I was trying to remember, the other day, when I hadn’t been thinking, one way or another, about Special Educational Needs, and you know what? Since I left the education system as a student myself, I can’t actually remember. Once I became a teacher, once I became a mother, it never left my consciousness. Now, personally, I’ve never really worried too much about definitions, after all, a label, is just that, but it occurred to me yesterday, after I perused my Twitter feed after having consumed my lunch, that the term SEND might need a little bit of a definition. So, if you’ll pardon the shameless plugging, I am going to mention my book (which you can buy here, should you so wish).
So. Special Educational Needs and Disabilities is a bit of a mouthful, but what it basically means is in relation to a school context. Unhandily, for those who really do prefer for things to be cut and dried and can’t be doing with any of this shades of grey nonsense, it doesn’t mean a tickbox, checklist, bloodtest kind of thing. Although, there are conditions, like Down’s syndrome, that you can detect with one of those very things, and is, indeed, what happened to Sam when he was about twelve hours old. In a school context the term relates to those children for whom additional provision needs to be made if they are going to be able to learn. It relates directly to a learning difficulty or disability.
So, that means that although, for instance, you may be making additional or different provision for children who don’t speak English as their first language (EAL in edu-speak), speaking a different language is not a difficulty/disability, you can’t claim it as an SEN. The two things are not the same at all.
Disability, as defined in the Equalities Act means that there is an impairment that has a long term impact – of a year or more (so you can’t include children who have broken a toe) and it has a significant impact on their lives. This includes long term health conditions such as asthma, diabetes, epilepsy and cancer. These conditions do not relate directly to learning, but children with them may require different/additional provision in school and this is covered by SEN legislation.
So, within the English system, we have four categories of SEN (we like our categories, oh yes we do), which describe (roughly) the main areas of need a child is likely to be experiencing in school. (Please do comment below if you would like to add information on the system where you live – I am very interested in the international situation currently.) They are:
- Communication and Interaction (C&I)
This means speech and language, communication and social interaction.
- Cognition and Learning
This means learning, thinking and understanding the world. This could be developmental delay or something like dyslexia – something that makes it difficult to learn.
- Sensory and/or physical
This means things like visual/auditory impairment and physical disabilities.
- Social, Emotional and Mental Health (SEMH)
This is the one that causes all the fuss. Fuss, fuss, fuss. Because this is the one that relates to behaviour – BUT, not that the behaviour in itself that stops a child from learning, but that the drivers for that behaviour, the reasons behind it, as it were, and how it relates to mental health are the issues that need addressing.
The thing that can catch people out is the idea that children fit into one category or another, which is unfortunate for those who like everything nice and tidy. It is entirely possible (and probably likely, but I am no statistician) for a child to have needs that span ALL FOUR of the categories. This is called co-morbidity (lovely term, I know). In fact, it is so common that I would strongly suggest you don’t assume that a child ever has a learning need that sits in only one category.
Let me elaborate. You might have a child in your class who has dyslexia (for instance – it’s something I have just this minute pulled out of my head – to spare his privacy I am not going to use Sam and his particular learning needs as an example here, so I am making someone up). They struggle with reading and spelling. They wear glasses and have a bit of glue ear in the winter. They don’t like the fact that they aren’t getting on well with their school work, so they mess about in class, and do anything, in fact, to cover up their problems. They find, because they mess about, perhaps, that relations with their classmates are not as easy as they might be and as a consequence they are always getting into trouble in the playground ad this regularly spills over into lesson time.
OR you might have a child in your class who has experienced some kind of trauma. Maybe one of their parents died, or there was a messy family breakup, domestic violence, something like that. This child finds it difficult to settle in class, and struggles with feelings of abandonment and anxiety. This means that their reptilian brain (the fight or flight bit) (the oldest bit of the brain, the amygdala) is in charge, and rational thought is impaired. They are so busy worrying about what is going on in the class (that isn’t book learning), they fly off the handle at a moment’s notice, constantly falling out with friends, and they are rapidly falling behind.
OR you might want to think about a non-verbal child, someone more visibly disabled. They might have some sort of sensory sensitivity and find a busy classroom a very difficult space to be. They might bite another child, or throw themselves to the ground, because they can’t express or communicate what is wrong and they have no other way to tell you.
Special Educational Needs and Disabilities are woven together, tangled, if you like – and a child’s behaviour is often going to tell you something about the nature of their difficulties. This is what we mean when we say that behaviour is communication. Even when a child like Sam rocks up in class, one for whom there is a medical diagnosis, that label isn’t going to tell us a huge amount, even if we don’t allow our prejudices and fears to spring to the fore. Pieces of paper and categories are just that. Pieces of paper and categories.
What you need to do is to get to know that child as a person, so that you can both understand what they are saying to you, and that they can understand what you are saying to them. And in order to do THAT, you need to have a relationship with them. Don’t worry, I don’t mean some sort of lovey dovey/parent substitute thing, I mean a teaching relationship, something that is qualitatively different and distinct.
Yes, challenging behaviour in class is debilitating and draining for all concerned. There are no magic wands or magic pills to make it better or make it go away. Labelling them as ‘naughty’ doesn’t work either. Concerted and unified effort does.
Did I mention my book? It’s out now and you can buy it here. 😉