A Q&A with our SEND Schools’ Illustrator in Residence Lily Ash Sakula

We talked to SEND Schools’ Illustrator in Residence about their work with students with severe disabilities.


  • Learning

Who did you work with?

I worked with students, aged 5 to 18, in the pathway with the most complex support needs at John Chilton School, a SEND (Special Education Needs and Disabilities) School based in Ealing. Over the course of the residency we created An Animated Portrait of Our School.

What were the challenges?

The main challenge was the wide variety of needs in each classroom.

Some children are non-verbal, which limited our communication; others had low dexterity, so holding a brush or drawing figuratively can be impossible; others have cognitive processing disorders, which meant focusing on a particular task or following instructions were a struggle.

Each of these needs required different adaptations, and so meeting them all in one class demanded extreme flexibility and a willingness  to rip up all your plans and start again several times in each lesson.

Another challenge was designing activities that were both ability- and age-appropriate – this often meant differentiating delivery between reception and sixth form students while ensuring activities were accessible to all students.

How did you approach these challenges?

My approach was extreme flexibility, and an acceptance that I was learning as I went. I wasn't precious about my plans and was willing to be led by the students themselves and their support staff.

I also attempted to distribute the focus over a range of senses, rather than prioritising the visual. For example, we played with touch, using materials with a range of feelings and textures; sound, so I always had music playing in my sessions; and movement, including regular dancing breaks.

All my students seemed to love dancing including those with mobility issues: one girl even did wheelies in her wheelchair to Bob Marley!

The residency also gave me the opportunity to try each workshop, with each age group, in a variety of settings, so by the end of the day I had a good idea of what worked and what didn’t. Sometimes I still hit wide of the mark and no one knew what was going on, but I reassured myself that this was all part of the process!

Some hugely helpful advice that my programme mentor Jhinuk Sarkar gave me was that when someone is struggling with a task or getting frustrated or bored, our instinct is to step in and try and fix it – but sometimes it’s better to step back and give the child the space and time to be in that moment, explore their materials, listen to music, stare into space and work things out in their own time. This also gave me the space to slow down my own expectations and allow the process to develop in an organic way.

Tell us about your sessions with the students.

In one session, we experimented with mixing colours and trying out different brush textures. First we used red, yellow and blue cellophane, putting them together in different combinations and looking through them to change the colours of the room. We talked about how seeing everything in blue or orange or red made us feel.

Then I gave the students red, yellow and blue paint and asked them to see how many different colours they could make and to try cover their entire piece of white paper. Some mixed the paint with their hands, others rolled marbles through the paint, others explored a range of brushes and sponges.

At the end I had about 40 paintings with loads of different textures and colours. I took them home and cut them into simple shapes (circles, squares, rectangles, almonds).

The following session, we talked about the different shapes you have in faces and tried out sticking different shapes to our own faces to see what fitted best. We looked at Kimmy Cantrell and Picasso to explore the different ways artists can arrange a face.

Students chose their favourite shapes and colours and stuck them on the black card to make their own faces. Some wanted to make themselves realistically, others enjoyed feeling the stickiness of the glue and wanted to stick down as many shapes as possible, so there was a wide range!

I encouraged them to experiment with contrasting colours, for example for pupils on the eyes. And then they started tearing up the shapes I made to make their own facial features. One child tore up lots of little pieces to add their freckles, one cut the shapes into strips to make hair and another added scary-looking teeth, totally unprompted! A pupil I have who often struggles to focus made a double-decker face!

At the end of each session we hung all the faces on the wall and talked about what we liked most about them. 

We also played with claymation, first building up some plasticine skills by exploring different techniques including rolling, bashing, smoothing, twisting, poking and pinching.

We made – and then gleefully squished – different objects that I brought along including leaves, shells and a chocolate bar (made of plastic, much to everyone’s disappointment!).

Then we made characters starting with simple shapes for heads, eyes, mouths, bodies, before adding on more complex ones like hair and jewellery. Many children made their mobility aids, including wheelchairs, walkers and chest compressors.

We animated the characters in small groups using iPads with the Stop Motion Studio app. Although the layout is very intuitive, many of the buttons are too small for those with low levels of dexterity, so animating was definitely the most challenging part of the process.

However, students really enjoyed seeing their characters move, and many got into the rhythm of animating after a few goes.

What does the final work look like?

The final work is a film of everyone’s animation and illustrations, with a voiceover from the Sixth Form students interviewing each other about their school and a soundtrack that we composed with Years 8 and 9 in collaboration with the music teacher at the school.

I put together a rough cut over the half term to show students and get their input on where to go next. Seeing their work on the big screen really inspired them, and they had a million ideas for more animation in the second half of term. There will also be an exhibition of the collages and models as well as photos of the process in the school atrium, once the school is able to reopen.

What was the impact of the residency on the students, the teachers and on you?

For the students, I think seeing themselves and their disabilities reflected in the work – making their faces, modelling their wheelchairs, recognising their voices – was hugely exciting and engaging.

The art lead at the school told me that the complex needs pathway that I’m working with rarely get programmes specifically aimed at them, so having this opportunity to see themselves and have their experience centred has been really important for them.

Many of the teachers have enjoyed the workshops and said they’ve got lots of ideas for activities they’d like to try with their students. Animating has been especially popular, as few had had the opportunity to try this before.

The teaching assistants offered me invaluable advice on how to adapt activities for particular students, and their expertise and willingness to get stuck in was amazing as well as vital in making any of this possible.

As for me, the impact was huge. Having never worked exclusively with children with complex needs before, I had to learn on the job.

My workshops are definitely better from getting used to being in a space without trying to control everything or have everyone stick to a schedule.

Slowing down, and breaking familiar processes into their most basic parts forced me to reassess practices that had become automatic, which gave me a new approach to my own work.

I have also been thinking about how focusing on a sensory process over any kind of result can be seen as an adaptation to the students’ abilities – but it also has a deeper value when you consider that many of the children in the school have life limiting conditions.

Putting myself in the position of the young people I was working with (to the extent that that was possible), thinking about what it feels like for me when something is too hard, or when my mood is low or I have no energy, was key to building the empathetic connection needed to make collaborative work.

Thank you to all the students and staff at John Chilton School for their collaboration and input. Our Schools’ Illustrator in Residence programme was made possible through the generous support of John Lyon's Charity.

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