Don’t Exclude Me: Shouldn’t SEND be the first thought?

The BBC programme, "Don't Exclude Me" has caused something of a mixed reaction among parents of children with SEND.

One of our readers, Joanne Lewis, who's the mother of two autistic children, got in touch after watching the programme with some serious concerns about what seemed to be a lack of consideration of undiagnosed SEND as the cause of the children's behaviour. While it may be a case of editing to fit the narrative, the impression given to the viewers at large is that these "naughty children" just can't control themselves in school. That's something that benefits no one, least of all the children concerned (unless it actually gets them an EHC needs assessment). Some of the staff seemed very overwhelmed and unprepared.

Joanne, like many parents, had had to educate herself on good SEN practices, sensory needs, SEND Law, and taken on her LA to win a specialist independent school for her eldest son at Tribunal.  She is passionate about improving other’s understanding of autism and ADHD, especially celebrating differences over encouraging conformity and ableism. After discovering she has ADHD herself, she began the Facebook page @MyADHDSuperpowers and hopes to help dispel the stigma still attached to ADHD.

Ahead of the second part this evening, Joanne has written the following article with her own thoughts -- thanks so much Joanne for doing this.

My view on Don't Exclude Me by Joanne Lewis

By the end of nursery, my son was receiving fortnightly fixed-term exclusions. He was just four years old. School staff were aware that he was being assessed for autism and ADHD, but stated it was “just behaviour”.

When he was excluded again, one hour into the ninth day of Reception, we moved him to a small village school that delivered reasonable adjustments, focusing on nurturing and supporting his individual needs. In the five years since he has never been excluded again.

I was excited when I saw BBC2’s documentary “Don’t exclude me” advertised. I assumed it would tackle the fact that pupils with SEN Support (those without an EHCP) are almost six times more likely to receive a permanent exclusion. They account for almost half of permanent exclusions overall. I hoped it would investigate how understanding and supporting unmet needs would lead to fewer exclusions. 

What about SEND?

Behaviour specialist, Marie Gentles OBE, said the first step was to form positive attachments, as the child must feel safe to be able to trust adults. It was nice to see Jack’s teacher Jade, trying out attachment strategy with Jack. Unfortunately, she used this time to quiz him about his emotions, which I thought was counterproductive. Just using this time to play and follow Jack's lead would have been more therapeutic. Social stories and zones of regulation are great techniques that could have been fed in over time once trust had been gained.

It was clear to me, however, that the children they were following - described as “three of the school’s most challenging pupils” - likely had some form of SEND. Marie advocates, “sanctions balanced out with nurture and praise” but in reality, her methods were heavy on the sanctions.  Before any progress can be made, I believe that the way these children are viewed needs to be reframed. Staff need to stop seeing them as 'naughty and challenging' and instead understand they are overwhelmed, anxious, have sensory difficulties and require compassion and support.

Overwhelmed and dysregulated

Rather than improving behaviour, I felt Marie’s “Target practice system” directly led to an overwhelmed, dysregulated and confused child.  One minute eight-year-old Jack was happily joining in the work and asked “Can I have help on this question please?”. The teacher then said something jokingly about £10, to which Jack commented “I have £10 in my bag”. Immediately his teacher demanded he get it but when Jack asked why, he received no answer. For the benefit of the audience, it was clearly explained by the narrator valuables aren’t allowed in school, but time wasn’t taken to explain this to Jack. It was assumed he knew why his teacher without warning in the middle of a lesson wanted him to leave his desk and give her his money. 

Demands piled up as the sand timers ticked away and he moved from yellow to orange. “I didn’t even do anything” Jack said. Still, without explanation his teacher turned the timer again, “You’ll lose your breaktime”. “For no reason” pondered Jack “I didn’t do anything”. He was then at a red card, leading to a withdrawal of break time. It was heart-wrenching to watch.  Within five minutes, this technique had turned a happy, engaged child into a sobbing heap on the floor, headbutting the furniture.

Questionable consequences

I felt the strategies were very demand-oriented and draconian, with punishment and consequences unrelated to the child’s actions. In the shorter term, this may appear to work, with children conforming out of fear or even novelty. However, they could lead to masking which may delay diagnosis, and in the longer term deteriorated self-esteem, trauma and mental health struggles. Children with Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA - on the autism spectrum) would especially struggle under this system, but there was no reference to how children with SEND may have needs that should be addressed differently. In fact, Marie Gentles stated, “When you know how to put these techniques and practices in place it works on every single child, every single time”.  

No strategy will work with any child every single time, let alone all children. What will really help children with SEND is teaching staff about Autism and ADHD, reducing demands, creating lower arousal environments, and allowing reasonable adjustments and adaptations.  One teacher said “it would be really good if there was a helpline to say these are the behaviours this is what we know about the child, do you have any suggestions?”. I was screaming at the TV: “that’s what Educational Psychologists and CAT (Communication & Autism Team) teams and specialist advisory teachers are for!” Why did she not know about these services, and why did the SENCO not seem already involved in these children’s care?

Joanne Lewis
Joanne Lewis

Some proactive strategies

What proactive strategies might help the children to regulate before their “behaviour” leads to consequences and sanctions?

  1. Visuals

Those children with executive function difficulties may struggle to process vocal instructions and the concept of time. Visual information is easier to process. A visual timetable on the wall for all the class to see can immediately reassure children what activity they are doing, and what time it is due to finish. 

In the opening scene, Oscar was sitting with an adult who verbally told him once he’d done his work he could go outside to run about. A 'now & next' board, supported by a sand timer could support him to know what’s next and how long he must wait, without the need for verbal instructions. This in turn would reduce anxiety.

  1. Sensory Circuits

Ideally, Oscar wouldn’t get to the point that he is being disruptive and requiring behaviour management strategies. If sensory circuits which focus on Alerting, Organising and Calming activities were implemented on a regular basis throughout the day, he would be more regulated and ready for learning.  An Occupational Therapist (OT) could be consulted to observe, assess, and design an appropriate plan.

  1. Social Stories

Marie’s strategies seem to be heavy on consequences. There was a lot of talking 'at' the children and the expectation that they look or say 'yes' immediately to acknowledge someone (something that may range from difficult to impossible for some autistic children). Social stories would be another way to explain or decipher situations that have arisen, and if used regularly and consistently, they can help a child to remember school rules (such as valuables not being allowed).

  1. Seating 

If a child like Oscar can’t stop fidgeting and rocking in his chair, swinging legs, getting up and walking around, one idea would be to move him to the back of the classroom where he can move freely without being distracting to his peers. If Oscar is sensory seeking within his vestibular and proprioceptive systems, moving and leaning helps his body to understand where he is in space and time. Describing these as 'bad behaviours' that need to be stopped or fixed or worse, punished, shows a lack of understanding of what his needs are. Other solutions might include a weighted lap-pad, wobble cushion or elastic TheraBand wrapped around the table legs he can kick against.  

One question should be: are all unwanted behaviours bad, and should the aim be to stop them, punish them or understand them?

Joanne Lewis

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