The SENCO cried.
This week has been a ride through the rapids for our family. Ups and downs. Going from nearly drowning to the exhilaration of recognizing we might just get through. Getting around a particularly precarious bit, realizing it’s possible to breathe after all, and maybe even laugh.
Our son, who hours before had been in a fetal position under his blankets resisting going to school, was spontaneously doing multiple cartwheels down the school drive. Then he did a dance of pure joy. Soon, he was shouting out the car window to anyone who might listen, “I’m going to a new school!”
It’s been quite a week.
As you might guess, I am not one often at a loss for words. But this week, this week I was overwhelmed to the point of silence. (“Gobsmacked is the word you are looking for,” said my mother-in-law.) We have heard so many horror stories of people having to fight bureaucracies hard every step of the way to meet the needs of their children with FASD, we were totally unprepared for a responsive, compassionate, quick and downright humane experience. It left us dazed and humbled.
Nine days ago the panel met to determine our son’s eligibility for special provision. Yesterday he had his last day at his old school. Monday he starts at his new school. It’s been a whirlwind of professionalism and goodwill from every quarter imaginable. The powers-that-be all motivated and worked in synchronicity to do what everyone feels is best for our child and for our family. We are deeply appreciative and humbled by the good cheer and caring that has surrounded our son during this process.
My faith in humanity has been restored. I cannot remember another time when my expectations were so totally exceeded on so many levels.
When the intrepid special educational needs coordinator (SENCO) at his current school heard he had been approved for special provision, she said, “It’s bittersweet. I know this is best for him. But I want to cry.”
The school he is leaving is a school worth fighting for. It is run by progressive educators who believe every child can learn. It has a vibrant program, including arts and music. Last year our son, as an incoming Year 7 student, was centre stage and won the school’s “Got Talent” show. It was a moment our guy will treasure forever, made possible by a school administration that puts great emphasis on nurturing the different abilities of its 1000+ students. And yet, even here their hands are being increasingly tied due to changes in the national educational policies, and the limited budgets within which they can work.
Our son, with a slightly modified environment and less emphasis on GCSEs, could have survived in mainstream, if the government’s fine words about inclusion were backed up by the flexibility and resources to implement them in a meaningful way. But our guy has one shot at these years, and it is too important to play out our political beliefs at the cost of his self-esteem.
And the SENCO knows that. I suspect SENCOs across the country are weeping inside as they watch this nightmare coming. The government’s new emphasis on tests are affecting all kids, and especially those with special needs and learning disabilities. They are tying the hands of creative educators who want to include a diverse student population in mainstream classrooms. And they are forcing hard decisions by parents across the country, parents like us who believe in inclusion but who must make the best decisions for their own children.
But this is a positive post. In a world where we hear so many negatives, we feel the need to shout out with encouragement to all those who work within these systems to say, “It can work! Sometimes, it does work! Keep the faith. Keep on fighting. It is possible.” We say that to encourage not just parents, but also those within the bureaucracies. Sometimes we all need to know things can indeed work well.
We were expecting months of mornings like the ones we’ve been having – our son, completely dysregulated, begging us, pleading in every way he knows how to not force him to go to a school he finds overwhelming. We had no idea that we could find out on a Thursday that he could start at a new school on the next Monday.
We never dreamed a place existed where our son would be so welcomed – not with trepidation as has happened every step of his educational way, but with excited anticipation. But then, there we were. We had dropped by the new school on the Thursday to pick up a welcome pack. We were asked if we had a few minutes, the head wanted to come out to say hi, and within moments we were surrounded by two kids who will be his learning buddies, the TA, his form tutor. We were whisked up to the classroom where he will be. We met most of the 9 kids who will be in his class with him. We were shown artwork they made for him. We had a 12-week-old puppy put into our arms. It was truly, truly amazing. The warmth, the fact every adult and most of the kids already knew some of our son’s favorite things. It was really so much more than we ever could have envisioned. And they didn’t even know we were going to be there that morning!
I am overawed at the love and concern and shepherding that is surrounding our guy. I am grateful. I know this is NOT the experience most people have, and it is so much more than we could have expected. This is the way it should be – could be – for everyone.
We also are well aware that this is not a “miracle.” It is the result of more than a year of hard work by the current SENCO at his mainstream school and the other professionals surrounding our son. Once his FASD was better understood (and this admittedly is the culmination of a 10 year journey so far), they were able to bring in experts to make proper assessments: an outreach consultant from a local special needs school, an educational specialist from a division for physical and neurological impairments, in-depth evaluations from the speech and language team, detailed testing done at the school – supported and unsupported, to further understand our son’s spikey educational profile. It is due to a forward-looking pediatrician who earlier had helped us to get a diagnosis when our child’s case was not straightforward and who recently has helped us engage with a local service for young people with learning disabilities. The involvement early on of one educational psychologist who is expert in FASD whose detailed paperwork successfully counteracted some of the earlier, horrendous assessments done by other EdPscyhs. It is a result of our better understanding of what is possible thanks to the contacts and connections we have made via online support groups on social media. It helps that we have spent time researching and exploring options, seeking to better understand how to help someone with the brain injury of FASD to learn. None of this alters the fact that our son is benefitting from the goodwill and hard work of a number of key professionals, without the cooperation of any one of whom his move would not have happened so quickly or so easily. Even better, every single one of them has shared his joy at the news.
We know we are out of the woods yet. We are certain there will be further bumps and knocks as we continue to navigate these rapids.
There is so much more to say. But for this morning, this Saturday-in-between-schools, my husband and I really just want to say “thanks.”
Our son, who just woke up, is sitting by the heater, watching You Tube videos of people tapping cups to a beat. He just spontaneously said, “Yesterday was my last day at my old school. I am proud. And Monday I start my new school. I am happy….EXTREMELY happy.”
Such sweet music to my ears.
Paying it forward: For those of you who may benefit from this, here are some authoritative quotes (with their citations) to use to back up your efforts to get educational authorities to re-think the way they are educating your child with FASD:
Fetal Alcohol Syndrome: “This [brain] damage results in difficulties for students in many areas of the curriculum in the acquisition of new information, linking new information to previously learned information and the practical application of knowledge gained.” [Secondary Framework: Teaching and Learning Strategies to Support Secondary Aged Students with Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD), Carolyn Blackburn, Project Director, Professor Barry Carpenter, OBE, NOFAS UK, 2010, page 6. http://www.nofas-uk.org/documents/FAS-eD%20SECONDARY%20FRAMEWORK.pdf%5D
“Students with FASD will require informed, empathetic, reflective practitioners who are prepared to personalise learning in order to provide a practical, multi-sensory approach to teaching with opportunities for 1:1 support, small group work and extension activities, which allow students to consolidate and generalise their learning experiences in readiness for living experiences. [Secondary Framework: Teaching and Learning Strategies to Support Secondary Aged Students with Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD), Carolyn Blackburn, Project Director, Professor Barry Carpenter, OBE, NOFAS UK, 2010, page 9. http://www.nofas-uk.org/documents/FAS-eD%20SECONDARY%20FRAMEWORK.pdf%5D
“Multi-sensory learning creates multiple neurological pathways to learn. This whole brain approach maximizes understanding, learning, and memory. Multi-sensory learning eliminates the possibility of information solely being presented in the student’s weakest sensory modality and, instead, ensures addressing a student’s learning strengths. Involve as many senses as possible when learning: visual, auditory, kinesthetic, tactile” [Understanding Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD): A Comprehensive Guide for Pre-K-8 Educators, Chandra D. Zieff, M.Ed. Rochelle D. Schwartz-Bloom, Ph.D., Mark Williams, Ph.D., Chapter Four, The FASD Student and the Classroom, https://sites.duke.edu/fasd/chapter-4-the-fasd-student-and-the-classroom/use-variety/]
“Creating multiple pathways to learning is the most effective way for FASD students to learn. Learning occurs more easily when words are linked to an action, paired with music or a rhythm. This can help students anchor information input and trigger or cue information retrieval: Pair oral information with visual cues; Teach concepts through art, music, and drama…” [Understanding Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD): A Comprehensive Guide for Pre-K-8 Educators, Chandra D. Zieff, M.Ed. Rochelle D. Schwartz-Bloom, Ph.D., Mark Williams, Ph.D., Chapter Five: Effective Strategies for Information-Processing & Memory Difficulties, https://sites.duke.edu/fasd/chapter-5-the-fasd-student-and-learning-issues/effective-strategies-for-information-processing-and-memory-difficulties/%5D
One Canadian study placed the average life expectancy at birth for people with FASD at 34. [Thanh NX, Jonsson E., Life Expectancy of People with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, J Popul Ther Clin Pharmacol. 2016;23(1):e53-9. 2016 Mar 9, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26962962%5D
“The importance of providing appropriate support for students with FASD cannot be emphasised enough. The secondary behaviours … may become disabling. Research describes the bleak outcomes for some young people with FASD: mental health problems (seen in 87% of children; O’Connor et al, 2002); disrupted school experience (60% over the age of 11 years; Riley, 2003); trouble with the law (60% of teenagers; Kelly, 2009); imprisonment (50%; Kelly, 2009); inappropriate sexual behaviour; problems with dependent living (80%; Riley, 2003) and employment (Streissguth and Kanter, 1997). They also are at increased risk of developing addictive behaviours such as alcohol abuse, thereby potentially continuing the cycle of FASD into the next generation (Baer et al, 2003). Streissguth and colleagues (1996) found that 3% of 6–11-year-olds, 12% of 12–20-year-olds, and 23% of adults from a cohort of 415 subjects diagnosed with FAS or Foetal Alcohol Effects had attempted suicide. (The adult figure is five times the US national average.) [Complex Learning Difficulties and Disabilities Research Project, Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders Briefing Sheet, Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (SSAT), Information Sheet, http://complexld.ssatrust.org.uk/uploads/1c%20fasd-info.pdf%5D