BARRIERS TO EARLY IDENIFICATION AND INTERVENTION OF PUPILS WITH SPECIAL EDUCATIONAL NEEDS
Although tremendous progress has been made in the last thirty years regarding the identification of and intervention for children with special educational needs (SEN), significant barriers still exist. An estimated 1.7 million pupils have special educational needs; however, only 250,000 have statements (Russell 2003, 216). This means “only a minority of the children (2% nationally) with SEN will have formal statements of SEN, although an estimated 20% of the children will have transient or persistent special educational needs” (Callias 2001, 25). Some of the barriers to identification and intervention for SEN children are more easily addressed; others are quite complex and provide an ongoing challenge for families, educational personnel and authorities, and a number of government entities.
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It is important to note that whilst some identification and intervention barriers span the scope of SEN children, the type of need presented by the child strongly influences the likelihood of identification and intervention. Children with physical special educational needs, such as visual impairment or noticeable physical handicap, are easily identified and much more likely to receive services than children with less prominent disability (Russell 2003, 220). Similarly, children suffering from extreme mental disability, such as severe mental illness or significant mental retardation, will also be more easily identified and considered for services (Russell 2003, 220). However, the barriers that do prevent identification and intervention for physically and severely mentally disabled children are complex.
Some minority and ethnic communities have cultural barriers that prevent their SEN children from receiving early identification and intervention. Sometimes this is on the part of the minority or ethnic family. Some cultures consider disability to be a source of shame or embarrassment for the family, and as a result keep disabled children at home and isolated from the larger community. When this occurs, the child becomes much less likely to be identified as having a special educational need or having appropriate early intervention. In other instances the greater community presents cultural barriers to services provided to the child. Sometimes this is in the form of misunderstanding of the cultural values of the minority or ethnic family. At other times racism becomes an issue. Russell (2003, 217) asserts “there is widespread evidence of additional disadvantage and social exclusion for disabled children from minority ethnic communities.”
Language barriers for minority and ethnic families is also an issue. Typically this is the result of parents with poor English skills misunderstanding the communications of key workers and others, or of key workers and similar service providers misunderstanding or making assumptions based on poor communication by the parents (Fletcher-Campbell and Cullen 2000, 92). School personnel and other service providers must sometimes contend with a large number of native languages in their communities, and often lack the funding and staff to respond to all the potential EAL issues that may present (DfES 2004, 18). The result is a lack of communication between the family and professionals, which may result in a potential special educational need being misdiagnosed or mislabeled as some other issue, and the child not receiving needed identification of potential SEN. The key, according to Russell (2003, 216) is that information must be accessible, both ways, to families and professionals.
Often these children have barriers related to the economic condition of their families. Over half the families with a disabled child are living on or below the margin of poverty (Russell 2003, 218). Often at least one parent is unable to work because of the childcare needs presented by the disabled child. Lack of financial resources in the family reduces the child’s access to services, as often transportation needs are unmet. More parents need “access to good quality childcare and early years provision in their local community (DfES 2004, 10). Poor families also typically live in poor communities, which often suffer a wide array of service deficiencies. “There are wide regional variations in the quality and coherence of available support” (Russell 2003, 223). Similarly, levels of support vary widely from community to community and even sometimes from pupil to pupil (Russell 2003, 220). This means resources leading to identification or intervention for one SEN pupil may not be available to a similar pupil simply because of where the second pupil lives, with poor children the least likely to have access to needed services.
In short, for noticeably disabled children, “lack of effective information and communication about available services, a shortfall in appropriate family support services and the impact of racism and low income in many communities” often form a barrier to identification and early intervention (Russell 2003, 217).
The above issues may affect all children with SEN; however, children with less obvious or visible disability suffer from additional barriers to identification and intervention. Whilst the blind child is easily recognised, the child with a learning disability or emotional issue may suffer for years before his or her needs are identified. For these children, lack of training amongst childcare and school staffs, ineffective sharing of information, insufficient time and resources, and even the child and/or parents’ response to learning difficulties can form barriers to SEN identification and intervention.
A lack of training amongst those who interact with the child also leads to reduced identification, and therefore reduced intervention (Fletcher-Campbell and Cullen 2000, 90). Childcare and early years workers have the daunting task of determining whether a child has special educational needs, or is reacting to poverty, cultural differences, neglect, or some other factor. For example, school personnel and the LEA are expected to “seek evidence of identifiable non-academic factors affecting statements” before full assessment (Callias 2001, 25). They look for other issues, such as “health problems interfering with schooling, sensory impairments, speech and language difficulties, poor school attendance, problems in the child’s home circumstances, or any emotional or behavioural difficulties” that may be causing the child’s educational difficulties (Callias 2001, 25). Because of this, children who come from difficult home situations or for whom English is an additional language will often experience delay as personnel try to determine whether these contributing factors or a true special educational need is present. The less trained staff is in these situations, the less likely they are to arrive at a correct, timely decision, or be able to correctly evaluate the child’s special educational needs in light of additional factors.
This is compounded by discrepancies regarding what does and does not constitute a special educational need. “The criteria for identifying children with SEN and especially for thresholds triggering a statutory assessment are very general” (Callias 2001, 30). Because of this generality, “they remain open to differing interpretations and are likely to continue to be a source of potential difference of opinion” (Callias 2001, 30). Again, the authority or school with less trained personnel is therefore less likely to be able to provide timely and accurate service to SEN children in their care with other potentially contributing factors.
The DfES recognises that early childcare workers and early years personnel need additional training in SEN identification, allowing services to “work on a preventative basis, rather than waiting until crisis point is reached” (??, 16). The government’s Removing Barriers to Achievement states an area needing improvement is “the expertise of those working with young children with SEN and disabilities” and advocates “consistent, nationally recognised training be provide to staff in all settings” (DfES 2004, 17)
Another barrier to early identification and intervention is lack of communication and information sharing amongst involved parties. DfES repeatedly recognises this as a barrier to service, and advocates better information sharing and assessments for early intervention (DfES 2004, 10). Russell (2003, 221) similarly concludes it is widely recognised that fiscal, structural and cultural barriers between agencies negatively impact SEN identification and intervention. Schools and authorities facing high staff turnover have additional communication barriers as multiple personnel will often be involved in one identification or assessment.
The problem was once much more severe. Fifteen years ago, “LAPP evaluation showed that staff in some schools were rediscovering the same learning problems in the same students each successive year, with no awareness of what might have been done about them in the past” (Stradling and Saunders 1993, 130). The government recently launched the Early Support Pilot Programme, which provides a single key worker who “takes responsibility for ensuring that services are coordinated and delivered around the family’s needs” (DfES 2004, 12). This allows for a coordinated, single assessment for the child, better information sharing between agencies, and ongoing reviewing services (DfES 2004, 12).
Even the key worker system, however requires that the key worker be able to obtain accurate information regarding the child. “The criteria for ascertaining special needs begins with evidence that the child’s attainments are discrepant with the majority of children his or her age” (Callias 2001, 25). If the child is reported to be below attainment level by some parties and not by others, it brings into question whether the child’s issues are truly special educational needs or environmental. In some cases information is simply not provided or forwarded by involved agencies, often due to the lack of time and resources as described below. Key workers for children in unstable living situations also have difficulties in obtaining needed information. If a child is not at a given agency for a long enough period, and is constantly transferring from agency branch to agency branch or from school to school, it becomes difficult to gather all the needed information for accurate identification and intervention. In such situations parents are also often unable or unwilling to provide information on their child, making the child present without background at each new school or agency.
Insufficient time and resources are another barrier to SEN identification and intervention. Lack of funding can cause delay by leading to not enough personnel (DfES 2004, 18). Although specific positions are advocated or required, some vacancies go unfilled for too long a period of time, and other staff are given caseloads in excess of recommendations (DfES 2004, 18). High turnover in the most needy schools and communities compounds this problem. One noted barrier to intervention is a lack of key workers who “ensure well coordinated services planned to meet individual family needs” (Russell 2003, 216). Poorer communities, as discussed above, often lack the resources and materials that other communities consider normal. Children’s Trusts are working to address lack of access to information and services, and lack of the services themselves in some areas, but discrepancies remain (DfES 2004, 13). Whilst the SEN Code of Practice is a welcomed guidance by many, there is ongoing concern about the time needed to implement the Code, and whether resources allocated to SEN pupils will take away from pupils without special needs (Bowers and Wilkinson 1998, 120).
A final barrier to SEN identification and intervention is sometimes the child or parents themselves. A child who appears to not have special educational needs but in actuality does will often develop elaborate coping mechanisms to hide his or her learning difficulty (DfES 2004, 52). Such children often feel “stupid,” as their parents and teachers tell them to try harder and work to their potential, not realising that they already are. As the child works harder but is still unable to master material presented, feelings of inadequacy are compounded and coping and hiding mechanisms become more prominent (DfES 2004, 52). Sometimes this will be in the form of withdrawing or presenting as shy so as to avoid being asked to contribute. In other children, acting out as the class clown or seemingly rebelling and refusing to cooperate allows the child to avoid confrontation of his or her learning needs. As such, the child may progress through several years of schooling before his or her need for special education is identified. The child with unidentified SEN also sometimes refuses to cooperate with identification and intervention efforts, as there continues to be some social stigma in some schools and communities to learning difficulties.
Parents may similarly resist a child’s identification as possibly needing special educational support, or the interventions suggested by the LEA. Parents may not realise that identification of a special educational need does not necessarily require their child be removed from mainstream education or schooled specially, that in fact, children are mainstreamed wherever possible (DfES 2002, 5). They may have issues regarding social stigma, or be in denial that their child has any sort of difficulty. In these situations, parents may refuse to provide information, mislead workers into the true nature of the child’s attainment, causing environmental issues or other factors to be considered.
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Fortunately, there are many ways that these barriers can be and are being overcome. The cultural issues of some minority and ethnic communities regarding children with disabilities is a complex one, and therefore defies an easy solution. However, increasing awareness and understanding within local people groups, particularly if such is available in their own native languages, is important to removing barriers for SEN children’s identification and for them receiving the services they need. Educating staff at community centres or religious places where people from such cultural background might seek assistance, for instance, on the facts of special educational needs and services available to children might lessen the stigma of disability and provide more accessible information to affected families. Also, translating information or providing written information in a wide variety of languages would be an aid to workers faced with a number of different language groups in their communities. These publications could even be available online, allowing easy download and printing of such publications and eliminating the need to keep many different copies of such information on hand and organised, or the chance of running out of materials in a specific language.
Parliamentary debate of SEN and various government publications regarding SEN pupils’ needs have led to an increase in funding to LEAs, by which the authorities have begun to address some of the time, resource, and staff training barriers that prevent timely identification and intervention (DfES 2001, iii). In addition, the Code of Practice 2001 contains specific guidance to assist LEAs “obtain the best value from the considerable resources and expertise they invest in helping children with special educational needs (DfES 2001, iii). Serving more children within the context of regular schools through inclusion and mainstreaming additionally reduces the costs to LEAs, allowing allocation of funds and resources to a greater number of children (DfES 2004, 18). The implementation of a graduated response also makes intervention more economical, and assist staff with perhaps less training than optimum in ruling out the other factors, such as problems at home, that might cause a child to experience learning difficulties (DfES 2001, 26).
The revised Code of Practice widens those able to recommend SEN identification, increasing the likelihood a number of barriers are reduced, and encourages or requires additional sharing of information between LEAs, schools, other involved agencies, parents, and the child. The Code now gives schools and nursery education providers a new right to request assessment and intervention (DfES 2001, iv). Parents and other agencies, in addition to schools, also have the ability to request assessment (DfES 2001, 75). Parents access to information is also significantly improved by the revised Code (DfES 2001, iv). Parents are now encouraged “to contribute their knowledge and understanding of their child, and to raise any concerns they may have about their child’s needs and the provision which is being made for them (DfES 2001, 52). When a child is being assessed, the LEA is now required to send a copy of assessment notice to both “the designated officer of the Social Services department and the health authority” (DfES 2001, 78). “They should also copy their own educational psychology service and any other relevant agencies, such as the education welfare service” (DfES 2001, 78).
Finally, children’s and parents’ negative perceptions of and reaction to SEN identification and intervention could be reduced. For example, having public service or information campaigns similar to those previously discussed for minority or ethnic communities might make people more aware and informed. Early identification of children prior to them beginning to have negative feelings about themselves and school would in itself be an assistance. Also, children should have a forum and be encouraged to talk about their learning experiences. Having a humanistic approach that values each child’s feelings and concepts of their own learning, which also allows them to provide this information to teachers and others in a position to evaluate for SEN, would further remove barriers.
In conclusion, whilst many barriers to SEN identification and intervention have begun to be addressed, more needs to be done. It is detrimental to both the individual SEN child and to the educational system and society as a whole if these children’s needs are not promptly addressed.
Bowers, T. and Wilkinson, D. 1998. The SEN Code of Practice: is it user-friendly? British Journal of Special Education, September 1998, 25(3):119-125.
Callias, M. 2001. Current and Proposed Special Educational Legislation. Child Psychology and Psychiatry Review, 6(1):24-30.
DfES 2001. Special Educational Needs Code of Practice. DfES Publications Centre.
DfES 2002. Special Educational Needs (SEN): A guide for parents and carers. DfES Publications Centre.
DfES 2004. Removing Barriers to Achievement: The Government’s Strategy for SEN. DfES Publications Centre.
Fletcher-Campbell, F. and Cullen, M.A. 2000. Schools’ perceptions of support services for special educational needs. Support for Learning, 15(2): 90-94.
Russell, P. 2003. ‘Access and Achievement or Social Exclusion?’ Are the Government’s Policies Working for Disabled Children and Their Families? Children & Society, 17:215-225.
Stradling, B. and Saunders, L. 1993. Differentiation in practice: responding to the needs of all pupils. Educational Research, Summer 1993, 35(2):127-137.
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