Thanks to Charles Weedon, Educational psychologist and teacher, for this post

Charley really toils with some of the things we ask her to do in the classroom.  The policies about learning difficulties, the rhetoric, are often impressive….. But the reality sometimes seems more threadbare and stretched day-by-day, and the outside agencies that might be able to help us just don’t seem to be there.  Despite our best efforts, Charley is going nowhere good  –  reading still agony, written work looks like a battlefield, and while some days she’s worryingly quiet and withdrawn, others she’s off the wall and causing mayhem.

We need to know just how to help her, but nothing really works.  We’ve been to dyslexia training days, read up on ADHD, got a fair idea about dyspraxia, and we’re all on the lookout for autistic traits…. But nothing seems to quite fit Charley, or help her much.  The only SEN label she’s heading for is SEBD, and that’s just not right.  Just one look at her face on the few occasions she’s coping, and you know this is a kid who desperately wants to do OK, to conform, to be like her peers.

So why isn’t it working for her? How do we find the key?

Maybe part of it, a large part, is that special needs assessment tends to come at it from the wrong end, with teachers/specialists/other professionals tending to go in looking for one particular ‘difficulty’ or another,  e.g. is this child dyslexic, dyspraxic, hyperactive, autistic, etc, –  while they should be saying “Let’s try to get a thorough understanding of how this particular child learns, and can I gather a thorough picture of all the child’s strengths and weaknesses” –  the kind of picture that, in happier days, an assessment by an experienced SENDCO, local authority specialist or Ed. Psych. should provide – but too seldom seems to, nowadays.

So if we want to really ‘get’ Charley, maybe don’t set out to ‘identify learning difficulties’. Instead, set out to understand and map how she learns, all her strengths and all her weaknesses.

For example, many of us are happy with concepts such as ‘dyslexia’ when there is an obvious discrepancy between apparent academic potential and current levels of literacy –  but arguably this is about as useful as saying someone has a ‘fever’ when they are hot and sticky and running a temperature. It states the obvious but doesn’t tell us what to do. A good map, however, might provide information that is far more useful, and indicate that there is, say, a mixture of phonological difficulties, some visual stress, poor visual memory and some attentional difficulties. Once this is known, the root causes of the poor literacy may be more effectively addressed.

SEN learning map

If we can make a map for Charley, it is likely to suggest some elements of several of these different difficulties – they hardly ever exist in isolation, and every tiny act of learning draws upon so many domains, skills and attributes. But now, we’ll be able to focus and target so much more effectively.  We’ll know much more accurately where the skills gaps are that are impairing her learning, and where her strengths are that can buttress her learning.  We can now use those labels more accurately, confidently and appropriately, and work out support strategies that build on her unique profile of strengths and weaknesses.

But how can we make this map….? Educational psychologists hardly ever seem to see children directly, waiting lists for speech and language therapists and occupational therapists are already packed, and you can wait forever for a CAMHS referral. And even if we can access these over-stretched professionals, how do we pull together all those different insights into a balanced overview, one that captures ‘the whole Charley’?

Traditionally there hasn’t been much that sets out to do this, but the SNAP packages do.  Updated and expanded regularly since their first development by Hodder Education in 2003, the Special Needs Assessment Profile – Specific Learning Difficulties and the Special Needs Assessment Profile – Behaviour seek to provide just such a map.

They are based on the idea that gathering together and analysing everything that is already known about a child, using questionnaires for school and for the family and supplementing this with a range of focused but simple tests, gives a uniquely thorough understanding of a child, the very map that Charley needs. As well as mapping her strengths and weaknesses, these packages provide a whole swathe of personalised and tailored advice and strategies for you to choose from.

In these days, when there seem to be so many pupils with difficulties and issues of different kinds, when the external support for them seems sometimes to be diminishing in inverse proportion to the pressures and expectations on us for results, packages like these can be lifesavers  –  for Charley, and probably quite a few of her classmates.

Find out more about Special Needs Assessment resources.