what is portage?

Through shared observation of the child while playing, participating in daily routines, responding to the familiar environment, the family and Portage practitioner build up a developmental profile of existing skills and understanding.  Not only is this vital information for planning the future, it highlights the child’s progress so far and celebrates what has already been achieved.

Portage, central to the work of ThePromise in Russia, was developed to support families caring for a young child with special needs. The Portage model has been used successfully in countries across the world bringing a set of principles promoting their early development into the day to day world of children.

The vital role of parents/carers

Portage recognises the vital role played by all parents and carers in the early development of the young child. Parents often take that role for granted. As they look after their children and respond to their needs, they remain unaware of the myriad of ways they stimulate and support their progress and development. Yet they are central. Parents learn how to “talk” to their baby in ways that attract the baby’s attention: smiling, moving their faces, using a singing voice until the baby responds. Later they celebrate the child’s first smile and work hard to see it repeated.

As children grow parents look for opportunities to encourage their child’s independence: to sit while playing, gradually withdrawing any support; later to stand independently, and to take first steps. They respond to their babble and repeat first words, becoming very excited when the babble resembles dada or papa. Parents join in simple play routines without thought of the impact these games have on a child’s development. It all seems very natural a part of every day life and the experience of being a parent or carer.

Parents/carers and children with special needs

Caring for a child with an identified learning support need requires a more systematic response from parents and carers if they are to grow and develop during their first years in the same way as their peers. Portage offers this systematic support. It works with parents and carers, within the familiar routines of childhood where early learning takes place, to support the child on a vital learning journey. Each tiny step in learning that the child takes on this journey moves the child towards the major milestones of early development.

Portage: beginnings – finding starting points for learning and development

The learning journey begins, after referral to a Portage team, in the place where the child lives: the home, or in some cases in Russia, the Baby Home or orphanage. During weekly visits to the home by a trained Portage practitioner, parents and carers discuss and plan the way ahead for their child. Their first task is to find out what the child can already do in all areas of development: social, self help, language, movement and cognitive understanding.

Through shared observation of the child while playing, participating in daily routines, responding to the familiar environment, the family and Portage practitioner build up a developmental profile of existing skills and understanding. Not only is this vital information for planning the future, it highlights the child’s progress so far and celebrates what has already been achieved.

Portage: planning the way forward

Having established starting points, things the child can do now, parents and carers with Portage look forward to the future. Together they identify what the child needs to do next to build on present progress and move towards the next steps in their developmental progress. Drawing on the familiar games and routines of childhood, Portage uses a precision teaching approach to design a series of games and activities for the child to practise with the parent and carer each day. Each activity takes the child through a tiny step towards a new developmental skill, for example:

  • to give eye contact to the parent/carer during a nursery song
  • to point to a named picture, shape or colour to imitate a gesture “waving bye bye”
  • to draw a simple shape – a circle

Portage: making it work for the individual child

Because each child and each parent/carer is unique, the design of each Portage activity will be unique. The design framework enables a response to the starting points and learning style of each individual child. Each chosen activity, such as imitating a gesture, is designed to achieve a planned response and will:

  • build on the child’s preferences, things the child enjoys
  • be presented in ways that attract and hold the child’s attention
  • use rewards the child enjoys: touching, smiling, praise
  • offer the minimum help needed to support the child to achieve the response

The result of such careful planning is an activity that closely matches the child’s needs, one that parents and carers will enjoy practising together each day. The support and reinforcement given to the child by the parent/carer during their daily activities is a vital element in the learning that is taking place. A record of the child’s response to each Portage activity is kept by parents and carers to share with the Portage practitioner on the next home visit.

Portage: a multi professional approach

Anya standing (physio) and doing Portage at the same time

The precision in the design of the activities is the critical component supporting clear communication to everyone involved with the child. It enables a range of professionals such as speech, occupational and physiotherapists to contribute to the choice and design of the teaching activities. The clarity of the targets set for the children, details of the design of each activity practised and the ongoing weekly records of their progress, provide a rich source of data for sharing across professional boundaries.

Portage: maintaining high standards

Portage practitioners meet together with a supervisor or senior Portage worker on a weekly basis to share reports on children’s progress, recording their successes and addressing any problems. Support provided through the supervisory structure is essentially positive. Teams operate on the basis of mutual support bringing to the discussion any problems encountered by a child, the benefit of their combined experience and their links with other agencies to agree a way forward. Regular reviews, summarising each child’s progress and outlining future targets for learning, are prepared by their Portage worker together with family/care staff, and relevant medical professionals for formal presentation at team meetings

Portage: measuring success

Success through Portage is measured in a number of ways.  In particular:

  • the impact on the child’s developmental progress: reports here record positive change for children across a wide range of developmental starting points. Parent/carers comment on “the sense of achievement” “the little steps that add up to one big thing later” “I can see the improvements”
  • the satisfaction of parents/carers with the support offered by Portage: reports from parent/carers across the world show high levels of satisfaction, many commenting on the changes expressed by parents/carers about their role “Portage has given me confidence in my ability to help my child”
  • the impact on the child’s day to day life and experience: reports from the Portage work of ThePromise show that the changes in the children have opened doors previously closed to them: opportunities to join in special days and social events; to participate in play with their peers.

Tatyana Alexandrovna, Director of the Baby Home in Ryazan, commented: “Portage has radically changed the work of the Baby Home. Today I cannot imagine our future life and development without it.”

Here perhaps is the heart of the work: to bring, through the experience of success for every child, the sense of enjoyment of their personal world, and their place within it. This is the way in which, as supporters of ThePromise, we can make a difference to the lives of the children we serve.

Mollie White

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