Rethinking the SEN labels in your class

This article first appeared in the Headteacher Update’s Excellence in SEN 2019 16-page supplement.

Every SEN child is different, and their diagnosis is only a signpost on the way to effective provision. Daniel Sobel and Sara Alston explain how teachers must focus on the strengths and needs of SEN students, rather than seeing only their difficulties.

My colleague Sara Alston and I are embarking on a new book in which we hope to fix all the ills of the SEN world! It is perhaps a surprising collaboration as we both of us grew up being told we were thick, stupid and lazy and would never amount to anything. In fact, I have ADHD and Sara has significant dyslexia. Happily, nowadays teachers immediately understand and know what these behaviours and labels mean. Over the years, Sara and I have learned a range of coping strategies and we understand how to create a supportive environment to help us overcome our challenges.

However, for children to achieve this they require and depend on adult understanding and support. This article aims to share some of our thinking about this difficult subject. There are many problems that we face, including the following three issues:
• Lots of children are given a diagnosis which is then seen as the answer. However, a diagnosis does not tell the teacher how to support the child. It can act as a signpost but it does not provide a “map” or detail the support and adjustments the child needs to learn and be happy.
• Confusingly, many children are given the same diagnosis but present with different needs in the classroom (while children with different diagnoses can present with similar needs).
• Teachers need support and confidence to move beyond the label and see the whole child and their strengths and barriers to learning so that they are best able to support them.

The trouble with labels

A diagnosis of autism spectrum condition (ASC), or any other difficulty, does not necessarily make a difference to a child’s needs in the classroom. It is a matter of identifying what information is relevant to teachers and how best to use it to support children. Hopefully, most teachers would have begun to put support in place for the child long before any diagnosis. Yet often the diagnosis is seen as a magic answer when it is just a milestone on the way to supporting a child.

One example of the different “types” of SEN shows the principle in action. Each of these students has an ASC diagnosis but presents in different ways to the teacher in the classroom:
• An obsessive student who is: highly routine-bound, lines things up, struggles with labels on clothes, uninterested in peers, only interested in talking about their favourite topic (often at length).
• A girl who is: desperate to fit in, fixated on certain friends, managing well in school, having regular meltdowns at home.
• A child with high social intent who is: keen to learn social rules and applies them to make friends, interested in people, but struggles to manage to maintain relationships, frustrated by their “social gaffs” (leading to meltdowns).
• Similarly, consider three students with diagnoses of dyslexia, ADHD and ASC who can all present with the same challenges in the classroom, namely:
• Poor focus.
• Easily distracted.
• Poor memory and word-finding.

IN THE CLASSROOM

• Misunderstanding of language.
• Issues with sensory overload.
• Low self-esteem.
• Struggles with self-organisation and managing routines.
• Struggles with friendships.

I recently attended a post-adoption meeting with a parent whose child had hit a crisis. The various professionals were using up our very limited time discussing if the child met the criteria for a diagnosis of Attachment issues or ADHD or foetal alcohol syndrome or sensory processing difficulties. The discussion was going nowhere.

However, by focusing on identifying the child’s needs and finding ways to support these, we could adequately find ways of simply helping the child to get on. This was an example of a child with a range of complex needs from a collection of co-occurring diagnoses. The challenge for the class teacher is to meet those needs so that they and others in their class can learn. We need to start with the child and their needs, not the diagnosis.

Having said that, one really important impact of a diagnosis is explained by Sara about herself: “For me receiving the diagnosis of dyslexia at 11 gave me an explanation as to why I found learning so difficult. For my whole primary school career, I was told that I was thick or lazy or both. I had always felt that it was not true but could think of no other explanation of why I found reading and writing so difficult. I was given a ‘word’ that explained and enabled me to find the courage to go on.”

We believe that SEN practice needs two fundamental actions to help us shift away from the old way of thinking about diagnosis (as relevant to teachers). First, we believe that SEN practice needs to shift away from the deficit model of SEN to one which encompasses strengths as well as difficulties, leading to a more personalised approach. Second, instead of focusing on the child’s global issues, we must think about their journey through the phases of a lesson and the day.

Reject the deficit model

The most common question for teachers when told a child in their new class has SEN is “what do they find difficult?”

Even as a SENCO, when told a child with SEN is joining the school, my first questions tend to focus on the ways they demonstrate their SEND and the support they need. We rarely ask about their strengths and motivations. Different people display their special needs in different ways and there are strengths that come with most non-neurotypical development. Views of SEND are often polarised. For example, popular views of autism include the anti-social genius like Alan Turing, the Rain Man-type savant or the locked-in non-verbal “head-banger”. For most the truth comes somewhere in between.

We need to avoid developing a “special need as superpower” view and see children as whole people with strengths and difficulties, not just a descriptor of need. A quick activity you can easily try in your school is to see what advantages your teachers perceive children with SEN as having.

Here are some examples:

• ASC: Attention to detail and observational skills, logical, good long-term memory and recall of details, unswayed by peer pressure, reliable, loyal, honest, non-judgemental (takes others at face value), knowledge of routines and desire for accuracy and order, ability to hyper-focus, thinks outside the box (novel approaches to tasks), visual learning, vocabulary (though they do not always understand the words they use).
• ADHD: Curious, highly engaged in the moment, energetic, creative, persistent, adventurous, big-picture thinking, thinking outside the box, copes well with unpredictability.
• Dyslexia: Visual thinking, creative and interconnected thinking, navigation, big-picture thinking, pattern recognition (useful for prediction), spatial knowledge, sharper peripheral vision, narrative reasoning, verbal communication, good at reading people.

It is important to remember that different people show different strengths and co-occurring diagnoses produce different combinations of strengths and difficulties.
For example, a year 3 boy with an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) and an ASC diagnosis suffers significant social anxiety. He has a near-photographic memory which means that he has excellent knowledge and recall, if not understanding. We celebrated this skill which gave him increased confidence and motivation to try new things. Recently, he entered and was runner up in a whole school Spelling Bee. After a detailed run-through of what would happen, supported by visuals, and by keeping his trusted class teacher in sight for support, Paul stood up in front of the whole school and answered the questions. Our belief and recognition of this strength, supported by specific strategies, gave Paul the confidence and motivation to manage his anxiety and succeed, building his confidence for the future.

Some practical takeaways:
• Consider what your teachers understand about specific, personalised strengths and challenges beyond the diagnostic label.
• What ramifications would there be for your classroom teachers if you banned the use of medical diagnostic language (changing it to an entirely personalised version as we describe above)?
• Finally, can you answer this question with your senior leadership team: to what extent are your teachers trained to meet the needs of your most challenging students (and how do you know)?

I hope that if Sara and I were in your classroom you would see us as individuals and identify our strengths and not just see us as labels and difficulties. Most importantly, remember that we have a fragile self-esteem that needs boosting because we are worried that we are “not good enough” and will never be.

The daily learning journey

Ryan bursts into the classroom with a zealous hyperactivity inversely proportionate to his ability to participate in the lesson. His teacher’s cortisol levels spike and she thinks of the after-school drink she has promised herself. “NO, THIS IS YOUR SEAT,” she shouts as he tussles with Callum over the chair near the window. As soon as he sits, he gets up again grabs Monique’s pen and holds it up in the air protesting: “Miss, Miss, this is MY pen.” She screams: “SIT DOWN and SHUT UP!” She remembers how much she hates Ryan. Ryan sits momentarily until the lesson begins when he gets up again: “I’m trying to find my pen, Miss.” This is met with the exhaustedly frustrated reply: “RYAN! GET OUT!”

Before we consider Ryan’s SEN profile, there are two priorities that need to be addressed: his preparedness for learning and his ability to “settle” (and of course we need to think about the teacher’s mental health and wellbeing too). Unless Ryan can participate in the first 10 minutes of the class, at least, we cannot support Ryan’s other needs and learning. At this point, instead of focusing on Ryan’s global issues, we must think about his journey through the phases of a lesson and the school day. The anecdote above demonstrates the first of these phases – transition, entering the classroom and preparedness to learn.

Supporting Ryan

We may assume Ryan is presenting with ADHD, but he could equally be challenged by Attachment, sensory difficulties, executive functioning issues, ASC etc. What we need to think about here is how to get the lesson off to a great start for everyone.

The biggest challenge for good SEN practice is coming up with strategies which are going to be quick and easy for the teacher, rather than adding to their stress and burden. The mantra of any sustainable inclusive practice should be: “A lot to think about but little to do.” Therefore, what do we need Ryan’s teacher to understand deeply but practise in the smartest, most efficient way?

To answer this question, let us think about Ryan’s journey into the classroom and then his first five minutes. What is going on for him?

His teacher needs to both understand and remember that however irritating and frustrating Ryan’s behaviour is that it is unlikely to be deliberately designed to wind her up. Behaviour is communication – when we do not have or cannot use words for our feelings, we communicate through our behaviour. So, what is Ryan communicating? It could be anxiety, frustration or even excitement about what has happened before he came into the room – be that playing football at break, a successful science lesson, a period of exclusion in the deputy head’s office, an argument at home, or simply navigating a crowded corridor to reach the classroom. All these events and many more will influence Ryan’s behaviour before even he reaches the classroom door.

Once Ryan enters the room, he has to manage a whole new set of questions and emotions arising in response to them. Where do I sit? What is going to happen in this lesson? Will I be able to understand what I need to do? Will I fail? Will I look stupid? Will others laugh at me? Do I want others to laugh at me? If they are laughing at me, does that mean they are my friends? Will I get any help with my learning? And so on…

Just managing this internal dialogue is exhausting and stressful. Particularly when the thought that “my teacher hates me” is added. Ryan will know that she is stressed by him, even if he cannot understand or name her emotion. Her anxiety about his presence will add to Ryan’s anxiety, setting off a vicious circle of negative emotion.

His teacher needs to try and see those first few moments from Ryan’s point of view and then support him to manage that maelstrom of emotion. By changing the narrative of that transition, she can begin to reclaim her classroom and control of the lesson. In general, we can assume that all children thrive on a routine, predictability and (most importantly) clarity.

Some practical takeaways

Unfortunately, there are no silver bullets. A lot of what we are going to say is simply “good ol’ pedagogy”. Indeed, believe it or not, all good inclusive teaching is just “good teaching”. We need to make sure Ryan feels respected, his anxiety is managed, and the start of the lesson runs smoothly for him.

So, we need to:
• Meet and greet: The teacher stands by the door and greets Ryan with a big smile and a warm, friendly “Hello, how are you?” making him feel welcome and wanted. Also, it gives her an opportunity to assess his emotional state and readiness to learn and plan her response.
Adapt the room to meet the child’s needs: The teacher can reduce Ryan’s stress coming into the room by having a seating plan and sticking to it. Ryan will need to be reminded where he sits as he comes in. This needs to be a clear polite instruction, not a request as that gives room for confusion. Consider more imaginative responses too – Ryan might be allowed to stand at the back or be allowed to walk the room before settling. Why try and make a child who cannot sit still try to sit still if it is not absolutely necessary for the lesson?
Clear consistent starting routine for the lesson: This should be a simple activity that can help Ryan settle – it could be that we hand him a word search (which he loves doing) the moment he walks in the room. A “settling task” that he likes is a way of cutting through the whole process of him having to get ready, unpack, sit in his seat and settle which he clearly struggles with.
Role in the room: An easy way of achieving both a sense of predictable routine and “you are important to this class” is to give Ryan a job to do at the beginning of the class. It could be to hand-out any materials or work. This makes him feel good, supports him to settle and could provide some “heavy load” to help with his sensory needs.
Be clear what is going to happen: The teacher should use a visual timetable for the start of lessons to remind Ryan what will happen and keep this visible throughout the lesson so that all children can track their progress.
Consider a staggered start: If the teacher assesses at the door that Ryan needs five minutes of calm time before he starts the lesson, she needs to find a way to provide it (a simple walk up and down the now calm corridor or sitting at the back of the class with a book or drawing a picture may be enough). Alternatively, let him into the room first so that he can find his seat and sort himself out when it is quiet. This should not be in front of peers and publicly shameful but done respectfully and with prior agreement. We should encourage Ryan to slowly take ownership about how he is feeling and consider his readiness.
Provide the resources: For example, can you always have a pen available so that Ryan is not stressed by looking for or not being able to find his own? As a priority, we must help Ryan’s teacher to break out of this negative cycle. A chat with someone they both trust to reset expectations and to allow Ryan to say what he needs can work wonders. What is important is that he feels his teacher is interested in making this better.

The easy solution for some might be to plonk a teaching assistant next to Ryan, but this can do a disservice to the relationship between Ryan and his teacher. Ryan must learn that he “belongs” and is able to participate rather than feeling babysat with a teaching assistant.

By rethinking SEN into phases of a lesson in this way, we hope all teachers can be inclusive in their practice in easy, sustainable and ultimately more enjoyable ways.


Daniel Sobel is the founder of Inclusion Expert which provides SEND, Pupil Premium and looked-after children reviews, training and support. You can find his previous articles for SecEd via http://bit.ly/2jwoKP8.

Sara Alston is an experienced SENCO who also works as a SEND and safeguarding consultant and trainer at Inclusion Expert.

One thought on “Rethinking the SEN labels in your class

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    Tassos Anastasiades says:

    Fantastic insight – after all we all have a right to quality education and a positive self esteem. The teacher tells me I am and so I am.!

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