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Designing a weight management course for children with learning difficulties

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There’s no such thing as a child with simple needs. But developing a learning difficulties-focussed weight management programme has shown us how complex the world can be for some of the most challenged children in our community…

More and more children with learning difficulties are obese. In 2016 the British Paediatric Neurology Association and British Academy of Childhood Disability measured 264 pupils attending a local Special Educational Needs (SEN) secondary school. They reported 40% of pupils with learning disability were overweight or obese, which is much higher than published reports for the general population of the same age at 33%. And SHINE have been partnering with Sheffield Mencap & Gateway on a new project to adapting our materials to deliver weight management programmes for this important specialist group.

With the support of Mencap Chief Exec Janet Sullivan and funding from Children in Need, we’ve trained four Mencap staff teachers here in Sheffield to deliver a new SHINE weight management programme, which includes an increased visual focus and more interactive exercises and games.

Textures, colours and aromas all play a massive part in eating for children with learning difficulties so understanding sensory eating has been really important for this. Through engagement and observations we’ve found out loads about how children with learning difficulties can be selective or fussy eaters, disliking ‘wet’ food like gravy, sauces and yoghurt and preferring ‘beige’ foods like potatoes, bread and pasta. Children with learning difficulties can have entrenched disordered eating patterns at mealtimes, further complicated by medical conditions such as Pica and Prader-Willi Syndrome.

We’ve also learnt a lot from parents, who’ve openly discussed how difficult it is to manage these behaviours and how tempting it can be to give in to demands for a ‘quiet life’. But with guidance and support from SHINE staff, our parents have made amazing changes – challenging demands, setting boundaries around family mealtimes and introducing new foods in a fun way. Following positive results, we’re about to progress to our September course with new learning and greater confidence in our ability to help families make changes. Well done to our first group – you did us proud!

SHINE is saved – and launching new programmes!

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Huge, out of this world thanks to Children In Need, who’ve provided SHINE with funding for the next three years. Their contribution will keep our doors open (and more – read on for the new courses we’re launching) but we’re thankful to EVERYONE who raised their voice to support us over the last few months of nail biting tension. Thankyou all!

We’re currently preparing to launch two new programmes for 2018 – an expansion of our current psycho social programme to include younger children and a new pilot with Sheffield MENCAP and Gateway which we’d love to tell you about.

Since SHINE started 15 years ago the profile of our recruits has changed significantly. Originally referrals to us were mainly low level obesity. Few of the young people we worked with had illness-related excess weight. Today ALL our referrals have severe obesity and 22% are morbidly obese with severe co-morbidities – such as type 2 diabetes, fatty liver and high blood pressure. We’re actually now seeing children as young as six years with these conditions.

The number of children with learning disabilities referred to us has also increased. Every child is different but children with learning disabilities in particular can exhibit sensory eating difficulties where specific colours, textures and smells can prevent them from eating nutritional food, for instance. Although there’s overlaps with our psychosocial programme’s approach there’s also lots of specialist work needed to provide a service for these special young people.

SHINE needs to change to make sure we continue to help children with complex needs appropriately. The new funding from Children In Need enables us to expand our services to include younger children with severe levels of obesity. We’re hoping this will provide early intervention to help reduce the number of referrals for older children with severe and co-morbid conditions.

Excitingly the funding has also offered us the opportunity to develop a pilot project with Sheffield MENCAP & Gateway to adapt SHINE to meet the specific needs of children with learning disabilities. We’re currently training four learning disability staff to deliver an adapted SHINE programme.  Right now they’re gaining insight from families of children with learning disabilties, finding out what will and won’t work for this specialist client group.

We’re accepting referrals for this new programme now. Fill in the referral form here or contact us for more information.