From functioning to flourishing: an ambition for special needs education

“A few years ago, I was speaking at one of my very first autism conferences, and a parent came up to me with one question: ‘What will happen to my child when I’m gone?’ For me, this became the million dollar question in our autism community. While this father was crying, asking me this question, while his son was just right there, non-verbal, I thought to myself: this is why I do what I do. When these kids become adults, I want to see them live the best lives possible and to go after their dreams, just like me.”

Autism advocate Kerry Magro gave this TedTalk: “What Happens to Children With Autism When They Become Adults?” in February. Magro was non-verbal at two-and-a-half years old and diagnosed with autism at four. He attributes his remarkable professional achievements (award-winning speaker, best-selling author, film consultant) to the support of his parents and the 15 years’ of occupational, physical and speech therapy he undertook following his diagnosis.

As Magro acknowledges, every single parent asks the “million dollar question”: “What will happen to my child when I’m gone?” Typically, this is followed by: “Will they have support? Will they progress? Will they be able to live their dreams?”

The ultimate aspiration of any parent is that their child will realise their ambitions; and education should ensure a successful preparation for adulthood so that children with special needs can lead happy, independent and fulfilled lives.

As the Government places an increased emphasis on life outcomes in the latest Special Educational Needs and Disability Code of Practice, the requirement for educators to prepare special needs and disability (SEND) pupils for life after secondary school has never been so pertinent.

So how can we help these young people reach their goals?

Developmental disorders such as autism are unforeseeable and the onset of the condition represents a transition in a child’s development over which the parent has little or no control. Access to integrated provision through the newly-introduced Education and Health Care Plans (EHCPs) can give parents and carers greater scope in choosing and funding the provision that best meets their child’s needs, but the “million dollar question” still speaks of uncertainty and the fear of disempowerment.

Perhaps we underestimate the role children can play in shaping their future. As Magro reminds us: “…we need to teach these kids as they grow into adults how to advocate for themselves.” External interventions are only one aspect of SEND provision; and while they are valuable in training pupils to function within the social and moral frameworks that govern society, it is arguably only through internal empowerment that we may enable all children to flourish.

Department for Education statistics suggest pupils with SEND are struggling to meet national benchmarks of attainment at primary and secondary levels. We can interpret these findings in two ways.

First, we need a different approach to SEND interventions: namely, one that explicitly seeks to empower children. There is an emerging view that social skills interventions should seek to foster “self-awareness” and developing this capacity is linked to social motivation, social awareness and mental health. Literature suggests character skills such as social motivation are a principal determinant of adult outcomes.

Second, we might interpret the DfE’s statistics as giving too much weight to standardised measurements of attainment. Research by the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues (The Good Teacher: Understanding Virtues In Practice) suggests character strengths such as motivation and determination predict academic success better than cognitive indicators. Such findings not only call for educators to reconsider their neglect of non-cognitive factors; they also support the need for SEND interventions that explicitly target the affective attainment of pupils.

It is not good enough to make character education implicit and believe pupils with SEND will simply absorb abstract notions. It is important that teachers and teaching assistants are educated in delivering and differentiating a character curriculum through interventions that focus explicitly on developing character strengths.

Empirical evidence from a small pilot project I conducted for the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues (Reflection and Practical Wisdom in Special Needs Education) suggests children with SEND, particularly those with autism, struggle to acquire a virtue vocabulary. For example, a SENCO suggested virtue language was “too abstract” for autistic pupils. She suggested explicit pre-teaching of individual virtues – perhaps with a speech and language therapist – prior to attempting any larger integrated character-based intervention.

If, as the literature above suggests, character skills are vital to flourishing in later life, then deficits in these skills has a profound impact on attainment and impedes children with SEND. Arguably, it is only by giving equal importance to the affective side of learning, by concerning ourselves as special needs educators with who the child is and what they might become – and not simply measuring what they know, can do and understand, as the National Curriculum dictates – that we may enable these young people to realise their dreams.

Kyle Davison, Teaching Fellow (2016), Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues. Kyle has a professional background in Special Educational Needs in secondary schools


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