Sharing a label?

In my last blogpost, I discussed lengthy waiting times for SEND assessment and the implications for children, families and SENDCOs. But once the child has a label, what do you do with it? Are we advocating a need-to-know basis or ensuring total awareness of a diagnosis? Likewise, when a child is placed on an SEND register, how much should we be sharing that information and in what way?

I have argued passionately for total transparency about an SEND register. Ensure the child, family and staff all know about a child being on an SEND register and why. That way shame and stigma are removed and everybody advocates for the child so they can reach their full potential.

Seeing only a label

What though of the argument that all this does is reduce the child to a category. ‘He’s SEMH, she’s SLCN, they’re GDD.’ What of the need to understand the individual? What of the stigma attached to being on an SEND register, discussed in the excellent videos by Made by Dyslexia, and the consequent impact on a child’s self-esteem?

“I can remember the burning resentment of having to carry round this folder with a different coloured top”

Kiera Knightley

What also of studies that show that children make more or less progress based on whether we label them as low or high ability?

A 1966 study by Rosenthal & Jacobson argued that there is a self-fulfilling prophecy happening within education. They chose children, at random, from across the attainment range within a school and gave these children a fake label: ‘bloomers’. Teachers were told that these ‘bloomers’ had potential for excellent academic achievement.

When IQ tests were readministered months later, the ‘bloomers’ had made significantly higher IQ gains than children who had not been singled out as ‘bloomers’.

The researchers concluded that if you tell a teacher that a child is able, they will teach them as if they are able and the children will make faster progress. Applied to SEND therefore, what of the argument that a label places limits on our expectations, places a cap on what is possible socially or academically and ultimately lowers academic outcomes for those children?

The problem with transparency

In keeping with the Code of Practice, I have tried to put children and parent voice at the centre of provision in school – meeting 3 times per year; keeping dialogue open about interventions, etc.

As part of this duty, I have phoned many parents, to ensure they know we believe their child should be on the SEND register. I have heard the sadness in their voice and seen the resultant defensiveness, i.e. in conversations about academic progress, completion of homework or behaviour in class.

As part of this duty, I have set up and sat in many meetings with parents and children, ensuring their voices are at the heart of what we are doing. For a child with MLD, I have seen their shoulders drop as they hear you talk about why the meeting is taking place (i.e. that it is linked to them being on the SEND register). Even with my most rehearsed speech about what that means (‘you can achieve your full potential; you may need some types of support to achieve it, it is our job to give you the support to help you to get there’), I can’t help but think the child leaves that meeting with a lowered expectation of themselves and what is possible for them.

As part of this duty, I’ve discussed progress with teaching colleagues, where they’ve gone through their class list and talked about a lack of progress for children with SEND. The low progress has come across as inevitable – they have SEND, so they will not make progress. I can’t help but think that placement on an SEND register, for the wrong teacher, becomes an acceptable reason for that child not making progress.

The Code of Practice

Perhaps this debate is in part redundant. To refer again to the Code of Practice, SENDCOs need to make sure that  (1.3) ‘parents and young people are involved in discussions and decisions’. It encourages ‘a positive dialogue between parents, teachers and others’  (1.7) and promotes total transparency about a child’s SEND:

6.49 All teachers and support staff who work with the pupil should be made aware of their needs, the outcomes sought, the support provided and any teaching strategies or approaches that are required.

As SENDCOs, the question around transparency is answered for us by the Code of Practice – we should ensure total transparency about placement on an SEND register; transparency with the child themselves where appropriate and with families and school staff in all cases.

This assumes though that all stakeholders are able to take this information – about placement on an SEND register and/or about a diagnosis received – and allow it to support a positive change for them in school.

Self-advocacy as the key to success

I’ve been most pleased when overhearing a child with SEND advocate for themselves. For a child with a visual impairment to politely demand that the handout is in a bigger font; for the dyslexic child to politely demand their extra time in an assessment. Conversely though, I’ve also heard a child’s label or their placement on an SEND register used as an excuse for failure. For example, I’ve heard children declaring a complete inability to control their anger or impulse, rather than explaining that these things are harder for them and that they need more support with some of these things than other children.

None of these things are straightforward. It’s asking a lot of a child to advocate in the right way from a young age, to know the weight to give the label. It’s asking a lot of a parent or carer to know how to advocate for their child in a way that keeps aiming high but doesn’t become excusing. It’s our job as educators – be us SENDCOs, Teaching Assistants, teachers or school leaders – to ensure we see the child first, irrespective of label, and support that child to believe in their own ability to succeed – in spite of, and in many cases because of, their label.

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