Sunday, 19 March 2017

Time to take off the cotton wool gloves on special needs in school

I am very public and honest about being a father to a child with a disability. As a teacher, it provides with an interesting perspective on things. A perspective that I possibly wouldn’t have if my daughter didn’t have Cerebral Palsy. A perspective which might be too sympathetic.

In my time teaching, I have seen some excellent and some less than excellent attitudes towards students with special needs or some form of disability. I have seen SENCOs push students and build great relationships with students and parents and I have seen the opposite where students have been doing everything else but the work they need to do to improve.

My daughter is wobbly (that’s the family name for it) and she walks like she has had several pints. The Cerebral Palsy affects only her legs. She can’t walk in straight lines. She is incredibly stiff with her walking. She can’t walk for long distances and has to use a wheelchair for the majority of the time. But, we as parents and a family push her. She swims every week. She goes horse riding every other weekend. She goes cycling when her dad came be bothered to get the tank of a bike out of the garage and it isn’t raining. She does everything and anything. She does everything and anything her non-disabled twin sister does.

When she was growing up, we made a conscious decision. A decision to let the disability not be used as an excuse for things. My daughter will try to use the disability to avoid things, like most children.  Dad, will you get me that book? Dad, will do this for me? Dad, can you fetch this for me? Each time I said, and still say, no. She would have to walk and get it. Naturally, we are compelled to help and support a child with a disability. We are probably more compelled to help and support a disabled child than a non-disabled child. Our inner saint comes into play. Bless this child, they haven’t had it easy: my charitable deeds will just make their life better.

The problem is, and I can say this, by us being a saint we are holding these children back.

If I pick something up for my daughter to help her, I am not helping her for the rest of her life. Yes, I am helping her at that specific moment and it is a nice thing to do. But, here is the sad truth about life: it isn’t all about nice things. My daughter will have to fight for things in life. She has a bigger fight than her peers, because she has a disability. The world out there is a tough one. It is a tougher one for a person with a disability.

I push my daughter harder because of her disability and the great thing is she does it too. She was gutted when she couldn’t do three laps in the school run. Her teachers felt that she couldn’t do it. She came back upset and told me she wanted to do it. She doesn’t see her disability as a limiting factor.

So what is the relevance of this in the classroom? For me, students with special needs need to be pushed more. They don’t need extra support. They need extra pushing.  A saintly teacher or TA is not going to remain in the child’s life forever.  There is going to be a point in the future when that child will have to function on their own. They will look around the street and see that there is not a nice, kind, smiling friendly warm face to help them. Instead there will be blank faces of boredom, antipathy and indifference, unwilling to help them.

Ask this simple question in lessons: am I supporting or am I pushing this student?
Our saintly attitude towards SEN comes from a good place. Letting them do less work or something is easier than their peers, isn’t enabling equality or independence. Equality should happen in the classroom. Having different expectations in the classroom is not equality.

Give those children with SEN and disability boxing gloves at the start of each and every lesson. Teach them to fight.


  1. Thanks for this. I found myself nodding vigorously, right up until here:

    "They don’t need extra support. They need extra pushing."

    This approach works for me at home when I support my kids, and it works for the teachers at my kids' special school.

    But this approach only works for them at school and at home because a) we all know exactly what all their SEN are, b) because we all know exactly what it takes to meet all these SEN, c) because communication between home and school is very good, and d) - crucially - because both parents and staff know the kids inside out.

    Because of all these things, we know exactly the right time and place to push harder - and we know exactly the point at which further pushing becomes counter-productive; the point at which more support is required, even if only temporarily.

    My kids haven't always had this level of quality provision - particularly at school. And in the hands of the unconsciously incompetent and/or ideologically driven, "they don’t need extra support, they need extra pushing" can be a recipe for complete disaster.

    That's pretty much what happened to my eldest. The school refused to accept that he had a particular type of SEN; they believed that extra pushing, not extra support, was what was needed.

    So they pushed. And kept pushing. It didn't work, because there wasn't the right blend of support. My determined, hard-working kid's confidence just crumbled. And when it became clear that teachers were starting to blame him for his lack of progress, we ran for the hills - figuratively and literally.

    I completely agree with you that pushing children with SEND is vital. But in clumsy hands, it's a tool that doesn't always work. And in malevolent hands, it's a tool that can be used as a pretext to deny provision.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Beefo. I agree with your point. There comes a point when you have to ask when the pushing should turn into support. We deal with people and people don't behave in the same way and respond to the same things. The teacher, for me, is the most important cog in the system. They need to know the child. I know the students I can push and the students that I support first and then push. My starting point will always be to push them and then if there is a problem I will then see what support is needed.

      It will always be about balance and finding the right balance. The post was highlighting that we were probably too far on the support side. Our automatic response is to support and not push.


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  3. I can not imagine how difficult it must be to have a child with a disability, that kind of an experience would probably break me completely. I admire your strength and your dedication to treat this child equally as your other child and as you say, not support her, but push her harder. I'm not sure If I would have been able to do act like that. Maybe it is because I'm a woman, not sure... maybe fathers have more strength. Anyway I support your views and I do believe your are correct and you will do a better job enabling your daughter to have a normal life, then if you support her and treat her as a disabled person.


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