In my career as SENCO so far, I’ve often found myself at loggerheads with people who tell me that pupils with Special Needs can’t do things. Whether we’re talking about learning to read, writing for extended periods, or retaining focus in class, I always end up strongly disagreeing with anyone who tries to tell me that it is simply not possible for a child to do it.
This happens often, and every single time it does, I am appalled.
Sometimes, people blame the circumstances in the child’s life: “He’s got a lot going on at home, so he can’t do it.”
On other occasions, they blame the pressure the kid is under: “He’s really stressed, so he can’t do it.”
But most of the time, people use labels to explain the issue: “He has a special need, so he can’t do it.”
The people who spout these sorts of phrases seem to suggest (and in fact, sometimes explicitly assert) two maxims. Firstly, that some children don’t choose their behaviour. And secondly, that because they don’t choose their behaviour, we must never try to change it because that is unkind and uncaring.
This angers me because it imposes an obvious limit on the child’s capacity to improve. By telling schools, parents and pupils that struggling to learn or behave is a consequence of an irreparable issue within the child, we condemn the child to never being able to change.
This is precisely why, at Michaela, we believe that labels damage children. It doesn’t mean that I don’t recognise the challenges some children face, but rather I worry about the consequences of focusing purely on the ‘need’ instead of getting the behaviour we want in the long term. It is important that we at least aim for all children, regardless of need, to be able to learn and behave appropriately. If that’s not our aim, then what is?
I have met countless people who try to impose these astonishingly low expectations on the pupils at our school, and every time I do, I have to fight to keep expectations high. It seems mad to me that I have to defend the right to educate children effectively, but that is at the very heart of what it means to be SENCO at Michaela. As a school that does things differently, and that aims to achieve the highest possible outcomes for every child, I often feel as if we are fighting against a tide of negative defeatists who genuinely do no think that some children will ever be able to achieve our aims.
Tell a child that phonics won’t work for him because of his ‘needs’, and you disempower him.
Tell a child that starting a fight in the playground or swearing at a teacher was not his choice, and you undermine him.
Tell a child that he can’t concentrate for more than a few minutes, and you erode any belief he has in his potential future success.
Of course children may struggle to meet expectations (of learning and/or behaviour) at first. That’s the nature of the beast. But it doesn’t mean that, simply by virtue of the fact that the child has a label attached to them, that they will never be able to meet these standards. It just means they haven’t learnt the right behaviours yet. And the more that people come in to the school and tell me we’re wrong to do what we do, the harder it is for the child to overcome these barriers.
So if you are in my position- either as a SENCO fighting against a tide of the most despicable orthodoxy, or a classroom teacher or a Head of Department or a Literacy Lead just desperately trying to get your weakest or most vulnerable pupils to learn and behave, hear this. There is no limit to what a child can achieve if you focus on getting the behaviours you want. If he’s struggling to learn, create conditions for high amounts of practice and drill, drill, drill him until he gets it. If he’s struggling to behave, teach him how to behave with love and respect, and do not relent. As soon as you excuse his behaviour or his underachievement, you let him down because you are implicitly telling him that he cannot do it.
And he can. He really, really can.