. We visited different LM&G sites, had outreach sessions in school and interactive workshops with artists on- and off-site. The sessions, themed around the school’s big question, all started with object handling using objects from the LMG collections.

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We tracked the pupils progress carefully in a range of areas, both in national curriculum subjects and in other skills such as confidence and collaboration. We were looking particularly at the areas of communication, expression and art and design. In all three areas, the pupils made substantially greater progress than what would have been expected without the intervention. On average pupils achieved 69% above their expected level of progress in less than an academic year. Some pupils made over 100%.

photo of two people in a room painted bright green with several photo frames on the wall in the background. A woman with long brown hair and a grey dress is helping a pupil to dress with one the object from Leeds Museums and Galleries's textile collection. The object looks like a poncho, it is long with some fringes and beige with red and black details.
Pupil having fun during a workshop and trying on an object from Leeds Museums and Galleries’ textile collection

The qualitative stories behind the data are equally inspiring. When one pupil with complex communication difficulties visited Leeds Discovery Centre, he showed great interest in a taxidermy crocodile. Normally this pupil’s communication was chaotic and often echolalic (repeating words and phrases spoken by others). Here, he launched into a fluent description of the crocodile.  He went on to inform staff where its natural habitat was, what it ate and the climate of that country! This was an exceptional cross-curricular link demonstrating a level of knowledge and understanding that school staff were unaware of. His work on this continued back in class where he drew the crocodile, made models and wrote about the animal. He was animated, fluent and coherent and engaged with those he was telling.

We have already shared elements of our learning with the wider profession; it has been too exciting not to. In 2016/17 we worked with another SILC to see if we could replicate the results in another school and other key stages, and again saw some staggering results.  Now we are looking at how we and our partners can take our work forward. Raising achievement in SEND pupils and closing the gaps with their peers in mainstream education is a key focus in Leeds over the next few years. We are keen to show that museums can be at the very heart of that progress.

By Sarah Allen, Learning and Access Officer at Abbey House Museum & Kirkstall Abbey

To find out more about our learning programme, click here.

With thanks to Museum Galleries Scotland for letting us use this original blog post.



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