What families really want from those charged with one of the most challenging jobs in school
I am a former teacher and learning support assistant (LSA), and now I am a stay-at-home mother of two. Our youngest, Natty, has Down syndrome.
When I looked back, from the parental side of the fence, on my time as an LSA, I realised that I may have been a good LSA, but that I was not good enough. So I decided to ask other parents and disability groups what they thought of the professionals who support their children; what would they say to a room full of SENCOs and SEN workers, if they had the opportunity? The reaction to this was overwhelming and the responses fell into three distinct categories, which echoed my own thoughts.
Consider the parents
Far and away the most frequently mentioned and passionately discussed point was that professionals must consider what parents think and want. All families differ, but the vast majority of parents know their child better than anyone else. After all, it is the parents who have sat up into the small hours researching their child’s condition online, fuelled by worry, fear of the future and a desperate need to know that they are doing their very best. It is they who have spent their evenings networking with other families and support groups to find the best solutions for their child. It is they who have been the experts from day one. SENCOs who recognise this have access to the most valuable of resources.
It is vital to involve and accept offers of help from parents. One mum summed this up by making a plea to school staff: “I would like to be treated as the lead professional. Realise that the parents are experts and be open to suggestions of new ways of doing things that have been successful elsewhere.”
Another mum echoed the thoughts of many in wanting to be involved as much as possible in her son’s education: “I would ask the SENCOs to take five minutes to listen to the parents…I want my child to go through school in the best way possible. This means being regularly involved in planning and forward thinking”.
It is so important to see things from the parents’ perspective and understand the pressure they are under. Parents live with the child’s difficulties every day. They may not get much sleep, and often have to face worrying episodes when their child is ill or hospitalised; at times, this will take its toll, and recognising this will go a long way towards creating a better working relationship.
Teachers and SENCOs must take the time to look for potential problems within school so that parents don’t always have to be the ones to mention what is not going to plan. Suggestions should also be taken seriously the first time. As one father said, “By the time I raise an issue at school, it is because it is really important and because I have already let a lot slide…I do not want to be considered a nuisance.”
The pupils’ advocate
“For inclusion to be successful, a teacher must provide for the needs of every child in the class and this includes children who have teaching assistants (TAs)”, says SENCO trainer Angela Redman. “The teacher should work individually with these children so that they can fully understand them. Pupils will often work harder for the teacher and this also models how the other pupils in the class view that child”.
Most parents realise that the role of SENCO is a difficult one. They are employed by the school, report to a head of department and headteacher, and work within ever increasing constraints of time and money. Primarily, though, they work for certain children within the school – often some of the most vulnerable – and are their advocates.
Sadly, bullying and disrespect towards pupils with SEN does occur within schools, and sometimes staff members are the perpetrators. It could be a peripatetic teacher who feels that a child with additional needs is disruptive, or a dinner server or receptionist whose ideas are a little “old school”. Staff need to be vigilant. All staff members must be made aware of the school’s disability equality policy, and trained to follow it. As a parent said, “Make sure all staff know that just because a child has additional needs does not mean they are a problem, just that you need to think differently and change your way of working.”
SENCOs need to get out into the classrooms and go on learning walks around the school. They need to spend time with the children with SEN, to assess needs and determine which advice services and interventions to recommend.
A TA I have worked with summed up the SENCO role rather well: “An efficient SENCO would have the ability to promote effective teamwork…They should be aware of their team’s individual expertise and have in place methods to deploy them across the school, ensuring teachers, teaching assistants, supervisory staff and parents have access to a higher level of support, and providing service users with a flexible, efficient and competent workforce. This dynamic approach to teamwork allows for the identification of gaps in provision and highlights areas for professional development.”
Inclusion and independence
“A good SENCO will see the bigger picture, and help their staff to see it too”, said one of the parents I consulted.
We all know that school is not just about reading, writing and numeracy, but sometimes it is easy to get lost in academic targets and assessments. For many children with SEN, though, their time at school is more about the long-term goal of enabling them to live in mainstream communities as independently as possible. Another parent’s comment encapsulates a common concern: “Some teachers are used to measuring success in data and they think what’s the point in helping this child who is so far behind? They become frustrated that they aren’t making more progress. They need to see that reaching small goals is worth such a lot, that they are helping a child to live an independent life.”
Inclusion is a two-way street; classmates can benefit just as much from being around children with SEN as these children can from being included alongside their peers. As a parent noted, “Our daughter will not finish school and live in a vacuum. Our hopes should be that we can all enable her to live within the mainstream community. And for this, her experience at mainstream school is crucial. Inclusion at school will help her be included in the future, and will help others learn to include her. Schools should see themselves as mini-societies, enabling children to become good citizens.”
SENCOs have a difficult role, but they are in a privileged position: they can make an enormous difference to the educational careers and future lives of so many. It is important that they get it right for all our children
Hayley Goleniowska is the author of the blog Downs Side Up, which has developed into a family support network. She regularly speaks to teachers, support workers and medical staff on issues relating to Down syndrome: