Most settings will already be catering for some children with special educational needs (SEN) to help them access your services and curriculum. However, are you also finding ways to support their parents? Being a parent of a child with SEN can be lonely and confusing as they try to understand their children more fully, and then get them the help they need. Read on to find how you can help them by making some small changes, which can have a big impact.
SEN children and their parents are unique
Everyone is different, and children with special needs cannot be grouped into one homogenous group. Often, what works well for one person - (such as having a non-stimulating environment due to sensory overload), - is the opposite of what’s needed for others, who may need a more uplifting, colourful and visually engaging environment. Some people need a quiet space, others crave attention and may have trouble regulating their volume or energy. The phrase “one size fits all” does definitely NOT apply when you are discussing children with special needs.
The same is true of their parents. There is not one ‘type’ of parent whose child has special needs, and it is not down to a ‘parenting fault’ or challenge either, although this is often a misconception and myth that many parents face.
Understand parents’ point of view
One of the first things you can do, is to develop an empathy for parents. If you have ever stood in a supermarket whilst your toddler has a tantrum, and felt the ‘judging eyes’ upon you as you try to calm them down, you will know what we mean. Now imagine that you are standing in the same supermarket, but your toddler is now age 10 and having the same tantrum. You know that it is because they have become overwhelmed by something that is out of their control, and this is their only way of emotionally releasing their fears/anxiety/stress. But for other observers, this fact is ‘hidden’, and instead of getting the sympathy and understanding you need, you feel the weight of their judgement as they silently (or not!) condemn you and your parenting.
Listen to what parents say
Listening to parents is key. They will understand their situation and their child; they have found what works for them, and things that don’t. Parents will hopefully have tried numerous different approaches, learning through trial and error, experience and hopefully some professional input too. So it is important to listen to what they say, and try to accommodate things if you can. If they say that their child is upset by certain textures, sounds or tastes, then disseminate this information to your staff and make sure they are aware. A lot of children with SEN find physical contact difficult. They may find it difficult to look people in the eye or they may have sensory needs which mean they can’t bear certain materials close to their skin or particular smells.
Many neurotypical people often find these needs difficult to understand and instead, think that the person is being deliberately difficult or ‘naughty’. However, almost all of us visibly tense at the sound of nails scraping down a blackboard. The noise seems to go through us, vibrating our very bones and we quickly cover our ears and call for it to stop. This is how many people with sensory needs feel about some of the sounds, touch, tastes and smells that many of us love. It is not a question of one person being ‘right’ and the other person be ‘wrong’ – it’s just that we are all different. If we approach the situation with more understanding, patience and tolerance, then we will go a long way to helping support the parents of SEN children, because they will feel more validated and understood.
Meet the children’s individual needs and share what works
It is the duty of settings to try to meet the needs of SEN children. Depending on the need, this is not always possible and so specialist provisions for children with some severe disabilities or learning difficulties exist. However, many children with SEN can cope in mainstream establishments so long as their needs are considered, and adaptations made.
Having a SENCo draw up a list of needs and a provision map will mean that you can document the provisions and adaptations you are providing for that child. Many SENCos will also draw up and individual child profile and share it with staff. These give details of what the child needs and what works well. Remember to update these as children grow and develop and help parents and councils maintain up-to-date EHCPs. In early years, children are growing and developing at an amazing rate, and what they need will develop with them helping parents get the provision their children need, especially as children transition to school or between school key stages.
Train your staff
Another simple way to help parents with SEN children is to train your staff on how best to deal with that child. You could do this as part of your annual CPD work or have key people undertake specific special needs training. There are some free and/or inexpensive CPD courses that staff can take ranging from a short one- or two-hour online course, to more in-depth, Level 2 courses. Parenta offer a number of CPD courses which may be of interest which you can access here and include Asperger Syndrome, Autism Awareness and Disability Awareness to name but a few.
Offer support and be an advocate
Many children in early years may only be starting to show signs of having special needs as they join your setting, so it may be a shared journey of discovery for both the setting and the parents as you investigate some of the issues you witness in the nursery. You can help parents by offering information and advice about different conditions, and point them in the direction of support groups or other advocacy organisations.
Other ways to help
- Encourage children to get involved in everything in your setting
- Keep reviewing your own policies and procedures
- Consider if you can offer extended hours or respite services
Supporting parents with SEN children will not only help them, but it will help the children too, as their home life is an important aspect which will contribute to their success in your setting.