Shifting the way we think about SEN pupils

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Daniel Sobel asks what would happen if we shifted our mindset and attitude – from thinking about SEN barriers to considering the strengths and skills that SEN can give students

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

In my recent article on The state of SEN (Sobel, 2021), I laid out how many of the big ticket issues were well captured in the recent 2019 education select committee report into SEND. This report highlighted a number of significant failures, all of which are common knowledge for most of us working in schools (see also Headteacher Update, 2019). In this article, I would like to suggest an idea that could radically shift the way we ‘do’ SEN and, hopefully, budge us out of the quagmire in which we find ourselves.

An educational placebo

It took me three attempts to pass my GCSE maths; I had undiagnosed ADHD and had become used to thinking of myself as incapable. Despite not passing A-levels, or getting a degree, I managed to wangle my way on to a master’s in education psychology and subsequently managed to undertake post-grads in education and psychology and even a PhD.

Something weird happened when I did the compulsory module of statistical research and analysis during the edpsych MA – I did fairly well. I asked the lecturer, a former maths teacher, what level he considered the maths to be and he said “Approximately first-year degree level, definitely harder than A-level.”

So how do you square these two facts? Well, there are probably a range of factors, not least the type and context of the maths, but the one key difference which resonates with me is this; at school I had shockingly low self-esteem and, since then, I had built up a strong sense of self-belief. The very fact that I thought I could do it significantly contributed to me achieving it – a sort of ‘educational placebo’.

I have encountered many such stories demonstrating this phenomenon and it is self-evident for many people I speak with, despite the fact that there is not much research evidence to back it up. In fact, I would guess that 99.9% of people who work in SEN, and a majority of teachers, would recognise self-esteem as a reasonable and important factor.

So, what if we swung the whole SEN system in the direction of ‘self-esteem boosting’? Would it influence outcomes? Would it change anything in the SEN quagmire?

Reframing SEN

SEN causes low self-esteem (bear with me) and, therefore, if we boost self-esteem this will lead to better outcomes for children with SEN. Here is a way of boosting outcomes. We need to reframe what SEN actually implies about success vs limitation. At the moment, SEN is a medicalised diagnosis that essentially carries a psychological message of ‘You are limited’. I wouldn’t argue with medical colleagues; I want simply to add to this formula and suggest that it also means you may have advantages over your neuro-and-cognitive-typical friends. Here are some examples.

Dyslexia: this has been linked to higher visuospatial ability and creativity. There is evidence that dyslexics are over-represented among entrepreneurs and art students. There is a suggestion that the coping strategies which dyslexics adopt, such as delegation, may be beneficial for entrepreneurs (Martinelli et al, 2018).

Autism: noted cognitive strengths in autism include enhanced visual and auditory perception of certain stimuli, hypothesised to be involved in the ‘savant’ abilities observed in some. Some autistic people also have noted strengths in systematising and attention to detail; these give rise to ‘special areas of interest’, where autistic people frequently develop exceptional knowledge, and autistic children display exceptional vocabulary.

There is evidence that unexpected cognitive strengths can be found in autistic children typically labelled ‘low-functioning’, such as the non-verbal (Mottron et al, 2006; Baron-Cohen et al, 2009; Courchesne et al, 2015).

ADHD: there is a variety of research (for example, Lerner et al, 2017; Wiklund et al, 2016) that finds a positive association between ADHD and both entrepreneurial intention and entrepreneurial action. This suggests that there are real benefits to ADHD when it comes to risk-taking and adventurousness. I relate to my own ADHD as a superpower (slightly overdoing it I’ll admit). I can brain-cope with far more than most, hyper-focus and learn complex material at quick speeds. There are advantages, and the advantages are great – but only if you know what they are, how to access them, and how mitigate the challenges.

The strengths of SEN

The good news is that, compared with 25 years ago, every teacher in the country knows what the major SEN types are, and their common terms and basic presentations. This is a massive achievement, and we can be proud at being ahead of the curve internationally.

The bad news, as I have said previously, is that these terms can distract us from thinking of the student as an individual. ‘Ben is ASD’ makes it almost impossible to see Ben as an individual child.

The ugly news is that I bet hardly any teachers, children, or parents can tell you some of the obvious wonderful strengths that can be found in the varying types of SEN. Can you imagine what every child with SEN might feel if their teachers saw them as not only having a ‘lack’, but also a ‘strength’’?

The attitudes our teachers have towards our children are the vehicle for conveying belief in them. We can assume that if our teacher’s view of our children increases in aspiration and positivity, then our children’s self-concept and esteem will, in turn, rise.

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