Having worked in education as an early years professional, lecturer and inspector, alongside my work in therapy and coaching I have had the fortitude to see children’s needs from many angles.
When I was at school, and even in the first years of my teaching career, other than students who had been diagnosed with dyslexia or dyscalculia, I can honestly say that I had few who had been identified for additional needs. It was only in the latter end of my teaching career that I began receiving information about students with diagnosis for needs such as dyspraxia, high functioning autism and ADHD.
Did they not exist before then?
I wish I could say, obviously not.
However, I am finding that this is frequently the belief system.
ADHD and Autism are NOT new conditions. We just had a distinct lack of understanding and knowledge twenty something years ago, which meant that we knew no differently, and children were adept at masking their needs. Looking backwards, with hindsight and a LOT of training, I can identify very clearly the needs in my classroom, I just did not know better 20 years ago.
Roll forward twenty years and in this last month alone, I have found myself sat mouth open at comments from the education sector, including:
“Why do you even need a diagnosis”
“They just need to face their fears”
“It’s not ADHD, that doesn’t exist, it’s just trauma”
“Having a diagnosis wont make any difference”
“It’s just bad behaviour”
“The parents need to do better”
“It’s best if we off roll them”
It’s 2023, we have been through hell and back, families need us all more than ever. Science and research has identified so much about neurodiversity, and yet children are still on the receiving end of so much negligence, and in some cases educational gaslighting.
I’m not attacking, yet I am also not defending.These are simply real life scenarios that families I meet every week are experiencing.
Obviously, there are some schools which offer a phenomenal support and training.
However, overall we need to DO better. BE Better. KNOW better.
I understand, from both lines of the fence that the system is broken. However, educating ourselves at how to validate children’s needs and to be supportive of additional needs is an area we can all develop in.
To be truly inclusive, we need to do more that put up friendly posters and have dress up days. We need to ensure that our SENCOs, support staff, teachers, senior leaders, Educational Welfare Officers and support services have a deep and meaningful understanding of children’s needs.
Education is not just about attendance, it’s about developing resilient children with high self-esteem who have the protective factors to support their mental health and well-being. Yes, attendance is important, but without positive mental health, learning becomes more and more difficult.
For many children, missed or undiagnosed mental health or additional needs leads to:
- poor attendance
- emotionally based school avoidance
- low self-esteem
- lack of confidence
- poor concentration
- poor cognitive function
- poor memory skills
- decline in behaviour
- low mood
The impact of not listening
Sadly, in my work as a therapist and coach, I often meet young people who have not been referred for assessment, despite this being raised. Often, because these young people mask effectively in lower school years, and so signs are simply missed, or connections not put together. This is often due to a lack of understanding of training, and frequently because the assessment criteria are for older children or males. This leads to young people who are struggling with:
- A lack of trust – feeling that there is something wrong but no one believing them
- Low attendance – Avoiding lessons or days where the child struggles most, or where homework is not done to avoid criticism, punishment or struggling in class
- School avoidance – ongoing failure to meet a child’s unique needs is a key contributor to emotionally based school avoidance
- High anxiety levels – where children’s needs have gone missed for long periods, their brains begin feeling that school is unsafe, creating a fight/flight response to learning/school
- Decline in behaviour – where children’s needs are not met, behaviour often escalates, as any attention becomes better than none, or this allows for them to leave lessons
- Dissociation – where a child’s needs are not identified for significant periods, we can see an increase in dissociation, where children’s stress levels elevate and the brain attempts to escape this
- Burnout – where there are significant issues, or children’s needs have been missed, or a child has received ongoing challenging responses, which they cannot process, children can experience burnout.
- Parental alienation – frequently, parents are put under pressure to improve the situation, or coerced with threats of outside involvement, in some cases, parents I have worked with have been told their children will be removed, which causes a breakdown in interactions, compassion and engagement.
It should be noted that whilst this is not reflective of all schools – this is a cross section of issues that I have experienced with families, as well as been shared through years of involvement with parents.
So, why is it important to review assessment and diagnosis?
Where there is evidence that a child meets the thresholds for assessment, assessment and diagnosis can be important for many reasons:
- Identity – where a child feels different, or identifies that they cannot regulate or perform in the same way that their peers do, diagnosis supports the understanding of themselves and how to meet their own needs. Where there is not a diagnosis, children and teenagers can frequently struggle to understand themselves. or explain their needs to others.
- Accommodations – For young people to be afforded the accommodations that they require to allow them to learn, function or engage a diagnosis is required. We so often find that many children whose attendance, behaviour or interactions cause them challenges, there was a need which had not been identified.
- Understanding – Without diagnosis, we can find that many children are caught in a spell of misunderstanding and assumption. Labelled as ‘lazy’ ‘daydreamers’ ‘introverted’ ‘shy’ or having ‘behaviour problems’ which means that children’s self-esteem is impacted, for something which has good reason and cause and requires alternative support
- Transition support – For young people transitioning to secondary school, college or university and the workplace, diagnosis opens new dialogue, support and resources which allow them to learn successfully.
- Medication – For a proportion of young people, medication is required to support them. However, without a diagnosis this is not afforded to them. Whilst many children do not require medication, for some, this can be a transformative step.
- Relationships – put simply, we are not experts in who should and should not be diagnosed. Only a psychologist or psychiatrist is able to assess and diagnose a child, and therefore, we need to think carefully about the impact of our own beliefs, and actions on the child as well as our relationship with the families. What we see in the day is not a true representation of a child. When we do not validate and hear the concerns, or diminish these we can reduce the positive working relationships we have with families and children, increasing the challenges that they are facing.
Education is a challenging job, when I taught, I would frequently work a 70-80 hour week and throughout the holidays. There is no exception now, colleagues remain working long hours. Where we retain our compassion, understanding and awareness, we can however, increase our connections with children and build stronger working relationships – a by product of which, is improved engagement, higher attendance, improved behaviour and better working relationships, as well as improved job satisfaction.
Food for thought as we enter a new year.
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