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Lauren Young provides an insight into Learning Disability Nursing, the qualifications needed, career opportunities, and skills required in order to succeed.
11th December 2017
Written by Lauren Young
I am newly qualified, and passionate about working with people who have learning disabilities, whether that is within their own homes, in the community, in hospitals, or mainstream services.
The main aim of a learning disability nurse is to work with people who have learning disabilities, and support them to lead as independent and fulfilling lives as possible.
Most Learning Disability Nurses (RNLD) qualify by embarking on a three-year undergraduate degree at a UK university. Approved courses can be found by searching on the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) website.
The qualifications for university can be found on the individual university website, and some are subject specific. This is also true of learning disability nursing, however there are some trends.
All nursing courses are professional courses, meaning they lead to a professional qualification.
This is in contrast to academic courses, which are taken for the love of learning and transferable skills rather than any specific career goal. However, you should use the University and College Admissions Service, or UCAS, to apply to both types of course.
The typical qualifications that universities ask for are 5 GCSEs at grade C or above, and they may need these to include English Language or Literature, and Science, as well as two or more A-levels.
Alternatives to A-levels can include:
The person to speak to would be the Admissions Co-ordinator or Admissions Tutor of your chosen course, at your chosen university. Their email address will be on the university's website.
As well as academic qualifications, applicants to learning disability nursing courses usually need experience working with people who have a learning disability, before the course starts. This could include voluntary or paid work.
Again, an admissions tutor will be able to advise exactly what experience is required for their course, and if the experience you have is enough.
For my course, experiences ranged from caring for relatives, working for years as support workers in care homes, schools, nursing homes, and day centres, as well as senior staff.
The key point to your statement is making sure you can relate how your experience has given you the skills to undertake a nursing course at university level, working with people who have learning disabilities.
Resources such as the NHS Core Values, or information on the university website on writing your personal statement are helpful. Remember to reflect on your experiences, and how they have helped you improve.
A new role to look out for is the nursing associate. This is an alternative to university, developed by the Department of Health and regulated by the NMC. The role will involve training over a two-year period, and attending university and colleges part-time to become qualified nursing associates.
From there, nursing associates could go on to gain further qualifications to become registered nurses.
This is a very new role, so do look out for more information about it in the future.
The role of a learning disability nurse is as diverse as the people who qualify. Therefore, it may be unrealistic to fully explore all the further learning opportunities available.
However, there are some learning opportunities open to all learning disability nurses which you could take advantage of.
Once qualified, like many jobs the learning doesn't stop. You will be expected to keep up-to-date with your continued professional development (also known as CPD) which can include attending conferences, relevant training courses, or participating in workshops.
It is worth noting that the NMC requires you to have undertaken at least 35 hours of CPD, relevant to your scope of practice within the three years needed for revalidation. The NMC website includes more information about this, as well as a template to help you record it.
Your company, such as the NHS, should offer opportunities for training. This can be mandatory training like health and safety, and fire awareness, or training specific to the people you work with, like diabetes and epilepsy training.
As well as this, it may be worth exploring options outside of your work. For example, after gaining some experience you may find you would like to become an advanced clinical practitioner, or perhaps enter research.
These career goals can be achieved by going back to university to study for postgraduate qualifications. It is worth keeping in touch with your university where you gained your undergraduate degree to see if any opportunities arise, and whether they do such a course.
Postgraduate education is just one example of how your career may progress as a learning disability nurse. Some people chart their career progression as they travel through the company who employ them.
For example, a newly qualified learning disability nurse could go on to develop new training programs using their expertise in specialist areas, which they could then deliver to either their own staff team, or others within their company.
Other examples of gaining a breadth of experience and skills, and therefore increasing your own skill base could include working within the community, in care homes, hospitals, and other healthcare settings.
Remember the diversity of people with learning disabilities, who you may also have an opportunity to work with. This could include people with mild learning disabilities who need support identifying career opportunities for themselves, or working with people who have profound and multiple learning disabilities who have more complex needs such as tracheostomies, PEG feeding, or mobility needs.
Some people have a good idea which service users they would prefer working with whilst still an undergraduate student. Others find they have a preference only as their career progresses. Still, others find they really enjoy working with everyone across the spectrum.
There is no right or wrong answer, and learning disability nurses really can be found working in a multitude of places, including so-called mainstream services, working hard to promote an inclusive culture for people with learning disabilities.
The career opportunities may exist in a company you already work for. Some companies have set hierarchical structures, with a clear career progression such as staff nurse, charge nurse, manager, etc. These roles might be ones you want to keep in mind as a newly qualified nurse.
Do not worry if you feel overwhelmed. This is very common, and normal.
Personally, I prefer building on my existing skills that I had learnt as an undergraduate, focusing on the service users I am currently working with to ensure that I could meet their needs as best as possible. By doing this, I hope I have a solid foundation on which to build my career.
It is also useful to have an idea of what options there are for the future.
Finally, there is the option of going into research. You can still maintain your PIN and nurse registration as a researcher.
This could be viewed as a specialist role in its own right, and may require a Masters degree, and even a PhD.
A nurse working in research may be responsible for recruiting participants to clinical trials, conducting research into specific illnesses, and identifying areas of healthcare which could benefit from more research.
You may even find you would like to earn a teaching qualification, and go into lecturing!
A learning disability nurse is required to use a variety of skills during the course of their work. These can include both so-called hard, and soft skills.
For the learning disability nurse, teachable hard skills might include the following:
Other ‘hard’ skills might be specific to your workplace, in which case they are often the skills that are taught via training or observing the members of staff.
It can also be argued that learning disability nurses in particular use a lot of soft skills. Although all nurses use these, the service users learning disability nurses work with might have more communication needs, and more long-term conditions requiring multi-professional teams which may last throughout their lives.
Some soft skills specific to learning disability nurses can include:
These can be different depending on the service users you are working with, the situation, and the environment in which you work.
It is always possible to improve on existing skills, and to gain new ones. For example, being aware of and implementing techniques such as the SOLER communication theory can improve your skills in active listening, communication, and empathy.
This suggests facing service users squarely, with an open posture, leaning forward, maintaining eye contact, and being relaxed in order to promote positive non-verbal communication between nurses and service users.
If you are still at university, or newly graduated, you might recognise and be able to look out for these kinds of exercises and opportunities to practice in a safe environment. Later on, you may be able to make links back to these in your professional practice.
I know for me, some exercises at university did not make much sense until I was in the real world of work, where I became grateful for the opportunities I had been given to practice such skills.
Is Learning Disability Nursing For Me?
You may be wondering, what kind of person becomes a learning disability nurse?
One answer is, learning disability nurses are as varied as the places where we work. Within my cohort at university, there was a variety of ages and personal experiences, family backgrounds, and reasons for becoming learning disability nurses.
However, we were all dedicated to advocating for the rights of people with learning disabilities within society. We either had a knowledge of, or were very keen to learn about, inequalities and injustices present within society which impact on people with learning disabilities.
These could include employment opportunities, the benefit system, how their lives are impacted by the policies of whichever government is in power, difficulties in accessing health care, education, and employment, and our role in minimising these inequalities.
To be a learning disability nurse, I would suggest you need to have an interest in people with learning disabilities. Without this, the three-year university course will seem extremely long.
Personally, I am passionate about people with learning disabilities. I enjoy learning about how having a learning disability might affect someone, and also techniques so I can work with this client to the best of my ability.
My passion developed whilst I was gaining work experience which ultimately led me to choose this as a career.
Experience is essential. This is not only a requirement of most, if not all, university courses, but it will ensure that it is the correct path for you. This could be voluntary or paid work.
I would suggest compassion is another key factor in becoming a learning disability nurse.
Nursing as a whole is often regarded as a vocation, rather than a job, and it is this compassion that people may be referring to.
If you care about the kind of society we live in, if you have concerns about how the most vulnerable members of our society are treated, and if you wish to make a real difference in these people’s lives, learning disability nursing may be for you.
The course itself can be tough. I did the dual course, which means I am now qualified as a social worker as well as a learning disability nurse. However, the single course in learning disability nursing is also very tough (but not impossible).
On placement, you are expected to join in the rota with the staff team. This can include shifts of full days, mornings, afternoons, and night shifts. On top of this, there are assignments, and lectures when not on placement.
On my course, we learnt clinical skills such as taking blood pressure, and practising injections on dummies, as well as role-playing different scenarios. Universities hold regular Open Days, which you could attend to find out more about the specific course you are interested in.
Due to the various workloads at university, it is important that you are organised. Many people come up with their own organisation system, where they keep track of assignments, placement documents, shift work, and any other tasks. Everyone has their own way.
It is also important to be resilient. In healthcare especially, no day is the same.
Service users may be in pain, they may be scared, confused, and may display challenging behaviour. It is important that you develop skills to deal with these situations, and your lecturers at university will help you to do this during your course.
Your course mates can also be a valuable source of friendship, and information.
This may be your first time at university, and you may have moved away from home. There are a lot of resources for undergraduate students, whatever course you are studying. These will also be available to you as an undergraduate student, for example the Students’ Union.
You will have a personal tutor or academic adviser assigned to you at university, and you can go to these people for support; pastoral as well as academic.
No one wants to you to feel alone, and a lot of students will be feeling the same as you.
How To Succeed
Sadly, I do not know the secret formula to success. I can, however, pass on my advice on how I succeeded on my course.
It can sometimes feel as if a work-life balance is for everyone but you, especially in the midst of placement when you have assignments due, and maybe even an exam coming up.
Do remember to take breaks from the course, go out with friends, or spend time with family.
Remember the course is not impossible to pass. People have done it before, and there is every chance that you will too.
I took advantage of all the support that was offered to me.
Check out your university library, they might do workshops on how to write an essay, or brush up on your grammar skills.
See if your tutor will look over a draft of an essay, or if you are entitled to any tutorials. Even if I was confident with a particular essay, I sometimes made an appointment with my tutor just to go over things, and to make sure I hadn't missed anything.
It's amazing what you can gain just by having someone else’s perspective.
Try to stay in touch with people from your course while on placement. My class made our own group on social media, which was really helpful (although do remember confidentiality and professionalism of course).
At times you will have to make the course a priority.
At the very beginning of my course, an ex-student suggested that we treated it as a full-time job. That is what I did. If not working 9-to-5 each day, I did set aside time to complete my assignments, researching in the library so that I was not distracted, and ensuring I did not have any late nights out if I had early lectures in the morning.
This kind of discipline might come naturally to you, for others it is a habit that we have to get into. Some people might concentrate better at home with background noise, others in a quiet place.
Get to know yourself, and do what works best for you.
Try not to compare yourself to others, even on the same course. We all have our individual goals, and our individual markers of success.
Some people might be aiming for top marks. For others, a pass is a significant achievement.
Be confident that you know yourself, you know what you are capable of, you know your own career goals, or perhaps you know that you will figure them out later.
There are so many variations in learning disability nursing, so many different people who are passionate about this line of work, and it is this variation that makes our practice exciting, relevant, and enjoyable. It would be such a shame if a potentially great nurse was put off applying.
Have faith in yourself, and the profession.
There is no one marker for success, nor one attribute that suggests someone should become a learning disability nurse. If you have the drive, the passion, and you think you might have the skill set, do consider this wonderful career path.
I love the variation in roles, the opportunities that it has opened up to me, and the many ways that I can work with people with learning disabilities and try to make a difference in their lives.
If this sounds like you, explore more by getting in touch with a university that does the course.
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