I often wonder where our obsession with labelling started especially in education. Personally, I find the term SEND limiting not only for the child because it tells me absolutely nothing about a child, but limiting also for all those who are involved in the child’s care and support; because in reality it is such an impersonal way of thinking about a child or young person it dehumanises them. I also ponder why we call this SEND anyway- given it stands for ‘Special Educational Needs and Disability’ because in reality the child does not have an educational need they have a LIFE need- after all you can’t realistically leave your ADHD, ASD or Cerebral Palsy at school – so its not and never has been an Educational Need or and Educational Disability, it has always been a LIFE need or disability, Myelomeningocele spina bifida doesn’t disappear when you leave school for example it stays with you for all of your life, so it cannot just be an Educational Need, yet there seems to be a complete disregard for the social and care needs beyond education; in so much as parents and carers are fighting and struggling on a daily basis to get their child’s needs met and without an Educational Health Care Plan (EHCP) even more so. Here again the emphasis is on Education, in that without being identified as SEND then it is highly unlikely families can get an EHCP. The term is for schools and ministers to use to define a specific group of children and young people- but what does it offer the child or young person other than another label? These children are awash with labels, and often buried under them, from chronic medical conditions (generic term), SEND (generic term) to more specific ASD, FASD, Cerebral Palsy or ADHD (more specific but still general terms and often several applied at the same time) in addition they may also have further labels attached such as Conduct Disorder, Mental Health alongside Key Stage levels and indicators or assessments that outline just how much these children don’t measure up to their peers through the use of more labels. This over labelling obsession often buries the very child they are supposed to be used to help. In a country where testing and measuring up to everyone else is the primary focus of education provision, irrespective of whether or not educationalists (such as teachers) agree to this approach, we see outcomes rather than individuals, we look to achievement of only those things assessed rather than achievement overall and we focus on what someone fails to do rather than celebrate what they can do; in a hope to encourage them to do more to meet the desired tick box. Yet I can’t help but wonder if this is why so many children are failed by the ‘system’- in our mad rush to apply all the labels we can we seem to forget EVERY INDIVIDUAL CHILD IS DIFFERENT and every individual child has ‘specific needs’ - just some children have more specific needs than other children, or more individual needs, or more special needs but every child is special to their family, is individual to other children and will have their own quirks and characteristics specific to them- as we all do. I would argue then that it should be our job as adults and as a society to ensure they get all of the encouragement and support they need to use the skills they have to enable them to achieve, not highlight their failures or add so many labels to them we lose sight of the child altogether because we are too busy trying to address or fix the ‘faulty parts’ labelled by adults for our adult attention.
This leads me to my 2nd ponder, what if we simply stopped calling children by their legal status too, first and foremost they are not adopted, or child carers, or kinship care children- they are children. They may be children in need, but every child is a child in need are they not? What is overlooked frequently is that it is not the fact they are adopted or Asylum/ Refugee children or in Guardianship or Kinship care but that many of these children have experienced circumstances the majority of society have never had to and for some children circumstances the majority of society could never imagine either. Very many of these children will also be identified as SEND for the purpose of education or for the purpose of ‘grouping’ them into predetermined categories. Yet, they tend to be divided from those birth family children identified as SEND, for statistical purposes. So much so that these children become the ‘adopted’ children or ‘looked after children’ or the refugee children’ rather than being included into those children with SEND per se. Yet the statistical outcomes for these marginalised groups such as educational achievements, risk of exclusion or ‘behaviour difficulty’ should be seen as part of the SEND outcomes, which are failing all children who require additional support irrespective of where these children reside. This makes it difficult to determine if the indictors for the children who are ‘looked after’ or have been ‘previously looked after’ are as a consequence of their unmet SEND or as a consequence of their legal status. Published indicators tend not to separate how many of the group – such as Adopted (Previously Looked After Children) – who have experienced school exclusion or with regard to their GCSE outcomes, have a diagnosed SEND and how many do not have any SEND. By nature of their legal position, in that their history suggests there was need for them to be ‘taken into care’, it would be anticipated a significant proportion would have a number of SEND labels diagnosed or under assessment. So what would happen if we left the legal status label to one side and actually saw the child underneath, this won’t remove their additional need or any diagnosis they may have such as FASD or ASD or ADHD or Global Developmental Delay, but it might enable the actual need to be more readily seen rather than being hidden by the legal position label. What’s more if all of these families spoke as one rather than as an ‘Adoption Community’ or a ‘Kinship Community’ or a SEND parents forum for example they would make a lot more noise than as individual groups.
I get that for many families they need the labels to be attached so they can get the help and support they need for their child, and totally understand how the current system fails so many children daily. I just don’t quite grasp why this has to be so, why we need to fight and push and argue to have children labelled simply to gain support. As a developed country we should be able to support all of our children in society and recognise not all children are the same. We should acknowledge all children have different strengths that enable them to excel beyond their peers as well as areas where they are not as able as their peers- this is their uniqueness, something we need to not only recognise but encourage, so that all children are able to achieve to the best of their own individual ability rather than be demoralised by not being ‘equal’ to someone else. So the next time you are working with any child or young person with individual needs, try to ‘see’ the child instead of the ‘label’, recognise the child is unique and individual, accept the label is for everybody else’s use but should not define the child into predetermined boxes and whatever their legal position remember they are a child 1st and foremost, they may have very complex needs and if they do, we as a society, should be looking to support this not label it, predetermine it, or make this the main focus of how we respond- because if you do not see the child you will never know what they may just be capable of.