Alice is a Special educational needs co-ordinator (SENCO) and inclusion manager. She has also worked as a teacher in a children’s hospital. Here she discusses her experiences of working with children in education and how their amazing resilience can inspire us all.
How do you start your day?
With a good cup of tea!
What does being a Special educational needs co-ordinator (SENCO) and inclusion manager entail?
A non-verbal autistic child, a child with cerebral palsy, a child with vision
impairments…each a child that comes to school to learn and develop, but all with different needs. As a special educational needs co-ordinator I am there to ensure that each child receives the additional support they need outside of normal provisions. Special educational needs cover a broad spectrum. They fall into 4 main categories: communication and interaction, cognition and learning, social, emotional and mental health difficulties and sensory or physical needs. So for instance, a speech therapist may be appointed to work one to one with a non-verbal autistic child or someone with hearing problems.
Often I act as consultant to my colleagues and will set up meetings with them and specialist teachers who can advise us on how best to meet the needs of pupils with SEN. After all, they are the ones working with the children first hand, on the front line so to speak. I want to make them feel confident that they are doing the right thing and are having a meaningful impact on their students’ life. At the same time, I am also in regular contact with parents, working with them to ensure that the child’s education health care plan is being met or discussing where it might need to be revised. It is vital that they and the child feel comfortable and that we’ve set realistic targets for their development.
What challenges do you face with the role?
The main challenge is to manage the expectations of the parents about what can be achieved through education using SMART targets. For instance, rather than expecting a non-verbal child to be able to speak after a year it might be that if they can produce some sounds by the end of the year this would be great progress. Of course, this is regularly reviewed and revised where appropriate. Also, teachers may have a class of 30 and so cannot always give the constant one-to-one attention that some parents might understandably expect. There have been times when I was working in a mainstream school where it was clear it would be in the interests of the child that they get extra support. This then
requires the SENCO to make an application to the local authority to try and secure funding from them to allow this to happen.
How did you become a teacher and what made you focus on those with special needs?
I am fascinated by our innate ability to learn particularly through play and have always enjoyed working with children whether it was helping out at Girlguides or entertaining my 3 siblings. Whilst studying primary education at university, I did a placement at a children’s hospital school in London. It was there that I saw that education could have a huge impact even at the most challenging times of a family’s life, and that it could bring some light in life’s darker moments.
Often education in these circumstances provided some relief to the parents and a welcome distraction to the children. I worked with patients of varying needs: there was the girl who was having her tonsils out in the afternoon but did not want to miss any school; the boy whose mum would drop him off for a few hours whilst she spent time with her premature baby in the intensive care unit every day; another patient who was having dialysis three times a week and didn’t have a very good prognosis and yet despite not having long to live still was so cheerful and keen to learn. There was the 6th former who was staying in an adult ward, he knew how to read but would ask for someone to read to him ultimately because he felt lonely and wanted some company; or another who was self-sufficient and all they wanted was a laptop to be able to research their homework.
It wasn’t just for the children though. Sometimes just reading a book to the children would provide some light relief to parents who have been at the child’s bedside every single day. It taught me that education and play could help even just for a moment and provide a sense of normality even though the situation was far from normal.
What has teaching special needs children taught you and how has it impacted your life?
You can never go into work in a bad mood and stay that way. Children are always so positive even in negative situations. They take it in their stride. We can learn a lot from children on how to be resilient and keep moving on forward even when times are tough and we are faced with all sorts of adversity. They don’t let obstacles phase them and will find a way often very creatively to overcome them. They fall over but they pick themselves up again and again.
What advice would you give to someone who was going through a tough period?
Do one thing a day that makes you feel happy and brings joy. It is important to acknowledge when we are struggling but not get stuck and overwhelmed.
When was a moment you were most proud of and why?
Having my two sons because even though being a parent can be hard at times they make me smile every day. Also after my first maternity leave it made me see how special it is to be a teacher as it offered me a different perspective of the children in my class.
Name a book or podcast that has inspired you?
The boy, the mole, the fox and the horse by Charlie Mackesy
Which song makes you feel good?
Breathe me by Sia
What do you like to do for fun?
Going on picturesque walks which helps clear the mind and gives me a sense of perspective.
What inspiring quote would you like to share?
“Childhood is not a race to see how quickly a child can read, write and count. Childhood is a small window of time to learn and develop at the pace which is right of each individual child.”