Kathy Brodie concludes her series on the special educational needs coordinator’s role by addressing some common concerns…
In my first article I explained a few of the basic roles that a SENCo needs to be involved in. This time, I will be examining in more detail some of the concerns that you, as SENCo, are likely to encounter as you perform your duties. These are focused on three areas – talking to parents; working with other professionals; and making observations for special educational needs – and are the most common areas that SENCos tell me they have problems with.
Once you, or a member of your team, has identified that there may be a problem, and there are sufficient supporting observations in place, someone must discuss your concerns with the child’s parents or carers. You may like to consider some of the following aspects:
Key person: It could be that you decide it is more professional for the key person to talk to the parents initially, with your support and guidance. This could be because the key person has a more detailed understanding of the family and their child’s needs. Don’t forget that it can be very worrying for parents to be approached by the SENCo, because it may be seen as being ‘official’. It may be less worrying for the key person to have a chat first and then introduce the SENCo in the second meeting.
Being unique: Just as each child is unique, parents all have their own experience, knowledge and emotional needs. These need to be taken into account when approaching parents. For example, you may be more comfortable using technical terms if your parent is a speech and language therapist. Or you may choose to approach parents when you feel they are in a secure emotional place, rather than rushing in.
Reactions: vary For some parents it will be a relief that someone else has confirmed their own thoughts. With others there may be a period of denial, and these parents can take longer to engage in a discussion with you. Don’t be put off by this; sometimes these are the parents who become the biggest advocates in the long term.
Working with staff from specialist areas, such as speech and language therapists, physiotherapists or health visitors, is also known as multi-agency working. When liaising with multi-agency staff, you will find that many will be on a restricted budget, which equates to restrictions on the time that they have to come to visit the setting or have meetings. As SENCo this means that you will have to ensure that all the observations and other paperwork is in order and that the key person is fully briefed – keep in mind the following points:
● Time and timings – I found that multi-agency staff often asked for meetings during the really busy period between 11am and 1pm. If you don’t have lunchtime cover, do ask if the meeting can be held at another time. It’s much better to do that than have to keep interrupting the meeting or being distracted by the bustle of lunchtime. Similarly, make sure that you are clear about how long the meeting will be, so you can assess the level of detail that you will be able to present. Making sure that meetings start and finish on time is professional, so do ensure that the conversations are on topic and don’t waste time.
● The right people – Ensure that all the interested parties are there when organising, or taking part in a ‘team around the child’ (TAC) meeting, where several agencies, including a school representative, may attend. There is a possibility that different agencies will report to different authorities, for example, some may be National Health while others will be local authority. It is best not to assume that they all know who is involved, so do check with the organiser, if you are not organising the meeting yourself. It could also be that parents have paid for a private assessment, which needs to be taken into account. If you are leading the meeting as SENCo, you will need to ask parents about everyone they have seen or talked to about their child and jointly decide who needs to be invited to the TAC meeting.
● Different priorities – Multi-agencies all have targets to meet with limited time and budgets. Do be aware that there can sometimes be conflicting agendas and you may need to balance them somehow. For example, the physiotherapist may like you to do three hours of therapy exercises a week, and the speech and language therapist may also want you to do their programme three hours a week, but you only have an inclusion worker for one hour a week.
● Asking questions – Do ask questions if it is not clear from the programme what is required. It could be that the instructions have been missed from the photocopy. Similarly, do ask what the acronyms stand for if you are at all uncertain. Very often other professionals use acronyms without thinking and they may change over time, for example, Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is now very often referred to as Autistic Spectrum Condition (ASC).
● Supporting parents – For some parents, going to see the ‘specialist’ can be a massive step. You may need to provide moral support to encourage them to take their child to an appointment, whether it is with the speech and language therapist, the doctor or an assessment unit. This is especially important if your local authority operates a system whereby parents who do not attend an appointment are then put to the bottom of the waiting list again. It is ideal if you can attend the appointment with them. It is a great opportunity to learn about assessments, and gives you the opportunity to ask questions about how this can be supported in your setting.
Very often the key person or SENCo makes copious notes, in great detail, only to find these take too much time to go through and only get a glance from the multi-agency staff. Contrary to regular observations, these observations are for a specific outcome, which should be researched and recorded prior to starting the observation. There are several things to consider when doing these types of observations, for example:
Audience: Who will be reading the observations and what will they want to know? If it is for a speech and language therapist, you will need to make exact and precise notes on utterances. For example, does your child miss the beginnings from words, the ends of words, or is it a lisp? If the observations are for concerns about social interactions, it will be more important to note when and where your child talks and who they talk with (adult, child, sibling?). It is always advisable to have a conversation with the professional who will be reading the observations prior to starting. You can then ask what is important to include and what is not necessary.
The details: The level of detail and types of details will depend on the reason for the observation. If it is an initial observation, then you should consider recording everything in the environment, for example, exactly where the observation was taken (in the book corner with two other children present). You may wish to include more details of the general environment such as ‘It was around home-time and parents were picking children up, so the environment was noisy and confusing.’ Once targets have been set for your child to achieve, you can then start to make observations that address these targets specifically. Similarly, if you have a programme from a therapist, you can make observations that will inform parents, carers and the multi-agency team about the progress that is being made.
The role of SENCo carries many divergent responsibilities and can be daunting. Sometimes you will have to work closely with other services and parents, listening to their voices and being considerate of their concerns. At other times you may be an advocate for the child, working with multi- agency teams to ensure that the child’s best interests are always maintained.
Kathy Brodie is an Early Years Professional, author and trainer based in East Cheshire.