A Unique Child

“Inclusion should be Invisible in Early Years Settings and Beyond”

  • “Inclusion should be Invisible in Early Years Settings and Beyond”

Meeting the needs of children with SEND is challenging, but the best settings will find ways to adapt, says Hayley Room…

It is a sad fact that we are failing children when it comes to inclusion. Inclusion means adapting to meet children’s unique individual needs, but in practice, it too often involves attempting to adapt the child, to squeeze them into a one-size-fits-all box. School anxiety, self-harming, anxiety-vomiting, children alone in corridors ‘self-calming’ is not inclusion. Yet these experiences are not unusual; they occur throughout the system from early years to secondary. Funding cuts are forcing families in most need to live in educational limbo while they await places in special schools, places that don’t exist.

Currently 15% of children on school roll (maintained settings) are registered as SEND, and yet 17% of maintained nurseries receive no funding at all. And the PVI sector? Sadly, there appears to be a data black hole – the PVI sector is excluded!

The factors that threaten outstanding SEND support are numerous – from the erosion of funding leading to a reduction in specialist services and access to expertise, and a shortfall of SEND funding for two-year-olds and those using the 30 hours offer, to the excessive amount of time that must be set aside to create reports and assessments. The SEND crisis is the global warming effect on cohorts of children with SEND: the sea is rising and we are watching.

Adapting our practice

At Dandelion, as for all settings, our issue is funding. Like others, we ‘take the hit’. But, a greater problem for us is that we meet children’s needs, and do so without the need for EHC plans (EHCPs). This means that when our children eventually transition to schools, the EHCP process is delayed, hindering their access to support services. Should we therefore leave children to flounder and allow despondency and anxiety to fester? Watch as families and children drown?

The answer is obvious. We adapt, and the focus in always the child. Most vitally, we see the child before the SEND issue. Infuriatingly, you often hear the phrase ‘an autistic child’ or ‘ a disabled child’. No! The child is a child with ASD, or a child with SEND. Just as a child with cancer is a child with cancer, not a cancer child.

We spend unfunded, voluntary time meeting with parents, writing reports and contributing to assessments. Our Masters level-trained SENDCo supports parents and works with our six qualified teachers and seven practitioners, in order to develop graduated plans; we put measures into place that ensure our inclusion is invisible, yet targeted and effective. The child’s voice and the parent’s voice are intrinsic to this process. Our staff are highly qualified. Our lead teacher is senSI trained; one practitioner is completing her dissertation on attachment and our ‘invisible inclusion approach’. Staff attend regular courses and are encouraged to read around SEND issues.

Along with our staff, our approach consists of

● flexible settling periods;

● personalised visual aids, created and reviewed in partnership with parents and the child;

● dedicated safe spaces, chosen by children, shared with all practitioners and the family;

● gradual transitions into new settings, using flexi-schooling options unique to the child;

● scripted behaviour management approaches;

● our use of Philosophy 4 Children, promoting tolerance, respect, empathy, self-awareness and an awareness of others’ needs;

● a focus on wellbeing and health – a therapy dog, daily yoga and peer massage;

● high adult-to-child ratios enabling unharried interactions – time to listen, interpret and resolve;

● few, but scheduled, interruptions to sessions; and

● unique streamlined and targeted SEND assessments, focusing on the development of executive functioning skills.

The effect is that inclusion at Dandelion is invisible. Children are empowered through a scripted, choice-based approach that enables each one to feel in control. Teaching and behaviour management is often ‘done to’ children; we talk and work with them. They know they are respected, that they are valued. This leads to a reduction in conflict and stress and fewer accidents, thus happier children and strong positive relationships.

Testament to the success of our approach is the Inclusive Practice award we received from Nursery World in 2018, and our many parent testimonials: one parent remarked of their son, “X had become a child who sat beneath a table wearing ear defenders; he began lashing out physically, screaming and running away, but he has now returned to being a confident and secure child, motivated to learn and forming special friendships.”

In this parent’s own words, “X is flourishing.” He is flourishing because Dandelion is inclusive.

Hayley Room is co-managing director of Dandelion Education.