For children with SEND and their parents, a compassionate teacher is key

I recently wrote a post following a case, supported by the EHRC, of a family who were determined to prove their child was the victim of disability discrimination in school. In it, I included the phrase “compassion is key”, which is from a section in our Working with Parents training, and got me thinking about what can make the biggest difference to a child struggling with learning or behaviour in school.

As well as the right support as early as possible, the answer is a teacher who cares, who is compassionate, and who is curious enough to discover what’s going on that may not be easy to decipher.

A teacher who keeps their faith in that child until they are thriving with the help they need is the stuff Hollywood movies are made of. But it shouldn’t be unusual; it should be an everyday occurrence.

A short, illustrative story

By way of illustrating what it’s easy to miss in child behaviour, allow me to tell a personal story. When I was nine, my mother left her second husband for someone else, an unfortunate habit, taking my older sister and me with her. I have very clear memories of the day we left, the secrecy we had been sworn to, and the new school I had to integrate into mid-way through Year 5. As we were but children, we didn’t understand this was an unsusual situation to be in, we just had to adapt to our new lives as best as we could.

No one considered the trauma this wrench might cause us. My sister has always been able to make friends easily, but for me, with autism that remained undiagnosed for 35 more years, forging friendships has always been a challenge. I became a withdrawn and lonely girl, without the skills to join existing friendship groups. No one at school knew the background. No one checked if I was okay.

Now imagine if, instead of becoming withdrawn, and therefore easy to peg as “quiet” or “lacking confidence”, I had reacted in the opposite way, becoming angry or disruptive at the injustice of being torn from my only friend. It is highly likely I would have been disciplined for the outward behaviour, without consideration of what was behind it. I’d like to think things have changed since then, but plenty of parents would say that’s not been the experience of their child.

Compassion is key

My childhood and experiences of school are so imprinted on my soul that I automatically wonder what’s behind any child’s challenging or withdrawn behaviour. As they seek to make sense of the world they live in, children unconsciously soak up what they see around them as their version of normal. They have no option or agency to do anything else.

So it’s no surprise that one of the tenets of our 7Cs Working with Parents training is that Compassion is Key. To me, it should be a prerequisite for becoming a teacher or support staff member. Caring and curiosity about the “why” can be time-consuming, but the very best teachers do it innately. If it’s not a natural instinct, it isn’t a hard skill to learn. A thoughtful approach can make a huge, positive difference.

How many now-successful people have said it was the input and faith of a single teacher that inspired them to turn their lives around? My high school English teacher, Mr Anderton, told me one day he’d “See my name in lights”. It was a simple thing, but it gave me confidence in my writing ability and I later became a journalist and TV newsreader, before parenting children with disabilities ended that career. That’s the magic of being a teacher— the potential to inspire a child to strive for a better future. It’s a precious thing.

An exclusion means a child has been failed

That might be a controversial subheading, but it’s true. Somewhere down the line, a child who should have been nurtured, protected, supported and understood has been failed by one or more of the adults around them, by the services that should be supporting them, or both. Sometimes, no matter how hard a parent tries, they don’t have the answers and need a school’s support to unpick the issues, but all they get is blame.

How will that child get the confidence to believe in themselves without someone first believing in them? Those who never have this can easily end up at the margins of society, or guests of His Majesty’s Prisons. A large proportion of people in the criminal justice system have some type of SEND that has never been addressed. Imagine if, as children, they had been given the care, compassion and the right support (and not just in school) instead of being excluded, rejected, or written off.

“More than three-quarters (79.8%) of people who went on to receive a custodial sentence had been identified with special educational needs (SEN) at some point during their schooling.

People who went on to receive custodial sentences were almost five times more likely to have had a SEN statement than people with no criminal convictions (18.0% compared with 3.8%).”

The education and social care background of young people who interact with the criminal justice system: May 2022

How can you be compassionate when you’re overwhelmed yourself?

We all know the feeling of sometimes having nothing left to give. Working in a school has never been a role for the faint-hearted. The demands are immense and from all directions. How can you zero in on a single child’s difficulties when so many others also need your attention? Yet many of us will be able to name at least one teacher in their past who did. Maybe you are such a teacher yourself or would like to be. If you’re struggling, here are a few tips that may help.

  • Person-centred system: First, remember that the system is supposed to be “person-centred” NOT service-centred. If a child doesn’t fit neatly into your system-shaped hole, it’s not their fault. The system often sucks, so it’s the adults’ job to make sure the child doesn’t suffer because of it.
  • Imagine meeting yourself: Think about how you come across to both children and parents when meeting or talking to them. Think about your body language, voice tone & facial expression. These are all as important as the words you use. How would you want to be greeted? How would you want your child to be treated? If you’re feeling irritated, don’t pass it on to others. Before you speak to someone else, stop for just a moment, take in a deep, calming breath and slowly release it. Centre and refocus yourself, releasing any tension in your shoulders.
  • You’re the authority figure: Parents and children alike look to you for answers. Even if you’re younger than the parent standing front of you, you are still the authority figure. If you don’t have the answer they’re looking for, it’s okay to admit it. Offer to work together to find out the answer– this is co-production too - you are part of the mini-team supporting each child along with their parents or carers.
  • There are no sides: When you find yourself in an adversarial situation at a meeting with a parent, remember you’re all on the same side - that of the child. If a parent seems angry, it’s quite likely to be from frustration at an inflexible or unfair system, or from worry that their child is suffering because they aren’t getting the support they need. If it was your child, wouldn’t you feel the same way? Sometimes, saying “I understand why you’re angry/upset”, “I’m sorry”, or even, “Let’s discuss this over a cup of tea,” can all calm the moment and create a “firebreak” so the parent feels heard and validated (even if you think they’re wrong).
  • Work together: Having a parent lose confidence in you or the school is the last thing you want—and the last thing the child needs. Listen carefully to what the parent has to say and ask them what they think is happening with the child and why. Look at the whole picture and (carefully) ask if anything has changed at home that may have had a deep impact on the child. A death, divorce, new sibling, insecure housing or financial uncertainty can all impact a child’s ability to learn just as an additional need can. But don’t default to this in lieu of considering if the child has an unrecognised additional need. The parent knows their child best and they are trusting you to believe what they say. Create a list of relevant local and national support resources you can print out, email or message to them if this is the case. See how the school can refer them on to local services if needed. Offer whatever school-based resources may be appropriate.
  • Don’t dismiss concerns if a child is academically bright: Even if a child seems to be doing well academically, it doesn’t mean they don’t have additional needs. If a parent is telling you their child has nightly meltdowns over homework, or doesn’t want to go to school, resist the urge to say you “don’t see that behaviour at school”. NEVER imply it’s just a parenting deficit. Once they know what they’re dealing with, they may decide they do need specialist skills training, but that’s their decision, not yours. Trust the parent’s gut instinct. Ask them what they think the triggers are, and if they think it’s something in school, be a detective. Ask your colleagues, including lunchtime staff, if they have noticed anything and when. Could they be being bullied? Take time to talk to the child about what’s going on. Often autistic children (including undiagnosed ones) have a demarcation between home and school - especially if school is stressful. Homework is like the stress has followed them back to their home. Ask the SENCO to observe the child for their input.
  • Get SEND training: In case you haven’t heard, there is free SEND training as part of the Universal SEND Services programme from Whole School SEND. There is lots of other training available too, both free and paid for, but Whole School SEND should be your first port of call. It’s government-funded so take advantage of it.
  • Be kind: Be kind, to yourself, to the children in your care, and to their parents. Get in the habit of fixing your face into a welcoming smile when you greet your class or their parents. Work cooperatively, with kindness, understanding and with consideration for the families' challenges. Remember that we are all only human and we are all fallible. One bad day is one bad day and it doesn’t mean tomorrow will be the same. You are all connected because you want the best for the child concerned. Kindness can be contagious.

If these all seem like too much, perhaps just pick one to start with and then hopefully, the rest may follow. If you’re already doing most or all of these, terrific! Maybe you could instead be a mentor to another staff member who is struggling with them.

Useful resources

Also read:

Don’t miss a thing!

Don’t miss any posts from SNJ - simply add your email address below. You must click the link in the confirmation email you’ll receive to activate your free subscription.

You can also keep up with us by following our WhatsApp Channel!

Want more? Be an SNJ Patron!

SNJ is a non-profit company and everyone who writes here does so voluntarily. We need your support to help us with costs by donating once or as a regular patron. Regular donors get an exclusive SEND update newsletter as thanks! Find out more here

Tania Tirraoro

We LOVE to hear what you think... please take a minute to add your views here, so your comment is seen by all!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.