Special needs come in all shapes and sizes, with a disparate range of needs. The skills that were developed in dealing with the issues of one child may not be transferrable exactly to another. It is therefore incumbent on each teacher to get to know the children as well as possible, to tailor challenge to the evident needs and to monitor very carefully the outcomes, as the journey constitutes the internal case study that may be needed as evidence of a specific special need.
While engaging with the Twitter chat this morning, my mind recalled a number of children with whom I have had the significant pleasure of spending time.
There was V, who was already in the school when I became a head. V was the most delightful child, full of life, always a ready smile, a befriender, especially of younger children during playtime, a real striver, whose have a go attitude was infectious. She had innumerable friends. V’s mum had taken thalidomide during pregnancy, so V was born without legs and one arm. Despite this, she got on with things, including the putting on and taking off of her prosthetic legs, or organising her wheelchair. It was often humbling to see how much extra effort she had to make just to get though each day. This had an inevitable impact on the children in her class and across the school as a whole.
I will never forget the school sports day where V was determined to take as full a part as possible. The skipping race was the highlight, as she “skipped”, with a friend each side turning the rope, while she “ran” without her prosthetics. There were many tears of joy at her success. It was inevitable that, when it came to the end of year celebrations, that the “contribution to school life” prize would go to V, simply for her example. This was grit, resilience, character and growth mindset, 1990 style.
R came to school as a Reception child, shy, retiring and not overactive in his approach. He would avoid physical activity at all costs, which was worrying, in itself. He was one of those children, who, very early, are on your “watch” list. It was during a visit by the school OT that I took her into the school hall, which coincided with Reception doing a PE lesson. She didn’t need R to be pointed out, as she turned pale and took me outside for a chat, concerned that there were undiagnosed underlying issues. A very painful few weeks ensued as hurried reference was made to medical services, several meetings with parents keeping each other in touch with developments and the final diagnosis of muscular dystrophy. R stayed with us for a few more years, first with the aid of crutches and then with a wheelchair, but, eventually, his physical needs moved to a point where it was clear that alternative provision was the better option. Visiting him there a year later, it was evident that this was the right decision. Sadly R died a couple of years after that. With a step brother and a cousin in school we were kept in touch with the news.
M was an excellent artist, could draw anything, from life and from imagination but M couldn’t make any sense of language. He could apparently speak well enough, albeit with a slightly limited vocabulary, but it became noticeable that he could not sustain an idea over several “sentences”. Working with the advisor for language, we were able to unpick aspects of his needs, so he was able to read, at a low level. His working memory was poor, so that needed some support and his comprehension, as an ability to make sense of what he had heard or read seemed to diminish, especially when linked to memory. He was living in a strange parallel world. We were able to use his artistic skill to advantage in creating storyboards from which he was encouraged to create oral stories that would be transcribed and turned into personal reading books. In the end, however, despite deploying every available resource and source of expertise available to us, the application for a statement was successful and, with a diagnosis of language disorder, M went to a specialist provision, where there was 1:1 teacher expertise available every day.
Each of these children, chosen to represent the many who passed through the school with individual needs, offered something in return. The ability to deal with physical or learning needs within the staff was enhanced with each child identified with a possible issue. This investigative capability, building within individual teachers and the school as a whole, enabled strengthened systems to be developed that supported others with lesser needs. Underpinning all this were very good relationships and communication, with no feeling of criticism if there was a need to discuss one’s personal needs as a teacher.
It can be the case that SEN issues push the limits of the organisation, on a personal and an organisational level. If external expertise is available and can be harnessed, the expertise can be grown through experience. There is a significant need to ensure record keeping of the highest quality, especially where there are concerns, as the primary need is to establish an internal case study to underpin discussions with external experts. These records can be premised on the questions that teachers have asked, then sought to follow up; analyse, plan, do, review, record is a useful simple mantra.
It is, however, really important to remember that you are dealing with the person first and foremost, with the need being a constituent part to be addressed, not the whole. It means knowing each child well, as a rounded individual, to avoid them becoming a “problem” child. The problem may be the teacher lack of expertise or experience, which has to be addressed first. There are also very concerned parents, who may be very fearful about what the future holds for their child. All factors have to be carefully considered.
Children may be similar, but they are not necessarily the same. SEN or individual issues provide a very good learning opportunity for teachers. Becoming a good investigator is a very good first step.