It’s not just SEND teacher training that’s needed. How we educate all children is broken

with Susan Lenihan, educator and parent of children with SEND

After the recent BBC programme, Don't Exclude Me, Joanne Lewis, parent of children with ADHD, wrote two articles, here and here on her reaction to the methods shown in the programme. Her disgust was echoed by a large number of our readers.

One of the issues was the lack of staff awareness that the behaviour shown by the children was indicative of additional needs, but this was never addressed during the programmes.

SNJ and SEND Community Alliance Volunteer, Susan Lenihan is a former SENCO and headteacher, as well as the parent of children with SEND.

She agrees that better teacher training in SEND is vital, but that's not the only solution to the problems faced by children with additional needs in mainstream schools. She's here today to tell us more

We need to rethink more than just SEND teacher training to educate children in the modern world, by Susan Lenihan

I agree with so much Joanne Lewis wrote in her last post. Over the years, I have witnessed much of society in our schools; the funny, the heartwarming, the wonderful, the not so wonderful, and sadly, the utterly traumatic.

Frequently, as a SENCo, my time was spent with children whose very ‘way of being’ challenged everything surrounding them, for all manner of complex reasons. Problematically, schools operate on long-established societal expectations of conformity, or else they just don’t work. Any ‘out of step’ behaviours do challenge the core structures and routines. They put pressure on teachers who are trying to do what they think they should be doing, educate, as peacefully and painlessly as possible.  

Distress behaviour

When I talk of challenging behaviour I remind myself to use the term ‘distress behaviour’ whenever I can (Milton, 2012). It reminds me that this is what we are witnessing, distress. I didn’t watch the full episode of ‘Don’t Exclude Me’, as a now ex-teacher, headteacher and SENCo, I didn’t need to or want to. My 25-year career in education ended abruptly in July 2020 as schools were limping towards the end of the first lockdown. Not the career end I had hoped for, to be honest, but I did get a long service certificate. I had started to watch one episode, but I knew to continue watching would raise my blood pressure and resurface conflicts within me. From reading Joanne’s post I was right, and I will explain why later.

Which labels, when?

While I get to that, a bit of background might help. I find ‘labels’, however unwanted, generally are required. Often they are just for efficiency, to get everyone ‘kind of on the same page’. Professionally, I choose the ones I hope will achieve a shared understanding but in the most dignified and helpful way can. So, hold that thought for a time while I fill in some background, using some labelling.

I have four children, two are registered with SEND. My older son ‘has dyslexia’ or ‘is dyslexic’. My youngest is labelled autistic, or ‘is a child with autism’, ‘a child who has autism’, or is ‘on the autism spectrum’. The phraseology that doesn’t sit well with you will likely offend, apologies if it does; I hear you. Anyway, my son has what schools would call ‘autism and a range of associated needs’, including ADHD, language disorder and sensory processing disorder. These are of course not who he is, or all he is, but they certainly form a central part of his life experiences. And so, as a result, his ‘needs’ are a central part of my experience of parenting him through his daily experiences!

So, back to the behaviour. All my children, at various stages of their development, have ‘communicated strongly with their behaviour’, without exception. Children do. Humans do. It is fair to say though, that my youngest son’s predisposition to distress behaviour is far, far higher than most, and more intense. In short, there are frequent displays of distress behaviour because he is distressed by the seemingly ordinary. The "every day" to him is extraordinary. He becomes distressed in ways that many other children (those less like him) are not. Many of you will already instantly know what I am talking about. Judging from Joanne’s post, this sort of distress was showcased for the nation to see on television. This fact prompted my sharp exit from a much-loved career, because I needed to care for him.

Susan Lenihan
Susan Lenihan

Training isn't enough

So why the internal conflict I mentioned earlier? It isn’t that things shouldn’t be better in schools. They should, absolutely. It isn’t because I don’t agree with every single word written about the trauma and mental health pressures that our children are facing in schools. I do. It isn’t because I don’t think teachers and schools wouldn’t benefit from more training, they would. My conflict comes from knowing that simply increasing training is not enough. 

Over the years I have completed more training than I can shake a stick at. I’ve read truckloads of peer-reviewed journals, articles, and books and completed as much postgraduate training (including a master’s degree no less) as is humanly possible and that I could afford on my teacher salary (many teachers pay for their own training). All done because I believe education is the key. I wanted to improve my practice and serve the children and families in my care as best I could, to keep up to date and keep learning. I loved teaching and wanted to make a real difference. Still do. Over the years I’ve seen initiatives come and go, get re-packaged and upcycled, using different terms, many I heard on the short clip I viewed. Nothing new I’m afraid but most worth pursuing and learning about.

So, why isn’t teaching transformed, after all that training? All those initiatives? Simply put, the current system of education does not support the kind of transformational teaching I yearned for. The one that I believe our children need and deserve. Let me list ways we struggle:

  • Poorly resourced classrooms and schools,
  • pursuing a burdensome curriculum crammed with ‘non-negotiables’ and ‘must learns’,
  • senior leaders driven by an assessment system pushing teaching towards ‘one size fits all’ outcomes,
  • one or two adults in the room, each with varying levels of expertise and training, 30 plus children, many with complex needs and varying degrees of SEND. I could go on. 

The status quo isn't working

For me, it is all a recipe for merely maintaining the current, failing, status quo. The one where children must be whittled away at to fit in the box, and especially the child with SEND. The current system simply does not facilitate the kind of therapeutic teaching approaches children in our modern times clearly need. It does nothing to minimize the distress played out in schools. It isn't just children with SEND who are suffering. It is all children.

For every child whose distress continues at home, there is a family suffering and siblings living in chronically stressful situations, induced, and worsened by school-based anxieties. For every child showing distress in a classroom, there are many other children watching on. Watching their teachers grapple a child out of the room affects all those around. This is trauma. Teachers know this.

"MPs talk about the cost of SEND, but there is a far greater human cost than monetary measures, believe me."

Nathaniel Branden writes in his book The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem that, ‘of any professional group it is teachers who have shown the greatest receptivity to the importance of self-esteem’. Teachers I talk to know what anxiety and distress does to children, and they, like the child’s parents, live with it daily. They certainly know what that distress and anxiety is doing to them personally. There is research on the impact on teachers who feel guilt and stress about not being able to meet children’s needs. MPs talk about the cost of SEND, but there is a far greater human cost than monetary measures, believe me. 

I have not met a teacher who did not want to do better. I have met teachers who simply did not know what to do or know how to change things and balance all the demands placed on them. I believe the current levels of school-based trauma and distress are beyond the remit of merely training teachers. In 2018 OECD surveyed 15-year-olds, the UK ranked 29th for life satisfaction, out of a total of 30 OECD countries. That was pre-pandemic. This is a big problem for the UK.

Adapt to suit the modern world and the children in it

Training is of course needed but alongside all other necessary changes. Calls for training must not inadvertently lead the current ‘powers that be’ to any dangerous, half-hearted conclusions. Whack another inset day in for teachers, label it ‘statutory’ like the prevent training and the safeguarding training, and punish schools who fail to stretch the non-existent training budget to deliver it. That'll do the job! No, it won’t. 

If we want teachers to be adaptive, then we need schools to be adaptive. For teachers to even notice an individual child’s anxiety escalating (which is not as easy as it sounds when you’re teaching a class of 30) more than training is needed. So much more is needed to prevent and address anxiety in ways that preserve a child’s dignity. This can only be created by systemic changes. 

The clip of the Don't Exclude Me programme I watched had the child and teacher bonding over Lego, trying to establish the all-important attachment needed. What wasn’t discussed was who is teaching the other 30 pupils while the teacher is sitting at the back playing with the child? Who is noticing the other six or seven children who also have quietly escalating anxiety as their teacher is now not available to them? Who is teaching the 'top 20%' who need the next conceptual step and who might be cruising or bored, and whose parents are equally worried their child isn't reaching their potential. Who is watching the other ‘one’, and there is always at least one, who unwatched, is now going to make their own entertainment by sticking someone’s paper to the table? The answer…a teaching assistant-- but only if you are lucky. Often, the same teacher, sitting on the floor trying to create an attachment is doing all the above at the same time, and more. I’m told teachers make up to a thousand on-the-spot decisions a day, often without the necessary training and resource to make the best one. 

Don't blame the teachers

I no more blame our teachers for the current situation in our schools, than I would blame a nurse for the bed-blocking crisis caused by the lack of investment in social care. For me, the problem lies not with our teachers, but with the system that teachers and children have both been whittled away at to fit into. In April 2013, at an education conference the then Education Secretary, Michael Gove, said, “we can’t afford to have an education system that was essentially set in the 19th Century”. At the time Mr Gove was pressing for longer school days and shorter holidays, a notion now resurfaced to recover from the pandemic.

Previously, Mr Gove noted that the current school day was structured during, “a time when most mums stayed at home. That world no longer exists”. His call for longer days is not about what children need. Essentially, he’s asking any child who is suffering distress in the current system of school to do it for longer. This is no solution. 

We do all agree the current status quo is not working for children. But what, beyond longer hours of suffering, does this Government propose? How about smaller classes? After all class sizes of 30 are very 19th century. Or therapy teams in school to address our children’s mental health crisis? How about teachers trained and monitored by those same experts in their field? And teachers who are trained to deliver the needed therapeutic approaches throughout the school day? This is long overdue. We were talking about mental health in schools decades ago. So please don’t brush this into a dark corner and conclude the current issues are a result of Covid losses.

While we're on the subject, I’m no historian, but our current system of governance with the House of Lords was established in the 11th Century. Surely, we can’t afford a system of governance that was essentially established so long ago. What say you to that minister? Is it time to scrutinise the impact, value for money and efficiency there too? Deafening silence. 

Susan Lenihan

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