A special educational need or a passing phase?

Spotting SEN

Special educational needs (SEN) affect all social classes and intellects. Children do not outgrow SEN but, with help, learn to cope. Some children with special needs are readily identified, others develop coping strategies — children can use common sense, quick-wittedness, intelligence and other virtues (or vices) to disguise the effects of an SEN. Later, particularly when public exams loom and youngsters are openly ‘measured’ against their peers, they may lack self-esteem and become increasingly anxious. We have come across cases where severe dyslexia has been diagnosed in mid A level when the adaptability finally ran out.

Bright but undiagnosed severe dyslexics have even made it to Oxbridge. The list of talented people with a special educational need is a long one but includes such well-known personalities as: Richard Branson, Cher, Leonardo Da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, Keira Knightley, Michael Phelps, Steve Redgrave, Stephen Spielberg and Virginia Woolf.


Signs of special educational needs in school-age children

Most children will experience some of the symptoms listed to a lesser or greater extent but, if you can count off more than three or four and have concerns, it may be time to consider enlisting extra help. These are all characteristics of normal childhood too, which is why some SENs are difficult to spot. Importantly, don’t wait for teachers to flag up difficulties; parents, with their holistic knowledge of their child are often the first to spot difficulties. Unless a school tests every child (and some now screen all children on entry — worries about future litigation abound), some children will be missed.

Look out for the child who:

  • Is easily distracted. 
  • Generates distraction or is considered the class clown.
  • Engages in disruptive or aggressive behaviour.
  • Gets angry with themselves, often over seemingly trivial issues. May be a perfectionist and/or have demonstrably low self-esteem.
  • Does not enjoy school.
  • Becomes stressed when starting tasks or when asked to work on their own.
  • Is reluctant to do homework, especially unaided.
  • Makes little or no progress at school (some children may even regress).
  • Avoids reading or takes no pleasure from it.
  • Can read but reads slowly.
  • Has good eyesight but is monosyllabic when reading aloud (or may refuse to read out loud). May struggle to scan text.
  • Declares they ‘hate maths’ when in reality ‘they don’t get it’.
  • Is disorganised — late settling to work, last to finish packing up and leaving the classroom. ‘Forgets’ to do homework or revise for tests.
  • Forgets what the task is; has trouble remembering more than two or three instructions at once.
  • Has spider hand-writing; presentation of work is messy and paintings indecipherable.
  • Is articulate but can’t or won’t put pen to paper.
  • Has an awkward pencil grip. May have difficulty remembering where to start writing and/or struggle to copy accurately from the board.
  • Bumps into things, is clumsy and has poor spatial awareness. May have difficulty hopping, jumping or catching a ball and will literally trip over own feet.
  • Hears but frequently mis-hears what is said.
  • May be able to repeat sentences verbatim but not comprehend meaning or grasp nuance.
  • Finds making and sustaining friendships problematic, even avoiding social contact altogether.
  • May be shy and withdrawn and/or avoid eye-contact altogether.
  • Has difficulty with change: can find even pleasant surprises upsetting.
  • Has parents with these symptoms!


When should I ask for my child to be helped?

Spotting special educational needs

You don’t have to have a formal diagnosis to request help for your child. If you suspect your child has a ‘learning difference’ or difficulty, or you’re just worried about them, seek advice; your child’s class teacher, the school SENCo, GP or health-visitor are good starting points. Depending on the type of need and your circumstances, help may be available before your child starts school.


What can I expect?

Teachers and others working with children are becoming notably more alert to SEN, and supportive of formal assessment. Many schools now routinely screen for specific learning difficulties and a good classroom teacher will be alert to special needs. However, formal assessment for SEN is not something a classroom teacher can do; they have neither the time nor the training. It is carried out by educational psychologists (EP). Don’t be put off by the title: the good ones are friendly, helpful and accommodating. If you have any reason to suspect your child has special or additional needs, consider getting a formal assessment. A good EP will administer a battery of well-proven tests in a way that your child will find interesting, even fun, rather than frightening. They will produce a detailed written report that describes your child’s educational characteristics and the reasons for them and clearly explains any terminology used as well as the impact of their findings. Generally, that’s it — no further analysis or treatment, though you may want a progress report after a few years. An EP’s report (especially one from an EP known to the school) can be a most marvellous lever in your dealings with a school: ‘He did this, because you did that — as you should have expected, because it says so here’. Closest thing in this world to the Elder Wand.


Helping the child who is struggling at school

The type of school and provision that you should look for will depend very much on your child’s abilities and on the extent to which their disability affects their learning. Consider the extent to which your child’s disability is affecting their progress: you want a school that happily talks of successes with pupils who face similar challenges and is at least as interested in your child’s ability, talents and interests as they are in their difficulties or differences.

Typically SEN children will need additional or special assistance or consideration to put them on a level playing field with their peers. For some, equality can be achieved by relatively simple measures: having a scribe or being given extra time in exams; for others, even specialist equipment and many- to-one teaching will not make life equable.

A good school is likely to:

  • Teach a child one thing 20 ways (if required), not 20 things one way.
  • Understand the learning processes and work diagnostically, closely monitoring, recording and reviewing progress and using that as a catalyst for further learning.
  • Use multi-sensory learning and teaching styles.
  • Understand that when a child’s needs are not being met and seek to address those shortcomings.
  • Actively assist with access arrangements.
  • Work with parents/carers to agree suitable strategies for the child.
  • Have some specialist help on hand.
  • Listen to parents and act on their concerns.


Choosing a school

Special educational needs frustrationsChoose your school with care: don’t assume any school with a good special needs department will be perfect. A sympathetic special needs coordinator (SENCo) is a great starting point, but the head’s attitude to special needs will have a pervasive influence on the school; if the head is cautious you should be wary. Timely (and possibly individual) intervention is great, but will only be really effective if set against a backdrop of understanding across all teaching and support staff. A child doesn’t abandon their difficulties when they leave the learning support department. A dyslexic child may well have a very high verbal and/or non-verbal IQ yet struggle to read, scan, write or spell. If a child has poor memory or processing difficulties these will, if left unattended, impact on their overall progress and subsequent self-esteem. Dyslexia may be mainly associated with reading and writing, but it affects more than just English lessons: the writing and sequencing demands of history can be a problem; similarly, the multi-tasking of many sports can create difficulties for the dyslexic and/or the dyspraxic child if the coaching style is not empathetic. A child with Asperger’s may be desperate to join in activities and to mix with others but require support and reassurance to do so — not just in the classroom but on the sports pitch, in the playground and beyond.


Which school?

Schools offer a range of provision from fairly minimal intervention to tailor- made curricula. If a school appears perfect, get in touch and find out how they would be prepared to help – you may be surprised by the response. 

If you’re choosing a mainstream school for a child with a relatively mild/moderate SEN, request a copy of the school’s special educational needs policy and (if the school is independent) ask how much extra you will have to pay for the support that you want.

A good school will:

  • Test /screen all children, for SEN, on entry or at the first sign of any difficulties.
  • Likely have other pupils in the school with special needs supported by qualified specialist teachers.
  • Ensure special needs support is an integral part of the school, with a two-way flow of information between specialists and subject teachers. Schools where SEN support is an ‘add on’, are really only suitable for very mild cases.
  • Give careful consideration to what a pupil will miss out on to receive extra help.
  • Have a supportive head. If the head is not enthusiastic about helping SEN children staff may not be as supportive or understanding as they should be.
  • Seek to build self-esteem — to find something your child is good at and encourage your child’s areas of strength.
  • Use multi-sensory learning and teaching methods with lessons in relatively short sections.
  • Have full regard to the SEN code of practice and make use of concessions for exams, such as providing a laptop, or an amanuensis and train children in the use of these. For public examination concessions you will need an up-to-date educational psychologist’s report.

Never ask ‘Is this the best you can do?’ For some children with SENs pastoral care can be as important as specialist understanding of a particular disability.

When you visit, talk to some pupils with the same diagnosis as your child — are they bubbling with pride and confidence?


Further reading

Special Educational Needs -  Proposed Changes

Types of SEN - A comprehensive overview of key conditions that give rise to SEN.

SEN Professional Help - Useful information on the various SEN professionals who can provide assistance in and out of the classroom

The Special Educational Needs Coordinator

Individual Education Plans (IEPs)

Getting an Educational Psychology Assessment 

Getting Reading Right - A Case Study


Seeking a school:

SEN And Schools

Unit And Resourced Provision For SEN

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