From having spoken with many parents and families of learners identified with SEND there are common themes that have emerged in terms of feedback we frequently hear about schools.
For the most part, specialist provision means a more understanding and supportive environment from the perspective of many of our clients although some of the challenges below have also been present in specialist settings.
Our aim in sharing this feedback is to help bring parents and schools closer together and make schools a happier and more inclusive place for all learners and staff. This is vital because the majority of learners with SEND are learning in mainstream settings.
Good practice tells us that all learning profiles, physical challenges and health conditions are uniquely experienced by each child or young person (and adult!) and so with each person we all need to start afresh and learn to understand their experience, skills, abilities and challenges.
This means that each learner needs to be understood as an individual and yet we know that teachers are under pressure with high workloads, a great deal of paperwork and with school funding levels not what they used to be.
It is not hard to see why allocating greater time to understanding one learner’s profile and investigating new strategies for them could be potentially challenging.
We also know that the support that could be available from CAMHS and other agencies, such as speech and language therapy, can be hard to come by and this is adding further pressure onto schools and their teachers.
The same pressures applying to schools and their staff apply also to families and their learners with SEND. Families tell us of failures to comply with EHCP requirements by local authorities i.e. provision that is meant to be in place may never be provided or available or may be withdrawn without notice and with no reason given leaving families to pick up the pieces and go over old ground that was already perhaps the subject of an expensive tribunal or appeal.
So, families and schools are both under pressure and based upon what we see ourselves and in our client families it seems there is no more crucial time for schools and families to work together.
Key feedback from parents compiled from our clients’ experiences is noted below.
Behaviour is a form of communication
School policies regarding behaviour tend to focus on ensuring consistency of consequences throughout the school for unwanted behaviour.
However, when a child is behaving in an unexpected or unwanted way this can be a sign of an unmet need and the level of skills that a child has being lower than the level of skills needed to deal with the situation.
Often, neurodiversity can be “invisible” especially if learners are able or articulate as the behaviour “does not seem to make sense”. A meltdown due to the struggle of coping with work, social interaction or sensory overload can seem like a choice or a “tantrum” rather than a sign of not coping.
Good practice would encourage us to see behaviour as a warning sign or a cry for help.
Even families with learners in specialist settings have told us behaviour that is due to a sensory or social profile such as due to autism has not been understood and their child has been excluded from class rather than supported with the anxiety or overload that caused the behaviour.
We understand the need for consequences and consistency and, of course, everyone must be safe. Although until the root cause of the behaviour is addressed and the child has learned the skills to deal with that situation or good strategies are in place the same outcome is likely to be repeated as consequences will not teach new skills or address a SEND related need such as a child misreading a situation due to anxiety or their level of social skills.
Yes, it would take additional time to look into why the behaviour occurs and to teach the child how best to deal with the situation (and maybe for other learners to understand and include this kind of child) but dealing with repeated behaviour is also time consuming and disruptive.
Ultimately, pupils with SEND can end up on a path to exclusion or off rolling with a high price for them and society as a result so this work to address the causes of behaviour has far reaching positive effects not just for the SEND learner but to make a more positive and inclusive world for everyone.
Poor physical health can be an indicator of wellbeing
School attendance is a key statistic and many schools reward pupils for high attendance. Of course, high attendance based upon good health is a worthy objective for all pupils and if learners are not in school they cannot benefit from what it has to offer.
However, some pupils will experience difficulties with their health and these can also result from higher levels of anxiety and unhappiness at school which can depress the immune system.
Other learners may refuse to attend school if it becomes too stressful, anxiety provoking or traumatic for them which is also a health issue. Again, this needs to be addressed by looking at the root causes with a view to providing support rather than seeing this as a disciplinary matter.
Parents have reported to us feeling hounded by stern automatic letters from school about their child’s attendance and even that they have been instructed to send their child into school against medical advice where mental health or other long term conditions have not been regarded as a sufficient reason for being away from school.
Parents have told us that their children have been asked to promise to improve their attendance where health has been issue although rarely do clients tell us of a school actively seeking to support learners with long term health issues to improve their wellbeing.
However, we know of a school that seeks to be flexible about children going home early if unwell and returning to school part time when recovering. The school reported to us that this resulted in higher attendance for a child with a long term health condition.
Other than sending homework home our clients have reported few practical steps being taken by some schools to help their child keep up with their work if they are able and often homework may just pile up during an absence making a return to school immensely stressful. Addressing this could be hugely helpful and improve attendance.
Understanding of neurodiversity
There are many mainstream schools that receive positive feedback from families of SEND learners and these schools tend to have worked hard to understand the needs of individual learners as well as to ensure staff have received in house and external training to understand the learning profiles of children at the school. This training should not only be provided to the SENDCo in our view. Strategies learned for SEND identified learners can also be beneficial for others in the class and are often helpful for other learners too.
School budgets for training are under pressure, as are all budget areas, however, peer mentoring and circle groups can be a great way to spread best practice and for teachers to share ideas across the school regarding strategies for different types of learner. Reaching out to specialist schools and local authority units with pupils of a similar profile (even if working at a different level) can be another way to bring in skills, strategies to try and knowledge without expensive training.
Parents often lament to us that what would mean most to them would be for their child to be understood or for the teaching team to really try to understand their child. Even if multiple hours of much needed therapy are not available just knowing the school understood their child and the challenges they face would bring the family and learner a lot of comfort.
Timely and open communication about are also highly valued by parents. Knowing if something has happened to upset a child or if they have been in trouble is so important for parents to know as well as the background to the situation. Again being able to really address the root causes with the school team would be so valuable.
Communication within schools is just as important as communication with parents. Our clients have told us that they often need to speak with each teacher individually to share their child’s needs and information about their profile when best practice would involve all professionals supporting a child working together and sharing information as a team.
Being an inclusive school community
Bullying of SEND pupils is worryingly common and parents often tell us that they feel more work is needed to improve the understanding of neurodiversity in the whole school community especially among other children and their parents.
We have heard sad stories of SEND learners being left out of the play date/ birthday party circuit and it is no surprise to learn that many SEND pupils feel isolated and anxious in school. However, working on understanding neurodiversity throughout the school can create great team working skills for all learners that will greatly benefit them in later life.
Thank you schools for reading this parent feedback.
We value all that you do for us in challenging conditions. We want to hear from you and hear what you think.
How can parents and others best help you? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with your comments as we would love to print your responses.