Mollie Benjamin gives advice for parents and teachers who are looking out for a child or young person with an acquired brain injury.
Education is a huge part of any child’s life. From nursery to further education, schooling gives children and young people the opportunity to thrive, learn life skills and develop their personalities as they grow into young adults. Having a brain injury can pose different challenges throughout a child’s education. However, with the correct input and support, education should provide the same opportunities for those with acquired brain injuries to meet their potential and to flourish throughout their schooling. As a senior solicitor in the Child Brain Injury team at Bolt Burdon Kemp, I act for children who have sustained brain injuries as a result of clinical negligence and accidents. Every day I see how important it is for our clients to access the correct support during their education. Unfortunately, navigating the education system can be a long and complicated journey for both the child and their family.
Navigating the education system
There are multiple things parents may want to think about to make the process of navigating the education system more manageable. Consider your child’s education needs early and plan ahead. The process of putting in place support for children with brain injuries can begin before the Reception year.
Request an Education and Health Care Plan (‘EHCP’) assessment from the Local Authority. Most specialist provisions within a mainstream school cannot be accessed without an EHCP. To obtain an EHCP, a child must have proven Special Educational Needs or ‘SEN’. In my experience, most children with an acquired brain injury will have SEN, however subtle those needs may be. If your child has a brain injury, you should seek advice on applying for an EHCP. Speak to the school’s Special Educational Needs Co-Ordinator (SENCO) or contact a specialist organisation for free support. IPSEA, SENDIASS and Contact all offer educational support services to parents struggling to secure support in school.
Gather evidence of your child’s special needs in good time for EHCP assessments, preferably 18-24 months in advance of key transitional periods such as moving to senior school. Arrange assessments with professionals as soon as possible and gather any relevant medical, treatment and educational records together for the professionals to review. Consider alternative sources of evidence that demonstrate your child’s needs such as a diary, video footage or accounts from other people who know your child and their needs.
If financially possible, consider obtaining private professional reports to inform the EHCP assessment or annual reviews. Depending on your child’s needs, reports from an educational psychologist, a speech & language therapist, occupational therapist and/or physiotherapist could be invaluable. Whilst the Local Authority will obtain professional input during the process, limited resources and time can result in reports that are less thorough.
Do not be afraid of challenging the Local Authority’s decision if they refuse to assess your child for an EHCP or if the Plan is issued but is not sufficient to meet your child’s needs. This may involve mediation or require an appeal to the SEND Tribunal (SENDist). Whilst many parents may consider the prospect daunting, they should take heart from the fact that, although disputes heard by the SENDist have more than doubled since 2015, last year 92% of the appeals were found in favour of the child or young person. Legal representation in the SENDist is preferable but not essential. Parents should contact solicitors to explore this option.
How can teachers help?
Teachers play a vital role in ensuring that a child is receiving the support they need both in and out of the classroom. Set out below are some general practical tips for teachers working with children with brain injuries.
Be willing and open to adapt to a child’s particular needs. Brain injuries can manifest in a wide range of difficulties, such as sensory needs, concentration constraints, behavioural issues, speech and language difficulties, physical needs or other difficulties. Sometimes just a small change to an activity or piece of work will mean that a child can meaningfully engage. Lessons, materials and the curriculum need to be appropriately differentiated for each child to ensure that they will be supported not only in academic work but also in their social interactions with their peers and teachers. This may require a creative approach, for example featuring the child’s particular interest that week or month in the activity or task you want the child to complete!
Be proactive. Think ahead to any challenges that a child may face in the future and anticipate how their needs will change so that putting support in place is not a reactive process. This can avoid unnecessary distress to children with brain injuries and their families.
Work with treating therapists to ensure staff have a good understanding of the child’s condition, their strengths and what they find challenging. Therapists can often advise on learning techniques specific to each child that may be incorporated easily into the classroom. Attending multi-disciplinary team meetings is a great way to stay up to date.
Communication is key! Keep lines of communication between teachers, staff, and parents open. There may be activities or interests that a child enjoys at home that could easily be used to further their skills at school. Equally, there may be something going on at home that is affecting the child’s ability to concentrate. An open line of communication between home and school is essential to securing a consistent approach to a child’s learning at home and at school. Schedule a regular time to discuss any changes, concerns or achievements.
With forward planning, good evidence and open minds, parents, schools and local authorities can work together to achieve the common goal of ensuring children with acquired brain injury access the support they need to thrive in school and leave education having benefited from a system which supports them in reaching their potential.