Seven ways to support your child with SEND at school

by Dr Anne Emerson, Associate Professor in Special and Inclusive Education at the University of Nottingham.

If your child has a special educational need or disability, you may be wondering how to best support them in their school life.

Children are considered to have Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) if they require additional support with their learning. For some children this can be for a short time, but others will require additional help throughout their schooling.

There are many children who will fall into this category at some point in their lives, including those with a physical or learning disability, who are autistic, who have social and emotional difficulties that impact on learning, who have a health condition that means they miss periods of schooling or have reduced capacity for school. Most of these young people will be included in mainstream schools, where they are able to learn alongside their peers with support from school staff as necessary.

Whatever your child’s age and situation, the points below are designed as a starting point to support you to help them in reaching their potential.

1. Build a partnership with your school

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The best outcomes for students with SEND happen when parents and teachers work together. It can be very helpful to teachers if you have given them an idea of what your child is good at and really enjoys doing, so they can put the needs and aspirations of you and your child at the centre of what they do. Talking to teachers also helps you to find out who your child likes to spend time with at school so that you can encourage friendships.

The first person to ask to talk to, to start building a relationship with at the school, is your child’s teacher. You can ask them how they think your child is managing at school. They may mention any concerns that they have, but even if they don’t, tell them what you have noticed and find out whether your child behaves in the same way at school. You could start with a quick chat after school when you go to collect your child, or by phone at the end of the day. You do not need to make this too formal, instead focus on having a relaxed exchange of information and ideas.

Ask for regular meetings to help them and other staff get to know your child and for you to hear how he or she is at school. You can ask for anyone else who is working in the class with your child to be involved in these conversations too. It may also be helpful for the headteacher to know that the teacher is being attentive and supportive, you could send a brief email to say that you appreciate the support you are getting. This will help to build good practice across the school so you have the same relationship with the next teacher.

2. Emphasise that your child is an individual

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It is key that everyone in school sees your child for who they are, rather than expecting them to conform to an image based on a condition or need the child has. If your child has been identified as having a particular learning need, disability or health condition, this can be helpful in suggesting potential areas of strength and difficulty. However, every child will have their own unique attributes and challenges.

If your child has been identified as having a particular condition, you may find useful information from websites and parent support groups, but this will only apply to your child to a certain extent. It can be helpful to know that a child on the autism spectrum may have increased anxiety when they are in an unfamiliar situation, or do not know what they will be doing during the day. This allows staff to provide clear timetables and spend time explaining new settings and activities. Children with Down’s Syndrome often learn better through visual materials than taking in verbal instructions, and knowing this can remind staff to provide appropriate support. Young people with ADHD who take medication to help them stay calm are likely to be more able to learn in the morning but may struggle later in the day.

Sometimes incorrect assumptions are made about children, such as thinking that someone with Down’s Syndrome who does not speak fluently will prefer PE to learning French, when their actual abilities may mean the reverse. You may need to challenge assumptions made about your child at times, through providing information about your child and having ongoing conversations with school staff.

3. Know your child’s strengths

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Most children will have something that they enjoy doing and that they spend time getting good at. See this interest as a strength that you can build on. Ensure that your child’s teachers know of this area of interest, and ask that this be incorporated into school work, and particularly homework, where possible. For example a child with autism who loves trains can use this interest in practising maths, writing, spelling etc. Creative members of staff will be able to adapt the interest to motivate a child with some extra learning, when appropriate. This will help to motivate your child, help them to feel good about what they can do and build confidence.

Children’s interests can also be enjoyed during family time, find books at your local library to look at and read with your child, or perhaps buy a specialist magazine to share.

4. Ask for support from school

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Sometimes parents are afraid to suggest to a school that their child might be having difficulties, feeling anxious about stigmatising their child or asking for additional help. Parents can choose where their child goes to school, and schools make every effort to meet the child’s needs through typical teaching and some additional support.

For a small number of children, parents and teachers may feel that extra support is necessary to ensure that children make optimal progress. Extra support usually comes in the form of dedicated classroom assistant time, with input from a range of specialists as appropriate. If you feel that educational needs are not being met through regular classroom support, you can request an educational psychology assessment with a view to obtaining an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHC).

Since EHC plans look at every aspect of the child, reports will be requested from any specialist who can offer an opinion on the most effective support, such as speech and language therapists and paediatricians. The school will contribute to the plan, as will you and your child. There is often a meeting to discuss all the separate reports before the final version is completed. You will be invited to make a statement about your child, and to comment on the other reports. The final EHC plan will specify what support your child will receive at school as well as at home if appropriate. Many voluntary organisations provide free advice and support to parents who are seeking EHC plans.

5. Find support for yourself

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Parents of children who experience difficulties in learning or socialising at school often have high levels of anxiety. Negotiating through policies and processes, and feeling that you have to work to ensure that your child gets what they need, is stressful, tiring and may take its toll over time. Try to make time in the day to do things that help you to relax, and ask a friend or family member to go with you to meetings with school and other professionals. This can help you to remember what was said, and to ensure that you get to say what you want to.

6. Understand your child

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All children make considerable demands on their parents, but this can be more so when a child has special needs. Children’s abilities tend to vary throughout the day, so what someone can do first thing in the morning may not be the same when they are tired. It can help to see your child as always doing their best, even though sometimes they require more help than at others. All children can be naughty at times, and children with special needs require clear boundaries and expectations as do all, however treating the child as if they are trying to do what they are asked, and finding out how to help them, will help to keep you, and them, calm.

7. Enjoy your child and have fun as a family

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It can be easy to get preoccupied with worries about your child and their future and forget to have some fun. Children with special needs are children first and foremost, they will learn through play, outdoor exercise, social activities, family meals and all the other experiences you can bring them. Helping them with school work at home should be as relaxed and rewarding for both of you as possible, but remember that everything you do with them will be helping them learn.

Dr Anne Emerson is a practitioner and researcher specialising in supporting children with special needs to communicate.

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