Choosing a school when your child has additional needs

24th September 2019

Words by Sarah Billingham at Confident Kids

Even the thought of looking for a school for your ‘he-can’t-possibly-be-going-to-school-yet-he-was-only-born-yesterday’ pre-schooler can strike fear into previously hardened hearts. The choice can be overwhelming and if you haven’t crossed a school threshold since you were there yourself, how are you supposed to know what you’re looking for? There’s bound to be a mum who has a list of the pros and cons on all of the local schools and signed up to be a governor at her favourite two years before her child was due to start (so sorry to all who know me!). Don’t let this make you feel like you are late to the game. I quickly learnt that looking the term before you need to put your preferences down is spot on. It is a very personal choice and your child needs to be at the centre of your decision making.

When looking for a school for a child with additional needs there are a few extra things to consider. We would all love to take a sneaky look a couple of years into the future to be reassured that the school we choose is absolutely the right choice but short of the crystal ball, the best thing you can do is arm yourself with the right information to make an informed decision.

Great architecture doesn’t mean great education

We wouldn’t advise our kids to choose their friends based solely on the houses they live in (I hope!). The same goes for your school. Of course, they should make the best of what they have and create safe and engaging spaces for learning, but people place far too much emphasis on facilities. These should be the cherry on the cake, not the deciding factor. The biggest influence on your child’s education will be in the quality of the teaching and the learning opportunities the teachers create. Don’t stake it all on that great pool that your child might only use for 30 minutes a week.

Know your environmental priorities

The learning environment is an important part of a positive learning experience. This is especially true for children with additional needs. Calm spaces tend to work best to support attention and listening for little ones (I’m writing this in the waiting area of my daughter’s trampoline centre and the high distraction, busy space is certainly not ideal!). If you have a little escape artist, it’s important to check how secure the school perimeter is, or maybe your child needs access to a quiet space to reset? If you’re visiting the school, take note of how calm and organised transition times are, when children are moving to the playground or are eating in the dining room. Some school corridors can resemble Clapham Junction at rush hour. When looking around can you see evidence in the classrooms of staff adapting the environment for specific children? Perhaps you’ll see visual timetables, symbol cards or adapted seating.

Interaction is everything

My number one top tip when visiting schools is to observe the interactions: the way staff interact with children and parents, and the way children engage with each other. This gives the greatest insight into quality. Great learning comes from strong relationships. Every moment is a teachable moment and engagement is essential for learning. You may spot something go awry whilst you are visiting a school – that’s ok, happens to the best of us. The key is in how the adults interact in these moments and support the children in their care.

Experience is reassuring

Try to find out whether the school staff and Special Needs Coordinator (SENCO) have experience in supporting children with additional needs, and more particularly children with a similar need to your child. Staff that have extra training and expertise are worth their weight in gold! Sometimes the class teacher will be newly qualified or the teaching assistant new to the school – that’s ok if they’re surrounded and supported by experienced staff to learn from and lean on. If you’re visiting a school that has never supported a child with similar needs to yours, this could be a huge learning curve for them.

It takes a village

Supporting children in overcoming barriers to learning is a team effort. It’s worth asking how the school staff work with other professionals e.g visiting speech therapists. Are the school able to provide a quiet space for one-to-one work when the therapist visits? (Again, this kind of specialist and hard-to-get intervention doesn’t reap the same rewards in a busy corridor). Are there effective communication channels between your child’s healthcare professionals? And even more vital, how will the school be working in partnership with you to make important decisions about your child and keep you feeling like you’re in touch with their day-to-day learning? Kids are dreadful at message giving!

Honesty is the best policy

I can’t emphasise enough the importance of being honest about what your child needs and encouraging the school to be honest with you about what they feel they can provide. Although schools should be doing all they can to be inclusive and effective for all, you’d rather know upfront if they’re likely to struggle in giving your child the best possible start to their education. The school will be best prepared to support your child from day one if they’re given all of the relevant information.

Understand their approach to flexibility

It is amazing how much difference a positive attitude makes. If school staff are approachable, adaptable and willing to learn you can achieve great things together. By definition, children with SEN require the provision to be ‘additional to and different from’ (we’ve all heard the square pegs into round holes analogy.) The school needs to make the learning fit the child and this means trying different things, being willing to make mistakes and having a good dose of grit to keep going. Make a list of any specific recommendations you’ve been given by your child’s healthcare professionals and just check with the school that they’re able to offer them. 

If the glass slipper fits…

Getting the right school for your child is about ‘best fit’. Nowhere will be totally perfect, so focus on the things you feel are most important for your child. Take the opinions of others, as well as Ofsted reports, with a pinch of salt. What’s right for someone else’s child or what another parent prioritises might be different. Ofsted inspections can give a great window into the inner workings of a school but are often just a snapshot of what was seen on the day many years ago. There will be plenty of people with ‘expert’ opinions and listening to them can be helpful, but be confident in making your own choice based on what you feel is important for your child – you know them best. You need to get a feel for the place and take a moment to think – could I picture my child here? Sometimes you have to trust your gut feeling!

Lastly, remember that school goes well beyond Reception and that first year will be over before you know it. Do think a little ahead and consider whether this is a school that could suit your child for the duration, or at least until the end of Year 2.

Sarah Billingham is a specialist teacher and one half of Confident Kids, a unique Early Years service providing occupational therapy and help for young children to reach their potential. They  equip parents and carers with expert knowledge and the practical tools they need to offer their little people the very best support they can. 

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