Absolutely Education talk to Special Educational Needs expert Bernadette John on what to do if you are concerned about your child

Maybe you notice that your child seems to have a great number of tummy aches on school mornings. Or the class teacher seems to be frequently asking you for a word.  Sometimes it’s a nagging doubt when your child, who has previously met milestones as expected, just doesn’t seem to be mastering reading and writing.

However it arrives, the sense that ‘something isn’t quite right’ with your child is never welcome, and a typical reaction is to find reasons to dismiss it – it’s how boys are; it’s because she is summer born; it’s because he’s the youngest/eldest in the family.

Parents often worry about seeking a formal assessment or drawing the school’s attention to their concerns, thinking this may in some way label the child or prejudice a future school against him.  But quite the opposite is true. Around 40 per cent of children will have special educational needs (SEN) at some point in their school career. The definition of SEN is merely something that makes it more difficult for them to learn than other children.  Longer-term conditions account for around 15-20 percent of cases; the others will have issues which could be mitigated with the right interventions – anything from dyslexia strategies to mental health support. Identifying any difficulties your child has will help to get the right provision in place; failing to do so can mean she will fall further behind, or may react through frustration in a way which school interprets as bad behaviour.

If you are hearing alarm bells, the first thing you should do is ask for a meeting with the class teacher (primary) or the head of year/special needs co-ordinator (secondary).  Don’t try to raise these issues at parents’ evening when you only have a couple of minutes to talk; and a quick chat at the end of the school day will not be taken as seriously.

It’s best to take to the meeting a log of incidents or issues which are causing you concern.  Have there been several reports of bad behaviour or inattention in class, or missed homework? Is your child progressing at a snail’s pace through the reading scheme or getting unexpectedly low grades?  Is your child frequently tearful or blowing up at the end of the school day, or trying everything to frustrate you getting out of the house in the morning?

The school will have the big picture of all other children at that age, so they will be able to quickly dispel any unfounded concerns.  But if they accept there may be an issue, ask what they can do to help. It can be worth getting an educational psychologist’s (EP) assessment.  This will look into every aspect of your child’s learning and will be able to identify perhaps that he has a high IQ but has processing difficulties which are affecting his concentration and application, or perhaps he shows signs of dyslexia.  

SEN expert

You have no obligation to share any such report, so you needn’t fear that matters will run away with you – but it would be unwise not to discuss the findings with school.  As well as identifying any difficulties, the report will also guide schools and parents on measures they should be taking, and any equipment which might help. The Good Schools Guide can give you details of private EPs in your area.  Costs can vary widely – budget for around £500-£1,000.

Many schools will be happy to put additional help in place (in some cases this will come at extra cost); but occasionally you might find school will either say that they do not have the right expertise or resources, or they think your child may be better off elsewhere.  Suggestions to move on come particularly when there’s a change in key stage looming – they may not wish to take your child forward into the prep, or from the prep to senior.

There’s an important distinction in the independent sector in that schools are not compelled to make provision for children with SEN in the same way that state schools are.  Painful and unfair as it might seem, if your school is being unhelpful and putting up barriers, your energies will be better spent on finding an alternative school.

In these circumstances your EP report becomes a shopping list.  You need to check with prospective schools whether they are willing and able to carry out its recommendations.  A number of mainstream schools have well-staffed and well-qualified learning support departments which can provide this kind of help.  And don’t be afraid to consider the specialist schools, which can provide well targeted interventions, enabling the child to return to mainstream a couple of years later.  Children can blossom and take huge leaps in these schools – not only because theynow have the right tools to learn with, but also because they are relieved from the battering to their self-confidence of struggling to keep up.

It can take considerable sifting to work out which schools will be best for your child. Often schools which provide excellent help keep it under the radar, because they don’t want to attract too many children with additional needs which will overwhelm their support staff.  Others can build a good reputation for this which then changes overnight if a new head wants to up the academic ante instead. You need to grill them thoroughly, or employ an education consultancy with SEN expertise to help you winkle out the gems.

But the important thing to remember when you feel that quake in the pit of your stomach is that conditions like dyslexia and ADHD also bring with them creativity, courage, lateral ways of thinking, vivid imagination and scores of other advantages.  Victoria Beckham has dyslexia, as does This Morning’s Holly Willoughby. Playwright Jimmy McGovern, with his tremendous ear for dialogue which produced the likes of Cracker, didn’t talk until he was eight. Einstein is thought to have had Asperger’s Syndrome.  Olympian Michael Phelps and singer Justin Timberlake both have ADHD. Your child may well turn out to be exceptional.

Bernadette John is a director of The Good Schools Guide Education Consultants.

More: Parent Practice expert talks us through a SEN diagnosis.