One day, back in 1983, I was collecting Ruth from nursery. The headteacher had been glad to have Ruth in her powerchair in this mainstream school from the age of 3. She stopped me as I came through the door and asked for a word.
Not about Ruth, I discovered, but to ask my advice (as the parent of a child with “special needs”) about how she should handle a different child’s needs. The little boy in question had a facial disfigurement. “So what’s the problem?” I asked. “Well”, she said, “the teachers don’t know how to deal with it.”
I immediately assumed that this meant there was a problem with the boy’s relationships with his class-mates, so I asked her how the children were reacting to him. “Oh! They don’t notice!” she said. “So what’s the problem?” I repeated.
It turned out, of course, that the problem was entirely in the teachers‘ minds. They were not used to the way he looked and his disfigurement made them feel uncomfortable. The problem was not one of integrating the child with non-disabled children. The other children just saw him as one of them. The problem was the adult pre-conception of differences, creating a problem when there wasn’t one.
I suggested to the head that she tell her staff to follow the children’s example, and ignore the child’s disability, and as far as I know, she took my advice.
This sort of thing still happens. Imaginary problems make the prospect of meeting special needs in a mainstream setting far more complicated than it needs to be. That is where we, as parents, need to step up. We know our child better than anyone, and we can give the staff the confidence they need.
It’s true that we made huge strides through campaigning in the 70s, 80s and 90s. However, inclusion has been made “normal” in a way that sometimes lessens parental involvement. And the “special” label is still there, affecting how children with special additional needs are treated. The educational purpose of integrating them is often set aside for certain times of the day to meet “special” aims laid down by health professionals and others. The special school model sometimes encroaches into the mainstream, seeing the disability first and then fitting the education of the individual child around it, rather than the other way around.
Parents are key to making sure that in their child’s case, this occurs as little as possible, but how easy is it in your child’s school for you to influence your child’s daily experience of education? In my experience, systems and procedures are not the key. Relationships are. My good relationships with school staff always made the difference. As parents we have to work hard at it, but don’t forget that teachers are individuals too! They need to learn and develop and usually are keen to do so. They need and deserve help and respect. Many of you reading this will be experts in encouraging training of this kind!
The main issue is still the same. Do we see a child, and then treat the extra difficulties they have in a pragmatic way, or do we see the difficulties first, and categorize these, losing sight of the child behind them? And how can teachers see each individual with open minds and hearts, if they are dealing with a classroom full of difficulties? The point is they need our expertise. Let’s not let our role end at the school’s front gate. Let’s help them.