Breaking the stereotype

26th January 1996 at 00:00
WORKING WITH PARENTS OF CHILDREN WITH SPECIAL NEEDS, Garry Hornby, Cassell Pounds 11.99. WORKING WITH PARENTS AS PARTNERS IN SEN, Eileen Gascoigne, David Fulton Pounds 12.99. DEAF CHILDREN, THEIR FAMILIES AND PROFESSIONALS, Sarah Beazley and Michele Moore, David Fulton Pounds 12.99

Gary Thomas on sources to help parents and teachers of special needs children. While these three books all look at the parent-professional relationship, they couldn't be more different in their attitudes or starting points. Professionals are viewed along a spectrum from doing-a-good-but-difficult-job to insensitive, technicist and interested primarily in career and power. However, they all offer to help professionals. Hornby and Gascoigne do this by giving clear well structured advice, while Beazley and Moore present the disillusioned voice of parents and ask professionals to reflect.

Hornby's book is a treasure chest of ideas for those who are working with parents, drawing for its advice on the author's substantial experience. It covers communication with parents, different kinds of parental involvement, working with groups and working with parents of children with particular kinds of problems. It is sensitively written, with many good examples, and there is an excellent section on bereavement.

Despite its obvious strengths, I had concerns about so much being offered in one book. It is a slim volume, yet it is doggedly eclectic.

One minute ideas and advice emanate from psychoanalyst Alfred Adler; the next, ideas stream from the behaviourists. There is perhaps a danger in proffering hugely different philosophies within a few pages: there is an inevitable attenuation in understanding as ideas pass from originator to user, and if users receive only a sketch of a philosophy and its associated techniques, there is the possibility of misunderstanding. The "pindown" phenomenon, for instance, showed that behavioural technology - satisfactory in safe hands - had been grossly misunderstood and distorted in practice.

There are other points of concern. The text talks in a rather simplistic way about special needs and special educational needs, almost as though these are unproblematic descriptors. For instance, we are told, "children with disabilities make up the largest group of children with special needs to be found in schools," and, "the largest proportion of children with SEN are those with mild learning difficulties . . ." To query this use of language is not simply pedantry: the unquestioning, uncritical use of terminology may promulgate the idea that children's problems at school are mainly within-child with the corollary that the child - as distinct from any other agency in the child's life - has the problem. At one point we are told: "Parents must accept the reality of their child's special needs." One might ask whose reality parents are being asked to accept, particularly where the "problem" relates to behaviour or learning.

Eileen Gascoigne is a mother of three children with special needs and in her book Working with Parents as Partners in SEN writes with confidence and sensitivity about the problems of communication which sometimes afflict the parent-professional relationship. Given the author's background, it is surprising to see much of one chapter devoted to expounding a series of parental stereotypes, such as "the articulate, assertive, educated parents"; "the angry, knowledgeable parent"; "the angry, ill-informed parent". Although this is done partly to encourage the reader to reflect on what these parents are "really like, inside", its effects may be just the kind of pigeon-holing that the author is presumably anxious for professionals to avoid in their dealings with parents.

In fact, the chapter closes with a reminder to "accept parents for what they are" and highlights some differences between parents and professionals which offer an insight into why parents may be angry oremotional.

One of these notes that parents' commitment is continuous, whereas professionals get evenings and weekends off, holiday entitlement and Christmas and bank holidays off. Small wonder that parents may sometimes seem unreasonable.

There is an excellent section on school SEN policies and particular ways in which parents may be involved in their development. There is also a useful section on the Code of Practice and how parents may best be informed and involved at the various stages. There are also good sections on statements, reviews, complaints and appeals. Appendices give notes on "writing about your child" for parents, and addresses and phone numbers of organisations which may be helpful.

In Deaf Children, Their Families and Professionals, Beazley and Moore firmly take the line that children with hearing impairment are disabled by "people's attitudes and oppressive environments".

The book comprises a mix of commentary from the authors with excerpts from interviews, discussions and diary transcripts from parents of children with hearing impairment.

The authors argue that "deaf children can be disabled by oppressive social and educational practices, by professionals who disempower both them and their families, and by any individual or group who, or which, is intolerant of difference and refuses to celebrate diversity."

They criticise academics and professionals for insensitivity in communicating with parents and for stereotypical assumptions about parental reactions. The fierce debate among professionals about oralism or signing is seen as an arcane discussion in which parents and children are used as pawns.

Professionals have prejudices and present one-sided but contradictory opinions to parents. One of the parents to whom the authors spoke commented that this was far from being a "professional way to go about treating parents who are in a very vulnerable situation". Similarly, professionals may have preferences over the kind of school a child should attend and they present or withhold information as an exercise in the use of power.

In their different ways - gentle advice or abrasively brutal honesty - these books are all constructive. They will all contribute to better understanding by professionals and better communication between professionals and parents. They might even, dare one hope, contribute to a reconstruction of the meaning of the word "professional".

Gary Thomas is professor of education at the University of the West of England, Bristol.

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