Identifying SEND in the Early Years: Partnership and collaboration is key

with Dr Helen Curran senior lecturer in SEN at Bath Spa University,

The earlier a special educational need is identified in a child, the better their chances are of achieving their true potential; that's just common sense. But as too many families know, just because that's true, doesn't mean it happens. Too often, a "wait and see" approach is taken or a difficulty is missed completely through lack of understanding.

With this issue in mind, nasen, the national charity that supports and champions those working with, and for, children and young people with SEND and learning differences, has launched a new report to help improve early identification of, and support for SEN in the early years.

The report, Identifying special education needs in the Early Years: perspectives from special educational needs coordinators report found that while 80% of SENCOs were confident in their ability to identify SEN, some less experienced members of staff have received no SEN training at all, despite the experience of staff being central to early identification.

The report author, is Dr Helen Curran. Helen is senior lecturer in SEN at Bath Spa University, overseeing the MA in Inclusive Education and National Award for SENCO. Formerly a teacher and SENCO, Helen’s research predominantly focuses on the implementation of inclusive and SEN policy in schools. She is here on SNJ today to discuss its findings and her recommendations.

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Why better training is needed now to understand SEN in the early years by Dr Helen Curran

The principles of the SEND Code of Practice (DfE and DoH, 2015) are based on ensuring timely support to children and families to help achieve the ‘best possible educational and other outcomes’. At the heart of this is early identification yet there remains a gap between the intentions of policy and the reality of practice. 

In the autumn of 2019, the House of Commons Education Select Committee published their findings from the SEND inquiry, which specifically examined the implementation of the 2014 reforms. The report cited that the sharp focus on Educational, Health and Care plans had led to children at SEN support being neglected, which consequently meant a lack of early intervention. Whilst the report was far reaching, it predominantly focused on the experience of children and families in schools and further education, and there was little specific mention of the early years sector. 

In late 2019 nasen commissioned research to explore the process of identifying SEN in the early years, from the perspective of the early years SENCO. The aim of the research was to help improve early identification of, and support for, SEN in the early years by examining what is working well, and what the challenges are. This work culminated in the recently released report, Identifying special educational needs in the Early Years: perspectives from special educational needs coordinators.

Dr Helen Curran
Dr Helen Curran

Sharing SENCOs perspectives

The findings from the research illustrated that 80% of SENCOs felt confident when identifying SEN in their setting, with 69% stating that they felt confident that their setting had a clear process in place. SENCOs commented on the importance of staff knowledge and experience in this area, citing the need for taking an evidence-based approach with 67% stating that frequent and targeted observations were central to this process. 

Yet, SENCOs voiced concerns that some less experienced members of staff have received no SEN training at all. Whilst this highlights to a degree the supporting role the SENCO may need to play in terms of staff professional development, the enactment of this is problematic due to time and resource restrictions on the role. SENCOs reported that such restrictions, coupled with the young age of the child, led to a greater focus on more complex SEN which consequently meant that early support needs may often be missed. 

Whilst acknowledging challenges with the early identification of SEN, SENCOs were emphatic that family relationships were central to this process. SENCOs stated that to understand whether a child may need additional support, it is imperative to develop a holistic picture of the child and this can only be achieved if the setting effectively works with the family. Yet, SENCOs highlighted that developing relationships took time, in particular because the early years setting may be the parents’ first experience of education for their child, with SENCOs noting that parents needed time and space to share their own concerns. Here it was stressed that key workers were central to this process.

Concerns were also raised that accessing external agency support was variable. This coupled with the relatively short period of time the child was with the setting, alongside carefully developing relationships with parents and carers, could lead to delays in accessing timely support. As a consequence, needs were not always picked up in time during the early years, leading to issues with transition. In addition to this, SENCOs felt that as a sector they could meet needs more flexibly in the early years, again suggesting that needs did not often become apparent until transition to a more formal learning environment.

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Understanding the SENCO role in the early years 

In terms of moving forward, it is evident that within the early years sector it is imperative to take into account the varying contexts, including the period of time children are within the phase, as factors which can impact on early identification. Children can attend very different settings, from term time only ‘pack away’ pre-school settings, to those who may attend a large nursery. Children may attend full time or one or two days a week. Developing an understanding of this variation will help professionals understand that children transfer to school with different early years experiences, with the report recommending that such variance is accounted for in SEN policy and guidance. 

Yet equally, understanding of the SENCO role in the early years is also required. SENCOs reported that there were missed opportunities in terms of collaboration with external agencies, due to what they considered a lack of professional regard for their role. SENCOs felt that despite investing time in understanding the child, as well as developing relationship with families, their insight and support was often neglected. The report further recommends that work should be undertaken with wider agencies to incorporate the early years SENCO voice.

Whilst the report recommends that there is scope for the early years sector to share good practice across later phases, particularly with regards to developing family relationships, it also emphasised the need for training in this area. Training for all early years practitioners regarding how to work meaningfully and collaboratively with parents and carers is essential, particularly given the importance of identifying needs early and the role the family plays within this. 

In many ways the report highlights the uniqueness of the early years. The ability to respond to individual needs flexibly, as well as the priority placed on developing a holistic picture of the child based on secure family relationships. Yet, the report also exposed vulnerabilities and missed opportunities within the sector which, if addressed, could lead to better outcomes for children and families across all phases. 

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Tania Tirraoro
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