What to do if you think your child has Special Educational Needs?
We try not but we’re only human – we compare our brood at the school gate, over a cup of coffee, at the touch line – ‘how is my child doing? What reading scheme are they on? Have they been invited to so and so’s party? Have they been picked for the team? But sometimes a gnawing thought returns with regular monotony – your child isn’t doing the same maths homework as their friends, they are tired and exhausted when you collect them from school, they don’t bounce in to school anymore and there’s rather a lot of ‘dragging of feet’. The child who was brimming over with confidence and ‘joie de vie’ a couple of terms ago is a shadow of their former self – and as a parent, you know something is not right. For a lot of parents, coming to terms with the fact that their child has SEN is difficult and it takes a mental gear change to come to terms with reality. The old adage ‘children are your hostage to happiness’ has never been truer.
So, the process begins of better understanding their needs, arranging the right support and helping them maximise their potential. The staff at the nursery or school will more than likely be having the same concerns as you. Your first port of call should be to speak to the staff at the nursery or school. The teacher will be able to tell you how they can help your child in class and will arrange a meeting with the Special Needs Coordinator at the school. It may be suggested that an Educational Psychologist’s report would help identify strengths and weaknesses and generate suitable recommendations for teachers, parents and other professionals that are used to meet those learning needs.
Looking to the future and senior schools – speak to the Head or professionals that are familiar with the most suitable schools which will help develop a child’s functional ability and work around their difficulties to access the curriculum. A confident child is an enthused, engaged and happy child – and a happy child will thrive.
Is a boarding school the right place for a child with mild autism?
As a member of staff at a boarding school, you can usually spot the pupil with mild autism – they’re walking across the courtyard by themselves, carrying a pile of books that are just about to cascade to the ground, perhaps there’s a sheet of organ music stuffed in his blazer pocket, hair hasn’t been washed for a few days and they’ll avoid eye contact if a group of IX rugger players come close. But is a boarding school the right place for a child with mild autism? The answer is of course dependent on the child, the parents, the ethos and facilities of the school and the Head.
When considering a mainstream boarding school, a parent needs to consider the strengths and weaknesses of the child and of the school. However much a parent would like a particular school to cater to their child’s needs if the structure is not in place – it is like asking the Titanic to change course and disappointment is inevitable. Time needs to be set aside for parents to talk to the Head and ideally current or recent parents who have children at the school with a similar diagnosis. Does the Head feel, with all the good will in the world, that this school is a suitable environment for a child with mild autism? Can the school support the child; is there good communication between the subject teachers and the SEN Department; is the pastoral care second to none; is the House Master/Mistress very experienced; what is the accommodation like/will there be privacy; What is the average size of the class; what is the school’s policy regarding ‘screen time’; what foreseeable problems can the parents envisage?
Many children with mild autism find the routine at a boarding school comforting and familiar – the timetable doesn’t change and there are clear expectations to adhere to – the bell rings and the child knows to settle down to complete homework, the bell rings and they know it will soon be time to go to sleep.
Any school is a microcosm of society – there is a mix of kind people and mean people, thoughtful people and selfish people, amusing people and dull people. And people don’t suddenly change when they start to work in an office – and an adult with mild autism who works in any environment will come across the same people and will have to deal with the same situations they have come across and dealt with at a school.
The three main traits that all people with autism share are: difficulty with social communication, difficulty with social interaction and difficulty with social imagination. Autism Spectrum Disorder is such a wide brush stroke of a diagnosis that I have no doubt that some boarding school environments are the correct place for a child with mild autism to thrive – is it the right place for your child? That’s another question entirely.
What is Dyscalculia and what help can my child get?
Dyscalculia isn’t just being ‘rubbish at maths’ and is not caused by a lack of educational opportunities. It is a recognised, specific learning disorder that can often occur alongside dyslexia, dyspraxia or ADHD. Dyscalculia presents itself as difficulties in mathematics below the norm for an individual’s age.
There is no ‘typical’ dyscalculic but there are common themes that a learner with the condition will encounter such as understanding simple number concepts, problems with number sense, memorising arithmetic facts and fluent calculations. This will inevitably lead to high levels of mathematical anxiety and it can be a downward spiral as the learner will be hesitant to answer questions in class and will become withdrawn.
Help for dyscalculia comes from home and school. Working with the school in tandem is imperative to help any child with dyscalculia. Parents should liaise with the school and the Special Educational Needs Coordinator regarding what level of informal support and classroom accommodations are available. There are also many treatments and therapies which will help support a child’s learning such as an Educational Psychologist’s report, Speech and Language and Occupational therapy.
On a practical level, a child with dyscalculia should try and learn how to ‘self-advocate’ and ask for help. The tendency will be for a child to ‘lie low’ and not draw attention to their condition but if they can feel empowered to ask for support the progress will be immeasurable. There are also lots of fun ways to stress free maths practice at home and during the weekends.
Once the condition has been identified, parents should keep in contact with the school and determine whether the supports and services are working. Being aware and sensitive to any emotional impact is key and to look out for any signs of anxiety, withdrawal or frustration especially when weekly test or exams are looming.
Although the condition will not vanish or be cured, the support a child receives from home and school will make an enormous difference to their academic and emotional journey.
How do I know if my child has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)?
Every child gazes out of the window, forgets their books, mislays their school jumpers and speaks without thinking. But what if a child finds it difficult to pay attention, is always fidgeting and is impulsive and is also forgetful, dreamy and looses too many items – the combination would be the warning signals that a child may have ADHD.
Unfortunately, too often children with the above traits are labelled as troublemakers, undisciplined and irritating. It can be very difficult to distinguish between a lively child aged seven and ADHD which has gone undiagnosed. But just to complicate matters, some children with ADHD are not bouncing off the walls and disrupting everyone but are sitting quietly with their attention miles away.
Obviously, the main concern is that ADHD gets in the way of learning. Medication is often prescribed for ADHD but it is not the only option and might not be the best one. Effective treatment for ADHD also includes education, behaviour therapy, support at home and school, exercise and nutrition. With the right support, there is no reason why a child can’t succeed in all areas of life.
Indeed, there are many positives with ADHD – the energy and drive that occurs when a child with ADHD is focused on a task. The spontaneity and enthusiasm that come with ADHD and the lively personalities. Children with ADHD will also have a flexible approach to problem solving as they are thinking about so many different options. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, children with ADHD are hugely creative and imaginative.