Most specialists will not test children for dyslexia before the age of 7, so it is likely that your child will already be at a mainstream school when they receive the diagnosis.
How can you ensure that your child’s current school does everything it can to support their learning and happiness? And if you feel that this school is either unwilling or lacks the expertise to best help you child, how can you weigh up the alternatives on offer elsewhere?
Understanding the diagnosis
It’s a good idea to become something of an expert in your child’s particular condition and what it means. Dyslexia is only an umbrella term, so understanding the differences between processing speed, working memory and perceptual reasoning is important – ask the educational psychologist to explain.
Whether or not teachers take the trouble to understand these nuances will become key in how far you feel they are supporting your child.
The SENCo's role
The head of learning support or SENCo will become an important person in your child’s life. Check their qualifications, experience and their hours (full-time or a handful per week?), and whether your child enjoys being with them. If the SENCo’s space is little more than a converted broom cupboard (surprisingly common) and a poster of Richard Branson, he or she is unlikely to have the head’s ear sufficiently to purchase the latest technology or training.
How do you feel after talking to them – with the best, you should feel like a weight is lifted from your shoulders?
And a senior school SENCo who has taken the trouble to assess which exam boards are the most dyslexia friendly is worth their weight in gold.
How committed is the head?
If you find a head who can discuss their experiences of children with ‘spiky profiles’ (a large gap between their potential and their performance) hang on to them, they are rare. Even those schools that have built a reputation on excellent dyslexia support are increasingly under pressure to ‘raise the academics’ and heads, particularly new ones, may go lukewarm on the whole enterprise, so investigate.
What support is on offer?
Check both the quantity and quality of support which will be provided. A minimum might be an hour a week of one-to-one or small group lessons – focused on your child’s needs, and utilising different teachings methods from those in the class, say kinaesthetic or visual, rather than phonics. Check to see that provision will be available throughout the senior as well as primary school.
How will they encourage your child?
How academically competitive a school is it? At a selective school with high powered achievers, teachers can sometimes fail to assist a child to appreciate their own progress without the constant comparisons. A worst case of coming towards the bottom of a class too often will take its toll. If a child’s work of a few words in shaky hand-writing isn’t deemed ‘good enough’ to go on the wall alongside their beautifully presented class-mates’ work, challenge the school to find a way in which your child can present their knowledge.
How will in-class support work?
Class teachers must ensure your child can access lessons. Ideally, you are looking for fully differentiated learning – so that all teaching is delivered in a manner and at a level which best suits your child. At a minimum, teachers should provide practical assistance such as preparing key words lists, providing ‘writing frames’ or being available for spelling requests. At best you’ll see excellent team-work with the SENCo.
How will they use IT?
IT can play a vital role in unlocking your child’s potential in the classroom – the most dyslexia friendly schools will be on the case with early laptop usage and touch-typing classes. A school we visited where staff were too worried to let the students use laptops fearing they would ‘all be on Amazon’ is missing the point.
The best have systems where teachers can send lessons directly from the white-board to a pupil’s laptop saving laborious copying time, and the child can ask the teacher for help without raising his hand.
Any help with organisation skills?
Dyslexic children can find organisation challenging. A senior school with a high percentage of dyslexics we visited with text books, bags and gloves decorating every bush seemed wonderfully relaxed rather than punitive, but you might look for a school which understands this particular challenge and is all about organisational strategies.
Finally, and most importantly – how will the school boost and maintain your child’s self-esteem? Will they go out of their way to find ways for them to excel, from offering them the right part in the school play to celebrating their artistic efforts? Is there a buddy group for dyslexic children within the school? And on tough days is the SENCo there for them to talk to?
Is mainstream the best option?
Whatever your initial decision, you may want to keep an open mind as to your alternatives. Taking a look at a specialist school by way of comparison is always helpful. Some children with a mild diagnosis at 7 have worked around their difficulties sufficiently a couple of years later to be thriving even in the most academic environments, others with a moderate or severe diagnosis may find their reading improves but their typing speed is still slow, their potential is far from being reached and their confidence suffers.
If you need help in finding a mainstream or specialist school for dyslexia, speak to our SEN team.