About fifteen months ago I was sat in one of my daughter’s re-integration meetings (after what had soon become a near enough daily exclusion process) to talk about how she could do things differently.
We had come to a point where we all knew these meetings were futile and the cycle would be repeated the very next day.
I knew it wasn’t the child who needed to change – it was us who needed to do things differently.
It’s a bit like that metaphor of the wilted flower – do we find fault in the flower or do we adapt the environment in order to help it grow?
My hands were clammy as I felt the intensity of the interrogation that was about to unfold – I had voiced that the exclusion process was not working.
But they were the school rules and they weren’t about to change.
There were just the three of us – the headteacher, the SEN Consultant and myself.
We couldn’t get my daughter into the room after she had experienced the discomfort of so many of these set-ups.
I cringe as I remember one meeting when the smiling assassin SEN lady waved her hands and feet in the air “so just remember now – happy hands, happy feet!”
The meeting door swiftly closes behind me and I can already sense the elephant in the room – where do we go from here?
At times the silent pauses become so unconformatable – I know there is a conversation they want to have with me. I am dreading the confrontation, particularly as I’m so emotionally involved and I know I have to keep my cool.
Many months later, as I trawled back through the trial data, I found a conversation between school and county discussing a meeting like this one – only they were discussing who would take the lead in the meeting and “tell the mum the things she didn’t want to hear.”
Unsolicited calls came from county over this time period to discuss educational options where I was ‘offered’ the chance to put my daughter into a behaviour unit or to what they suggested may seem more beneficial – to elect to home-educate.
Basically, we were being shown the back-door out of education with a big cumbersome boot, all just to save themselves a few extra quid.
This is something the Education Secretary is calling for action on right now – it is still happening everywhere.
I also received an email from the SEN Consultant around the same time which paralleled the sentiments felt by county, re-capping the options to me and wondering if home education might be a viable option?
Right here was the most influential factor as to why the placement wasn’t working.
You need to have a senior leadership team who want more than for the child to surive their school experience; they must be passionate about helping them flourish.
A SENCO should ideally be qualified, first and foremost, to fulfill this position – you would assume that this was also monitored!
I’ll say no more on that subject for now.
And whilst at school they also need to mirror the job of the parent.
They need to be an advocate for these vulnerable children who rely on an adult to put their needs first.
I’ve seen it done by some very talented individuals, both in a professional context, as well as from a parent’s perspective.
Building relationships based on trust come over a long period of time and only when you can fully absorb yourself into their world, not on trying to find mutual ground.
Our SEN Consultant said very early on that she didnt have a very good relationship with my PDA’er. She was admitting that the dis-like was mutual.
If this was the wording she was using then how could a positive rhetoric about my child be transferred across the entire school?
Again, the Consultant claimed that she had worked previously with a PDA teenager and whether it was an age thing or not, this pupil had made progress with regulating their anger.
She felt that due to the high levels of red mist in my daughter there didnt seem to be a way to teach her using emotional intelligence. They said I claimed to be doing it as a parent but they certainly had never seen it.
I assured her you could you just had to find the right time to approach it.
She looked at me, shrugged and made no comment.
It was as if I was talking a different language – I felt continuously like I was not being believed.
The assumption that ‘what works with one child will work with all children’ narrows the opportunities of so many and loses the ability to approach each and every need individually.
As time passed by I felt that my knowledge of SEN codes of practice and how to accommodate a child with special needs started to succeed hers. That begins to happen when you have to self-research because the information you are given is incorrect and you become driven by passion.
Back to the meeting and the headteacher takes a turn to discuss our options: “by all means try another mainstream school, although I would find it hard to see what else they would do that we haven’t?”
I ended up agreeing along with her persuasive tone.
The belief that my daughter might be able to manage mainstream had been drawn out of me and I was left fearing all schools would just feel the need to exclude her.
I was so exhaused by it all and had no confidence to fight another battle. I couldn’t watch my infant suffer anymore.
In the background it had been flagged that this school placement was failing.
An application to county had been rejected for a specialist provision – the LA claimed that the local Moderate Learning Disabilities School (MLD) would not be able to meet her needs as her cognitive ability was too high. I knew they would be able to teach her, they had a fantastic provision, but my opinion was squashed.
Again, the option for me would to be go down the path of a behavioural unit.
I went to visit this and although it was an option for some it would not have helped my daughter (her anxiety and therefore her behaviours would have escalated as a result).
They also used exclusions for what were deemed ‘deliberant’ behaviours. That pretty much ruled it out for my daughter in a single sentence.
An email between senior staff was sent, I later found out, which questioned why I had brought my daughter onto school grounds for a family fun run during one of these exclusions.
They couldn’t be compassionate that I had no viable means of supporting my middle child at the event, let alone pick her up or drop her off from school, with her sibling being banished from the grounds.
It was as if my daughter and I were monsters.
The email pointed out “had the mum not realised that this school was just not right for her child?”
Looking back and reflecting it was evident that SLT wanted a quick-fix solution to the problem.
After the meeting we were still in no mans land.
Eventually they gathered enough evidence which they felt would warrant a permanent exclusion.
After the trial they were forced to take her back, but the question remained, were they willing to do it differently?
Or would the emphasis still be that she needed to change?
So, fast forward a year and we are seven months into a new mainstream placement.
Have the new school done anything differently?
Well we do have a new circle of friends, one sports day under our belt and a Principal’s Award to positively talk about.
These are achievements that she is so incredibly proud of and sometimes I not only see her smile again – I see her laugh.
Uncontrollably in fact.
So, did they try to change her?
Of course not.
She’s still fraught with anxiety, she still overloads, she still has extremely challenging behaviours as a result.
Instead, what they are adapting is the environment around her so that they can watch her progress.
They are such tiny steps but we are gradually moving forwards.
The school approach is simply the same as to what some of the staff, who got to know her and like her at the last school, were doing.
They just couldnt get very far as an overpowering senior decison to exclude would always super-succeed their efforts, no matter how well they were doing at diffusing a meltdown.
It always meant that they were dealing with the PDA plus all of the negativity that came with being frustrated and mis-understood; this robbed them of the relationships they were trying to form based on trust.
So what is it that the new mainstream setting are doing differently?
She’s just not being punished for having a panic attack, that’s all – it’s not anymore elaborate than that.
The rhetoric around her disability has changed.
We have no guarantees that mainstream will be the answer but right now we are commited to giving it a proper go. This flexible, collaborative and can-do approach is proving successful!
They don’t merely want her to survive, they want to see her flourish.
The PDA Society also wrote a series of educational case studies for the theme of ‘Positive PDA’ this year. Click here to learn more about our school’s approach as it was one of the case studies fronting the campaign.