Special needs in education comes in various forms and severities and may be very subtle and
unrecognisable from first encounter. Developing awareness, diagnosis, differentiation and accommodation strategies is crucial for Madrassahs in order for teachers to have fair expectations of their children, ensure that they engage them in learning and that other pupil’s learning is not hindered by disruptive behaviour resulting from poor differentiation.

The article below highlights some key steps in the diagnosis stage for you to reflect upon and incorporate. For further information on SEN in Madrassah contexts and ways your Masjid could improve or establish services for children with special educational needs, you will find this website founded by Sheikh Omar Suleiman to be a gold mine: //muhsen.org/

Too many children have undiagnosed additional needs in schools, says former Sendco Barney Angliss. Here, he explains how to ensure such pupils are identified early and given the proper support

Many special educational needs are identified at an early stage, yet it’s really quite disturbing that some significant needs are missed or misunderstood, not just in the early years, but right through to GCSE.

As a special educational needs and disability (SEND) specialist, I’m regularly asked to observe children in Years 5 and 6 who appear to be sailing away from the fleet. “Do you think s/he will manage at secondary?” the teachers ask, with a look that says, “We don’t.” With that look comes concern about advice previously given: “Those reports told us nothing, really.”

Parents often feel guilty: “We didn’t ask enough questions…didn’t get anything done…” Most often, they feel frustrated and let down, ill-informed, slightly foolish. “I often wondered…” is a phrase I hear all the time.

Transfer to secondary

The move to secondary school causes more concern than the headline event of Sats that comes a few months earlier (unless you’re in one of those areas where unofficial selection based on children’s
attainment is rife). Most parents have a realistic view of testing, although I was alarmed this year by so many stories of children being offered support (known as “access arrangements”) in the Sats at the last minute, without any discussion with parents. Their response is usually along the lines of: “She never had a scribe before. OK, it may have helped, but why only now?”.

There are “revelations” like this at all stages of schooling. So how do we get better at spotting where a child may have a special education need that has previously not been identified? How do we know when to refer a child to a specialist?

Talking to parents is a must. Parents may feel that, while their child seems to be coping, their development is somehow uneven, skewed and opaque. At home, the parents may have been treading on eggshells for years; they may disagree with each other on how much support to give and how much the child should be left to sort it out themselves. “You don’t need to explain EVERYTHING!” says one, “You do, though, you DO,” says the other. I hear this so often during home visits.

Some parents have listed their concerns to professionals many times, usually having to describe their child’s behaviour at home compared with reports from school, which is hard for them to do without feeling somehow that they’re to blame. Teachers need to really listen to these concerns and then investigate.

First, are we sure that all milestones in sensory and motor development have been hit? Has their hearing been checked? If so, then is it a language problem? Children often described as “chatty” and “engaged” may just be telling you a lot of unconnected things. For the child who has difficulty with receptive language (understanding), telling you stuff is a great way to stop you telling them stuff, which they’d have to process and store. So it’s not just about their vocabulary, it’s about how and why they use language.

Difficulties with short-term memory are not immediately obvious, either. A child’s attention and listening may seem in line with their peers; and their episodic memory (past events) may be remarkable. Yet he or she may have difficulty following verbal instructions and may scuttle through classroom memory tasks using little more than guesswork. The child who can explain what a depth charge does but can’t reach the end of an aisle in Tesco without forgetting what they’re looking for needs a lot of practice in memory skills.

Detailed picture

But how can we be sure of where the challenges truly lie? It needs a broad and detailed picture to be drawn of the child. Let me give you a worked example. Quite often, I have conversations with parents that go like this: they tell me their Year 6 child speaks enthusiastically, reads books with interest, is outwardly organised, yet seems always on the edge of things. “So you say he’s awake between 5-6am every day, lining up his clothes for school, yet he tells you in the afternoon that he hates school? The school conversations he repeats back to you make no sense, and he doesn’t seem to have understood them? He hates hugs or any kind of touch? And he will only eat fish-fingers, nothing else?”

In a classroom observation, I may then notice that he’s not actually doing the same as his peers at any time. He holds the paper up to his face, not to read it more closely, but just because the white glare caught his interest and now he’s brushing it past his eyes, left and right, left and right. When the class turn to a poster on the wall and recite, he looks at the wrong poster but mouths the words the others are saying. Then he smiles and, without prompting, tells the teacher something completely irrelevant. After that he switches off and goes back to the white paper.

His engagement is superficial. He’s got the black and white version of learning but is missing the
colour and soundtrack. At break, his conversation with peers is a ticker-tape of things he tells them. They quickly drift away; he’s on “send”, not “receive”. The subtle but all-important skills of interaction, inference and imagination are elusive.

Everything here is context dependent: the child, who is well-supported by peers around the table in an orderly classroom, seems to function well. But at home, he explodes like dynamite, his recollection of the day is confusing and the friends he talks about are never seen out of school hours. Now, we need to allow for the fact that most Year 6 children get anxious because secondary school is on their mind; some have just found out that their best friend is going to a different school; some are entering puberty. But when you’re working with a parent who has three older children and knows exactly what all that looks like, you have to consider other explanations. It’s easy to see why these parents worry about whether their child will adjust to 14 or 15 teachers a week at secondary school, with so many different demands.

At this point you can begin to consider whether the child I’ve described may have a number of developmental traits that create a special need. But you also have to be aware that he may just be under pressure and progressing slightly differently from others.

Through the course of childhood, so many currents flow around their little feet: family break-ups; the loss of grandparents on whom they depended; some children are already experienced carers by the age of 11.

Here’s the thing: children are fascinating in their kaleidoscopic variety, but you need the whole picture when it comes to SEND. If we are to reduce the number of undiagnosed children with SEND (and the number incorrectly diagnosed) then remember this above all else: reductionism is an occupational hazard; finding the one neat explanation is a fool’s errand and there are no silver bullets.

But also note that a child only has a special educational need if their difficulties call for provision that is different from, or additional to, that which other children of their age receive. Good schools provide for so many needs as standard and feel frustrated to see other schools, who provide little, labelling anything out of the ordinary as a special need. So, before referring a child to a qualified specialist, here are six simple principles of good intervention you should try first:

* Only respond to specific evidence for which you can offer reliable comparison.

* Be prepared to consider a wide range of evidence.

* Actively engage families and let their story guide your thinking.

* Build resilience, from “can do” to “do next”.

* Work together, from home to school, and class to class, to achieve consistency.

* Follow the intervention cycle: assess, plan, do, review.

Barney Angliss has been coordinating special educational needs in schools for 25 years. He is now a consultant and a director of the website specialneedsjungle.com