Effective SEND safeguarding

The increased vulnerabilities of children with SEND mean that safeguarding must remain a constant focus for all school staff. Sara Alston advises

This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on Headteacher Update  

Effective safeguarding is dependent on knowing and listening to our children as individuals. Seeing children with SEND as a single group may cause us to miss the wide variety of difficulties and risks they face; as with any group of children, we need to be aware of their individual strengths, needs and vulnerabilities.

To make assumptions about the additional risks they face, and presume that they are the same for all children with SEND, would be as dangerous as ignoring them entirely. Let’s now look at the four bullet points in Keeping Children Safe in Education (DfE, 2021) which focus on the additional safeguarding vulnerabilities of, and risks for, children with SEND.

Communication barriers and difficulties in managing or reporting these challenges

It is important that a child’s voice is heard and listened to, regardless of how it is expressed. Many children with SEND have communication difficulties. Any child who is dependent on others to support them to express their needs is at risk of being misinterpreted or silenced.

Many children with SEND need additional time to both articulate their thoughts and process what is being said to them; too often, the need for speed in our safeguarding procedures can silence these children.

We need to remember that not all communication is verbal. Behaviour is communication, particularly when we lack, or cannot use, words to express our needs or worries. Changes in behaviour are a key indicator of a safeguarding need. All changes in a child’s behaviour should be considered and questioned. Too often behaviours are considered part of a child’s SEND presentation, and not considered as a possible safeguarding indicator.

Children being more prone to peer group isolation or bullying (including prejudice-based bullying) than other children

SEND children’s difficulties with communication and interaction, as well as social, emotional, mental health and/or physical needs and difficulties, can mean that they can struggle to understand, form and maintain social relationships. Their desire for friendship, combined with poor social understanding, can mean that these children are easier to engage in inappropriate behaviour. This can make children with SEND more vulnerable to bullying, abuse and risks of exploitation, both in the physical and online worlds.

Many with SEND struggle with face-to-face interactions, so online interactions can seem easier to manage – there is time to think before responding, you don’t have to deal with information from facial expressions or body language, there are clear topics for interaction. Yet they can lack the understanding to differentiate between friendship and bullying.

Children may act without understanding the implications of their actions, and can be incited to inappropriate – or even dangerous – behaviour leading to involvement in violence, child criminal exploitation, sexualised behaviour (including the sending and sharing of nudes and semi-nudes) and vulnerability to radicalisation. Many perpetrators deliberately target these children.

Assumptions that indicators of possible abuse – such as behaviour, mood and injury – relate to the child’s condition without further exploration

Injury and changes in behaviour and mood are key indicators of abuse; yet, too often for children with SEND, these are assumed to be related to their SEN or disability and so are disregarded without further exploration.

Any injury in a non-mobile baby or child is an immediate red flag; if a child cannot move, any injury to them is likely to have been caused by someone else. Equally, because a child has regular meltdowns, and throws themselves about, or has seizures where they can injure themselves, this does not mean that their injuries are not caused by someone else. Further, being dependent on physical assistance, and possibly intimate care, reduces a child’s ability and confidence to resist or avoid abuse.

Mental health difficulties can co-occur with many forms of SEND. Keeping Children Safe in Education highlights that mental health difficulties, including self-harm, can be an indicator of abuse. This must be considered for those with SEND, particularly where there is a change in behaviour. However, often, a lack of continuity of care means that these changes go unnoticed, are disregarded or simply not questioned; they are seen as part of the SEND condition, and nothing more.

So that we do not allow their SEND, or our perception of their SEND, to mask their communication of abuse, we must keep asking ourselves the question, ‘How would we regard a child’s behaviour or injury if they did not have special needs?’

The potential for children with SEND, or certain medical conditions, being disproportionally impacted by behaviours such as bullying, without outwardly showing any signs

Not only are SEND children disproportionally impacted, a focus on their age, rather than their needs, can mask this. An underlying key concept when considering safeguarding harms, impacts and risks is to compare a child to another similar child; too often this is taken to mean a child of the same age, rather than at the same developmental stage.

For children with SEND, not only do we need to consider this for ourselves, but we need to be able to explain what a similar child is like to other practitioners. Many of us working with children with SEND forget how much specialist knowledge we hold and use in our work, and assume others share this.

This is particularly true for children with non-visible needs and disabilities (e.g. autism, ADHD, speech and language difficulties). This includes explaining that special needs are a continuum, and not all children with a particular difficulty will behave in the same way, or have the same needs. We need to be clear about the impact of, and changes in, behaviour for this child and be clear in our communications about this to other practitioners.

The concept that ‘the welfare of the child is paramount’ must underlie all our work with children, including those with SEND. To reduce their vulnerabilities, we need to remember that children with SEND are individuals with different needs, facing different risks, not a single group. 

This requires us to see beyond a child’s SEND to understand, question and evaluate the challenges and risks they are experiencing.

Sara Alston is an experienced SENCO and safeguarding lead who also works as a SEND, inclusion and safeguarding consultant and trainer.

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