Tag Archives: Special Educational Needs

The growth chart

There are three little red books sitting in a row in a cubby hole in my desk.  At one point they took up far more of my attention than was probably healthy, and now they sit, gathering dust, rarely seen and rarely remembered.  Inside, they contain all sorts of useful information pertaining to the health of infants, including records of health visitor visits, immunisations and growth charts.  When you are at home with baby you can pore over them and obsess to your heart’s content.

They aren’t all the same, though, and I freely admit that I had a problem with it at the time, and to a certain extent, I still do. Inside Sam’s book there is a plastic packet containing the growth charts for Down’s syndrome.  At the time, I wasn’t ready to accept that he should be measured by a different yardstick.  At the time, as now, I couldn’t accept that different yardstick as symboliaing a different standard, of expectation or of care.

And, after going on seventeen years of tangling with doctors and nurses of his behalf, I know that I am right to be cautious.  Too many people seem to accept a lower standard of health and a higher threshold for pain for him for me to be entirely trusting of the protocols.  When a young person (or an old person, come to that) cannot advocate for themselves, be that because they are too young, or because they have some form of learning disability or difficulties in communication, you, as their parent or carer, have to learn to step in and make sure that things happen – sadly things like food and drink and getting the right medicine at the right time (and I’m not talking about the NHS in recent years, either).

But, and here’s the thing, he is different.  His physiology is expressed in a different way to the typical population, and, along with that, comes an understanding that in all sorts of ways he needs something different.  At first I understood it in the acceptance that, as his mother, I was allowed – and I was – to be more anxious than the average parent.  As he has grown, I see that he needs different, earlier, bed times at home, different, adapted texts at school.

In many ways, that growth chart represents both the blessing and the curse that is a diagnosis of Down’s syndrome.  While perhaps not so obvious to the untrained eye when he was tiny, it is there, now, for all to see.  Unless you are asking for help from someone official, like a government or local authority department or something, people can see, they can hear that he is different, and that adjustments will need to be made for him wherever he goes.  If only it didn’t mean that, at the same time, people who had less of an understanding, if not of Down’s syndrome, but of him as an individual, that expectations would be simultaneously lowered.  The application of a medical diagnosis to a social context isn’t always helpful.

I’ve never taught anyone with Down’s syndrome (if you don’t count Sam).  The children who have been through my classes have been the kinds with an invisible disability, like Autism, ADHD or dyslexia – and the vast majority of them haven’t had a diagnosis at all.  And, as their teacher, I have made all sorts of adjustments in order to make my classroom the kind of place where they can learn, from special places to sit to requiring the rest of the class (and myself) to change our behaviour or printing out the words in a larger format.

Which is why I am confused by the assertion that it is only those children who have a legally protected characteristic who I must make adjustments for.  If you want learning to happen in your room (or your corridor) then adjust you will, in a hundred million little ways, from creating a calm and purposeful atmosphere of mutual respect (and no, children don’t mind when they are asked to stop teasing/winding up certain individuals, in fact, quite the opposite, and no, they don’t mind when some children need more stickers than they do, again, quite the opposite, unless we bang on about it not being fair and make out that it is the stickers or the ‘special treatment’ that is the important thing, rather than the learning) to adapting materials and resources so that they can be universally accessed, or finding a different way for a child to show me what it is they really know rather than tying themselves in knots over spelling in a science lesson.  To suggest otherwise is to perpetuate the myth that teaching is (or should be) easy, and that special educational needs isn’t complicated.

And no, I don’t see that as a lowering of standards.  What it is, is an understanding that an education is a process and that you will never, especially in a child, be presented with the finished article. Because, in the end, learning is fundamentally unlike that one dimensional, linear, medical growth chart.


See also:






I’m trying desperately to keep on saying the same thing, but in a different way so you don’t get bored.


Dare to Hope

It’s been a while since I last attended a leavers’ assembly, or other such end-of-the-summer-term-extravaganza with the knowledge that I wasn’t entirely 100% well.  Last time I was behind the piano, sweating and shivering at the same time, my fingers slipping off the keys, the Victorian school hall a million miles away from the 80s structure I will attend tomorrow.  Then, I was at the front, slightly to one side; tomorrow I shall be at the back.

Then, I was at the very start of my career, such as it is.  A term in Year 6, and I didn’t have quite the connection to the children who were moving on as I do today.  Tomorrow, The Leavers are children I have known, and loved, coaxed through SPAG, insisted on taking turns and capital letters, full stops, persuaded to explain themselves when answering my questions and answered endless ones of theirs, for four years.  My professional children, well, some of them anyway, are flying the primary nest.  Tomorrow, their primary education will be over.

I occasionally see their predecessors around and about.  Only the other day, one of them came to collect one of his younger siblings from the classroom door.  It was great to see him, looking shyly grown up, so sensible.  Usually, I am in the car, and they are in their uniforms, multi-coloured blazers wending their way home through the playpark, waving and smiling at the teacher they knew so briefly.  It’s lovely to see them again, to momentarily renew the connection.

Leavers’ Dos are always events of high emotion.  After the roller coaster of Year Six, they go from looking so grown up, too big for the furniture, ready to move on, excited about the future, to small and lost looking, clinging to their final moments of safety.  Amongst the adults, there is the slow switch from ‘thank goodness’ to, ‘awww noooo!’  When it was Sam’s turn he didn’t really understand; that goodbye was Goodbye, but most of them do, at those last moments, when the performance they have practice for so long is over.

I’ve taught them many times before, in the younger years, the ones who don’t want to leave you when you’re out in the playground, the ones who opt to stay in your room when the moment comes because, unlike their classmates, they are moving on, not moving up.  They see the end is coming, and they do not greet it with joy, but with apprehension.

In some ways I know how they feel.  Will their new teacher get them, like the old one does?  Will they understand what it is that makes them act the way they do?  Will they be kind – or harsh?  It’s easy when they are moving up within the same school.  You can take their new teacher aside, explain, check in with them at playtime, ask if they’re OK.  They might even make the odd appearance, unscheduled, in your lessons, for old times’ sake.  You still worry, but you see them enough to have your fears assuaged – or not.

There are a few, tonight, for whom I feel particularly concerned.  There are always those whose little faces float, at the point between waking and sleeping, forever frozen at ten or eleven years old; they, and the faint feeling of unease they bring, that things for them may continue to be Not Okay, have never left me.  Their names, I remember.  I wonder how they are getting on – or not.  But this year.  This year there are those who have been burned by loss, their grief and anxiety clear in their unwillingness to leave their classroom, the side of the teacher they love, and who loves them.

I wonder how they will get on.  Not just through the six long weeks of summer, the weeks that begin with the traditional instruction not to go with strangers and not to jump of the garage/shed roof for a dare, but in the months, the school ahead.  I wonder.  And I wonder if I dare to hope.


#SEND Definitions for beginners

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:

  1. Communication and Interaction (C&I)

This means speech and language, communication and social interaction.

  1. 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.

  1. Sensory and/or physical

This means things like visual/auditory impairment and physical disabilities.

  1. 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. 😉


Scales of Judgement

I have been roaming around the internet in search of some advice. It has been a long and fruitless search, I can tell you. When I started this blog there was loads of it, all at my fingertips. I was overwhelmed (almost) with it all. Do this, do that, do the other. In the end I ignored most of it and went along my own merry way. All except one piece, that is. And, of course, that is the one I can’t find. It’s always the way.

The advice I am looking for was about children. Oh, not the parenting sort, there’s plenty of that. The writing sort – and I don’t mean how to get them to write their thank you letters (although that is worth a blog post, I must say; Joe Kirby wrote a very thought provoking post on the subject, and I fully intended to fire off my own thoughts upon the subject, but I got derailed, I will catch up with myself Joe, I promise – sort of). I mean the way that we write about children.

As someone who writes primarily about her own child, I took this advice very much on board. Every time I write about Sam I consider how he appears to the wider world. He has no say in what I write about him – these are my thoughts, not his – so I owe him a great deal of responsibility in the stories I choose to tell. I must bear in mind his dignity, his personhood; I must write nothing that would damage him, or put him in danger.

This would be a heavy responsibility were he a typically developing child. As it is, he is not. He finds himself growing up in within the statistical bounds of the vulnerable. I posted some stats yesterday that illustrate his position – I’m sure there are more, should I care to hunt them down. As a vulnerable child, one with SEND, with Down’s syndrome, I must bear those statistics in mind when I write. I must consider the sad fact that many, if not most people are afraid, and if not afraid then discomfited, by disability – and that it is in part this fear that contributes to the bleak outlook on his future, and the future for many children and young people like him.

As a teacher, I am bound by similar restrictions when I put my thoughts onto this page. Professionally I must write nothing that would bring my school into disrepute; but more than that, I am bound by bonds of care for the children I teach. They are part of my wider family, if you will. What I write here, should I choose to write about them, will have an impact.

I weigh my words carefully. Do you?

Removing the Rose-tinted Spectacles

I was reminded today of this post. I wrote it, one day in May, in my pyjamas, sat at my kitchen table. I don’t write much of this blog in the kitchen, it has to be said, most of it is written from this sofa, in front of this fire, my family crowded around me (well, the first drafts, anyway). I like to think of myself, in my I’m-a-novelist-fantasy moments as a bit of a Jane Austen, but without the cap. For one thing, the kitchen is far too cold, even in May. But that Saturday morning I had a bee in my bonnet, and I had something to say that would not wait. Tonight, despite the fact that I have eaten too much chocolate log (it was on special offer), I feel the same way.

The original Secret Teacher, and the accompanying debate around inclusion and how difficult it is, is doing the rounds again. It’s too hard, these children are too difficult. They make life miserable for the mainstream and should be separated off so that they can make friends with their own kind, it seems.

Funnily enough, I have a lot of sympathy with much of that view.  It is hard to work with children and young people with SEND. Children with complex difficulties (and even those without), my own son included, can be disruptive influences. He deserves the chance for a meaningful peer group as much as anyone else. When it goes wrong, when relationships crumble (and that’s just the adults), when the support that classroom teachers need to do their jobs properly isn’t there, when knowledge is weak, the whole thing can rapidly descend into a nightmare. If you’re going to do inclusion, it needs to be done properly.

The thing is, though, that much of the debate centres itself around what is good for adults, namely teachers, and the needs of the mainstream population to live their lives untroubled by the needs and difficulties of children with difficulties – and that’s where my problem lies.

Oh, I’d love for life to be easy. I’d love it to have turned out differently, and I’d have the kind of children who went to bed and cleaned their teeth without supervision, who did their homework with no complaining, who never got ill and aced all the tests. It would be great if I didn’t lose sleep every August, waking in a cold sweat, worrying about the term to come. The stresses and strains of the teaching life, even though I am the part-timer; if I had a magic wand I’d reduce those a bit.

But I do not deceive myself. I do not pretend that it would all be better if only those troublesome kids weren’t in my class, in my school or in my home. I make no claim, even though my son goes to an exclusive school, that the use of an educational sorting hat is somehow an answer. Because I know it’s not.

I don’t look at these stats very often. My son has complex and profound learning difficulties, Down’s syndrome, and, in order to live every day, to make my home a happy one, one that is not dominated by fear and anxiety for the future, I indulge in a little selective looking. But because I think this is important, because I think looking beyond the school gate and the school years is a necessity for those of us who work in education, I’m going to break a rule and I’m going to lay it on the line.

Children and young people with SEND – and that’s all of them, not just boys and girls like mine – are twice as likely to be bullied at primary school as you were.

They will be six times more likely to receive a fixed-term exclusion from school than you.

They will be eight times more likely to receive a permanent exclusion from school than you.

Once they’ve left school they will be seven times less likely to work than you.

If they are lucky enough to work, it will probably be part-time. It will probably be poorly paid.

They are one and a half times more likely to live in poverty than you.

They are over four times more likely to have mental health problems as a child than you.

They are more likely to have children with their own learning difficulties than you.

They are at least three times more likely to end up in prison than you.

Children and young people like my son will die at least 15 years younger than you will. And before you try to comfort me with talk of heart defects and early onset Alzheimer’s (thanks for that) let me tell you about the story of the uninvestigated, unexpected deaths of many people with learning disability in one NHS trust. Let me tell you about the little boy with Down’s syndrome who went into a hospital one morning with sickness and diarrhoea and ended up dead by the end of the day.

We might like to tell ourselves that a little bit of segregating will make life better for everyone and everything in the garden will be rosy – but that’s what we already have and it’s not rosy, not by a long chalk. Issues around inclusion need debating – there is no doubt about that. Labelling and its effects, the use of TAs, data that shows so many children on SEN registers because they were born in the summer, accountability measures and financial cuts that make it difficult to make children’s education the most important thing in schools; all these things are worthy of debate without recourse to fear of who we might offend.

But let’s not kid ourselves that out of sight and out of mind is the answer; someone else’s problem. Let’s not pretend, play the demonising game with a little bit of them and us, let’s not kid ourselves that we don’t have a part to play, that we haven’t got the wherewithal to make a necessary change. We have. And we must. Lives depend on it.


With grateful thanks to Jarlath O’Brien for the stats.  Like I say, I don’t tend to look.