h1

Not-So Special Needs

June 10, 2007

When talking about SEN (Special Educational Needs) it’s hard to resist talking about the nonsense regarding “behavioural needs” first. Badly behaved children are seen as having “a condition”, often some kind of autism, rather than a moral weakness. Lots of attention and special treatment is seen as the only cure. Children who don’t fit in (perhaps they are more intelligent or well-behaved than the school is used to) can also be judged to be suffering from a form of autism. At Woodrow Wilson School I received the following advice about an “autistic” child:

“Jonathan likes a quiet, calm classroom. Tell him what the rules are. Explain things to him clearly.”

What a freak! Fancy not wanting to be confronted with chaos in class, unknown rules and unclear instructions. Generally any child who notices the rioting in their school and the fact that many of their teachers talk rubbish (or any child shows any other sign of sanity and judgement) is likely to be labelled as being on the Autistic Spectrum. If they are good at maths and like playing chess then it’s almost guaranteed.

However, besides the mad and the bright, there are also students who genuinely have educational needs. There are students with physical disabilities and students who are generally disturbed or actually autistic. In most schools there are a significant number of children whose basic literacy and numeracy skills are years behind where they should be. These children are normally classed as having learning difficulties. Mixed ability teaching helps ensure that these less able students are likely to get further and further behind as they experience lesson after lesson pitched at too high a level that contribute nothing to their educational needs. Of course the main help these students need is extra tuition in the basic skills which they are lacking.

Schools have plenty of resources (usually whole departments) to help with SEN students. Unfortunately a large part of these resources seem dedicated to the production of paperwork that does nobody any good. The belief seems to be that describing needs casts a spell that will cause them to be met. Other resources are spent on teaching assistants, helpers for students in lessons. Some resources are spent where they can do most good – on teaching. How much SEN teaching there is varies greatly between schools.

The Metropolitan School organises the timetable to provide extra numeracy and literacy lessons, all taught in the same classroom with the same teacher, who would also teach them for the scheduled Maths and English lessons. The teachers who taught these classes had usually trained in primary and as far as I could tell seemed to do a very effective job, although having ten hours or more with the same class took its toll on some of them. They seemed particularly prone to leaving the school.

Stafford Grove School used to withdraw students from randomly and inconveniently selected subjects, in order to attend extra lessons. When they were taken out of PSHE or mixed ability languages lessons it was probably good for all concerned. When they were taken out of a subject they liked and could do it was a disaster. Very often the students would refuse to go, and would attend their regularly scheduled lesson instead. The usual response from the SEN department was to give up trying to withdraw that child. It is at this point that the difference between regular teaching and SEN teaching becomes clear. If a student didn’t want to attend my lesson I would be stuck with them regardless of their unwillingness and regardless of whether I would be glad to be shot of them. However the SEN teachers could actually refuse to help the unwilling kids. They would actually say things like “I’ll help somebody who wants to be helped” as if teaching somebody to read and write was an optional extra the school only threw on for the most deserving.

Woodrow Wilson School had the worst system of all. They also withdrew students, but instead of withdrawing them from whole lessons, they would be taken out for twenty minutes every couple of weeks. Anybody who has ever been a teacher will be aware that a student who misses twenty minutes of a lesson (plus the time takes to walk between classrooms) will inevitably lose out or more than twenty minutes of their education as they will have trouble keeping up with work where they’ve missed key points or instructions. Consequently entire lessons were effectively lost, often in core subjects like Maths and English, for the sake of twenty minutes of tuition. As you can imagine this system was neither popular nor effective.

It’s hard not to conclude that the best way to help students with learning difficulties is to put them in their own classes, to make sure the extra help they get is part of the schools’ regular timetable, and to ensure that SEN teachers are teaching proper lessons with SEN students rather than just providing optional extras. Unfortunately the current orthodoxy is that these students need to be “included”, integrated as much as possible with their more able peers, rather than being given the most appropriate help. After all, if you start giving students special lessons, special time tables and special teachers, it’s a very short step to giving them special schools.

About these ads

25 comments

  1. Kids with Special Needs other than genuine dyslexia and frank autism generally end up in the bottom sets. It never fails to depress me that parents who have fought hard to get their child (usually learning difficulty) into mainstream because they want them to mix with “normal” children never get to see what they actually have to put with.


  2. “Badly behaved children are seen as having “a condition”, often some kind of autism, rather than a moral weakness.”

    Is this ‘moral weakness’ due to psychological factors, such as having not progressed developmentally in moral decision making?
    Or is it a spiritual matter?


  3. “Is this ‘moral weakness’ due to psychological factors, such as having not progressed developmentally in moral decision making?
    Or is it a spiritual matter?”

    Neither, it’s moral. I don’t see morality as reducible to a branch of psychology or spirituality.

    I swear your questions tell us more about your views than they find out about mine.


  4. “Badly behaved children are seen as having “a condition”, often some kind of autism, rather than a moral weakness.”

    I ask because it seems odd to say that, for example, constantly asking for attention, or talking too loudly in class, or not being interested in what the teacher is saying and more interested in friends is a ‘moral weakness’. Is this what you mean by ‘badly behaved’? Or do you mean stealing, hurting, murdering, etc.?


  5. “I ask because it seems odd to say that, for example, constantly asking for attention, or talking too loudly in class, or not being interested in what the teacher is saying and more interested in friends is a ‘moral weakness’. Is this what you mean by ‘badly behaved’? Or do you mean stealing, hurting, murdering, etc.?”

    Badly behaved in this context usually means abusive, violent and dangerous. A child who merely disrupts lessons is not seen as badly behaved these days (in fact it is often seen as being the teacher’s fault).

    That said I do consider it morally wrong to behave in a way that stops others from learning. Given the cost and value of an education it is nothing more than a form of theft.


  6. “That said I do consider it morally wrong to behave in a way that stops others from learning. Given the cost and value of an education it is nothing more than a form of theft.”

    You are religious, and I presume that you see immoral actions as severely punishable (e.g. by discipline).

    While I am not religious, and disagree with your view of students as naturally more tempted towards evil than good, I do agree that immoral actions require discipline. My view of morality is shaped by my love for the intellectual systems of the ancient Greeks, and I would also emphasise strict discipline for immorality. This must take place in school, at home, and be socially mandated. It must be seen as entirely necessary and benevolent to discipline such infractions.

    However, where I differ is that I do not label ANYTHING that I disagree with in the class as ‘immoral’. For example, I cannot agree with this:

    “That said I do consider it morally wrong to behave in a way that stops others from learning. Given the cost and value of an education it is nothing more than a form of theft.”

    Students who intentionally disrupt classes are, indeed, acting immorally. They are purposefully disrupting and harming the education of others. However, those who merely individually disagree with that class, or school in general, and through their stubborness not to be interested become a block on another’s learning – they are not acting intentionally to harm others. They are simply not interested, and the problem is not solely with them! How can we expect all children to personally agree with the education system as it is? How can we expect children to be as interested in educational outcomes as we are when their social and cultural background may not dispose them to seeing the purpose of school?

    This is why I asked the question “Is this ‘moral weakness’ due to psychological factors, such as having not progressed developmentally in moral decision making? Or is it a spiritual matter?” I think that you tend to see such ‘immorality’ in more religious terms. Therefore you blame the individual child for any infraction. I, however, see it in psychological terms – the student has a problem, and this is partly developmental. Therefore I think we need to change the way schools work, how we educate, and attempt to change prevalent views within certain sectors of society that education is not worthwhile.


  7. “….and through their stubborness not to be interested become a block on another’s learning – they are not acting intentionally to harm others.”

    Are you suggesting they are unaware that they are stopping others from learning? Or are you arguing that because they are harming others out of indifference rather than malice it isn’t morally wrong?


  8. “Are you suggesting they are unaware that they are stopping others from learning? Or are you arguing that because they are harming others out of indifference rather than malice it isn’t morally wrong?”

    Is there no way for a student to simply not be interested in the lesson and want to continue to converse with their friends without it being immoral?


  9. “Is there no way for a student to simply not be interested in the lesson and want to continue to converse with their friends without it being immoral?”

    They are stopping their friends from learning and wasting the teacher’s time, which makes the action incredibly selfish, and yes, morally wrong.


  10. Despite Tone’s zeal for personalised education, it is not feasible, not possible, that every lesson can be to each child’s individual preferences. Tough. Shut up and put up with it. And if you won’t, you will be punished in a way that is meaningful to you.

    I didn’t allow my children to eat nothing but chocolate and chips and stay up till midnight. That would have been their preference, their taste. It would have made life a lot easier for me. You can’t give in to children’s momentary childish, ill-judged, unwise whims. Adults have a responsibility to choose what best for them and if they don’t much like it from time to time, they will have to learn to deal with it.


  11. Very interesting piece – thank you for writing so clearly on the subject of how our schools are today.


  12. “They are stopping their friends from learning and wasting the teacher’s time, which makes the action incredibly selfish, and yes, morally wrong.”

    It’s very handy that whatever a student has experienced, or whatever a student prefers, or whatever a student feels, that they have to follow your rules regardless of the impact of your rules upon them because the student is immoral.

    I would question whether rules are always correct, teachers are always correct, or schools are always correct. I don’t think your system can cope with that, and that is why it would not work in practise.

    Lily’s comment reminds me of John Dewey’s approach to education, which centers on the student’s experience and consider them at the center. While it does prioritise the student as a person, and the student’s experiences, it emphasises that teachers have the training and duty to understand which experiences are preferable for the student. So I would similarly argue that you can offer a student-centred approach WITHOUT allowing a foolish route of ‘anything goes’. And such an approach is infinitely preferable in comparision to a heavy-handed ‘nothing goes’ which consistently seems to emphasise the sins of the students.


  13. “It’s very handy that whatever a student has experienced, or whatever a student prefers, or whatever a student feels, that they have to follow your rules regardless of the impact of your rules upon them because the student is immoral.”

    Erm…. Where did I mention rules?


  14. I just wanted to say that some cases of autism or aspergers syndrome are just used as an excuse, but there are some people who generally suffer from autism or aspergers syndrome.


  15. I did mention that there are students who are actually autistic. But most kids that teachers are told are on the autistic spectrum have no problem other than either a) being a bit geeky or b) being badly behaved. Neither condition should be classed as a form of autism. The former should join the chess team the latter should be punished. Calling them autistic is an insult to those who have genuine difficulties due to autism.


  16. If by fake autism you mean the so-called pervasive development disorders (PDD’s) like Aspergers, then be careful. Are you saying they don’t exist? I think that would be presumptuous and arrogant given the research and evidence to the contrary. Better to be an agnostic methinks, even with PDD’s like ADD/ADHD.

    Mostly agree with you everywhere else.


  17. We all exist on a human behavioural spectrum. We shouldn’t just write-off Aspergers because it seems like a fancy label or construct. It was after all first identified in the 1940’s by Dr Hans Asperger, so it isn’t that new. There are behavioural traits that can cause issues with understanding and interaction.

    I think perhaps you should be a little more agnostic. Especially since these disorders are seriously a minority even in the toughest sink schools. And yes, I have worked in places every bit as bad as you so brilliantly describe.


  18. I wouldn’t be able to claim that a condition is fake from the diagnosis.

    However, I refuse to class personality traits as conditions, and I’ve met too many children who have been labelled as being on the autistic spectrum who would be considered to be charming, charismatic extroverts if they went to a Star Trek convention, or were lecturing in a university mathematics department. Not fitting in is not a disease.

    And, no, our behaviour doesn’t put us on a spectrum. That’s like saying our clothes put us on a spectrum. Appropriate behaviour, like appropriate clothing, depends on circumstances or even opinion. While we might be able to identify extreme behaviour (or eccentric clothing) that is never likely to fit in, that does not mean that everyone is on an objective scale of “fitting-in-ness”.


  19. You misunderstand what I mean when I say we all belong on a spectrum. I mean the spectrum of human behaviour including so-called Aspergers. Asperger’s may be thought by some as nothing more than a modern construct, and by others as a range of normal human behaviours. When is he a geek and not an Aspie? There are Aspies who also dislike the suggestion that they are suffering from a disability.

    It’s a construct that can help us question the myriad of behaviours that we regard as neuro-typical or neuro non-typical.

    What is normal?


  20. “However, I refuse to class personality traits as conditions.”

    One might as well say “I refuse to class conditions as personality traits”. A statement of your own intellectual bias towards a problem is excellent in terms of understanding what you think, but it does not substitute for an explanation or reason for why you think that.


  21. “Other resources are spent on teaching assistants, helpers for students in lessons. Some resources are spent where they can do most good – on teaching. How much SEN teaching there is varies greatly between schools.”

    Can I point out that research shows that individual helpers in lessons are one of the most effective means for aiding SEN students? It seems here that you are disparaging spending money on such measures because it should instead mainly go “on teaching”.


  22. One might as well say “I refuse to class conditions as personality traits”. A statement of your own intellectual bias towards a problem is excellent in terms of understanding what you think, but it does not substitute for an explanation or reason for why you think that.

    Your habit of taking sentences in isolation and then complaining I haven’t justified them is getting quite annoying. The reason I think that is in the blog entry.

    Can I point out that research shows that individual helpers in lessons are one of the most effective means for aiding SEN students?

    What research?


  23. Individual helpers in lessons may well be one-of-the-most effective ways of helping SEN students. Did the research differentiate sight or hearing-impaired students from the others in its study? Did it identify the very best method/s?

    I and OH work with individual students of whom 80% are >2 years behind age or grade level. Many of them exhibit a range of difficulties that a casual observer would class as dyslexic. (The stunningest are the ones who display complete dyscalculia – didn’t believe it till I saw it.) THE most effective means of helping these students is individually tailored programs delivered away from school and from home, the baggage free environment.

    So schools /SEN practitioners probably couldn’t aim for the rates of improvement we might be able to achieve. But that doesn’t mean they can’t aim for specific skills or behaviour improvements in predictable time frames. The most important thing we or anyone else can impart to students is confidence, not self-esteem exercises, but confidence through competence. The importance of the individual approach is that the tutor can say to the student, you learnt this one particular thing last week/term, so you should be able to do this one next thing if you put in the same effort.

    I know the offspring absolutely h a t e d the idea of being singled out for special attention because of dyslexia (so we didn’t) and we have lots of students who feel the same. I’m not convinced that school is always the best place for special attention but it’s unavoidable for most.


  24. A thought about schools and SEN practitioners.

    If every primary teacher and everyone involved in Spec Ed regardless of role or qualifications could read “The Myth of Ability” – about teaching Maths, fractions in particular, life would be a lot better. The main thrust is that there is no such thing as a “maths brain”, there is only good teaching and good learning. I don’t know whether the pernicious notion that kids who are keen on Maths will pursue it for themselves is prevalent in the UK the way it is here, but this book is the perfect antidote. But it’s not just about Maths, it’s about the skills required for good tuition, teaching and learning.

    (Sorry OA, any effect on behaviour or learning in secondary would be remote, peripheral, residual, or undetectable for quite a while.)

    It’s not a tedious policy ramble, and you only have to read half of it (unless you decide to use the methods and materials explicitly.) Its main impact is to demonstrate that every single student can learn fractions (and the subsequent algebra) if they are taught properly. The writer is a Canadian, neither a teacher nor a bureaucrat, and I apologise for completely forgetting his name. (The book’s at home.)

    He works on the basis that every student will learn/ pass. He does not dumb down the materials or the tests, he simplifies concepts to the level students can work with and move on from there. It’s a big ask to keep on rethinking and reworking your techniques and explanations, but if you get the message you’ll work wonders.


  25. [...] of ADHD may mask other problems such a familial or social factors. It sparks debate both within and without the medical and psychiatric [...]



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 8,833 other followers

%d bloggers like this: