A child with a mild learning difficulty is usually able to hold a conversation and communicate most of their needs and wishes. But they may need additional support in some areas.
What does it mean to have mild difficulties? In some cases, such as in an assessment by an Educational Psychologist, mild will have a specific numerical value, denoting how far your child’s scores drop behind the average. However, often you will hear the terms ‘mild, moderate and severe’ used much more conversationally, suggesting the impact of their difficulty is not widespread in the child’s learning or day to day functioning. For parents of children with mild special educational needs ranging from dyslexia to speech and language difficulties, accessing the right help at school can seem like two steps forward, one step back.
Whether it’s dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, autism or speech and language difficulties, parents of children with mild SEN are often made to feel they’re making an unnecessary fuss. Mild difficulties can be glossed over as ‘easy to fix’ difficulties. The unfortunate truth is that some teachers are just more interested, capable and confident than others at teaching children who struggle in some way.
And whilst in 2014, new legislation was brought in to simplify a previously complex system, remarkably the percentage of children identified as having additional needs dropped from around 20 per cent to 15 per cent that same year.
In fact, children with dyslexia and dyspraxia now fare worse because they do not automatically qualify for support, with the Association of Teachers and Lecturers claiming that up to 200,000 children previously identified as having special needs were not transferred to the new system and are now slipping through the net.
What to do
If you don’t have one already, get a formal assessment and report from an educational psychologist (EP) for a learning need, or ask your GP for a screening for autism or dyspraxia.
The EP report will provide a list of classroom recommendations which less experienced schools may find particularly useful and which give parents top tips – while for an older child, the diagnosis will be vital in order to get concessions such as extra time in exams.
Go private for an EP assessment if you can afford to. Otherwise, a school may refuse to fund one for you. And remember that the EPs employed by your local education authority may not be able to be as objective about local schools and how they deal with SEN.
Shop around, ideally phoning five or six recommended by organisations like the Good Schools Guide or professional organisations such as the British Dyslexia Association (BDA). Not only do rates vary enormously (you should expect to pay around £600 for a good one), but you need to make sure you find someone you can gel with.
Talk to your child’s school too, starting with the class teacher – and be prepared to offer some gentle guidance. Until now, there’s been no mandatory module on SEN within teacher training, so there are huge variations. And if a teacher has had one child with dyslexia, they often expect the next one to be exactly the same, but of course what works for one might not work for another. This is where your formal report will come in handy.
If you don’t feel the class teacher is doing enough, it’s time to get to know the special educational needs coordinator (SENCo). This is the person who should ensure that all teachers in the school are given guidance about how to teach your child – for example, that he needs written instructions rather than verbal, or that he needs to take movement breaks. The SENCo should also help prepare the support plan outlining how your child should be taught and monitored and this should be revised every term.
Choosing a school
If you’re choosing a new school for your child, look for the Local Offer and the Special Needs Policy, which can be found on the website. They will provide a realistic picture as to what can be expected from the school and local authority.
Other questions to ask include: how many children at the school have SEN? Do you have examples of how you’ve helped them? Is the SENCo on the senior leadership team? How many people work in the SEND team? In one school, a SENCo can be proactive, positive and a fountain of knowledge, while in another, it’s the RE teacher who has a few hours to spare, so the role has been passed to them and they begrudge it.
Never assume private mainstream schools are better. In fact, some – although by no means all - schools in the independent sector are results focused and only want the round pegs that fit in the round holes.
Finally, if you get extra help – such as tutoring - for your child outside school, make sure it’s tailored to your child’s specific needs. The relevant professional body for your child’s SEN can tell you what qualifications and experience to look for. Consider getting support for yourself too – the Helen Arkell Dyslexia Centre and National Autistic Society are among organisations that offer courses for parents.
Checklist for parents
The best way to get what you want is to know what you want. Educate yourself - read books and articles, go to the seminars/conferences held by the relevant charities, talk to other parents of children with the same condition - that way you can discover the methods/equipment which may help your child.
Be firm with school. Parents can be made to feel they should feel grateful for whatever help their child is given and can be afraid of speaking out. But remember there is a legal requirement for schools to make adaptations in order that your child is not disadvantaged at school.
Try to develop a good relationship with the school's SENCo and head. You will achieve more if they are on your side. But it's best to be frank - if you're worried about something and wondering whether to mention it, the best course of action is always to relay your concerns to school.
Keep files of minutes from meetings with school, records of phone or school gate conversations with teachers, and teachers’ reports. You may need this evidence to show progress or lack of it.
With thanks to Sue Flohr, helpline manager at BDA.