I have known schools refer to children as “biters”, “runners” and “raiders”. I have heard schools happily referring to “SEND children”, “EAL children” and “pupil-premium children”, as if these groups are some form of homogeneous collective. I have witnessed schools define students by a label rather than by who they are.
At our school, we take the opposite view. For us, the uniqueness of the child is paramount and using person-first language is integral to that. As such, we have the following as one of our absolutes, key to everything we represent and stand for: “We aim to ensure that pupils are respected as individuals and not defined by social, medical or psychological labels.”
When schools define children on the basis of clinical information, characteristics of behaviour or particular socio-economic origins, it is a concern – unless, that is, the young person chooses to define themselves in that way.
The use of labels risks reducing the individuality and uniqueness that should characterise education, especially for those pupils who require additional support. It can easily lead to a process of presumption through which expected characteristics can become selffulfilling prophecies, where people begin to see the designation before they see the child.
From an educational point of view, this risks leading to lowered expectations based on crude generalisations about the capability of people with a particular diagnosis or from certain backgrounds.
So, what can you do to make sure that in your school, you see the child first and – in seeking to meet the needs of all – you don’t risk serving stereotypes?
1 Put people first
Unless the pupil defines themselves by their “label”, you should have a culture where the person always comes first. We don’t talk about “Down’s children”, we talk about “Bob, who has Down’s syndrome”. Or, even better, we talk about “Bob” because we know who he is and what additional support he needs from us. The diagnosis then becomes supplementary information that is only referred to when explicitly required.
2 Focus on individual ability
We always focus on the potential and the qualities of the person that we are teaching. Our expectations are shaped not by what we perceive the person to be unable to do, but instead by knowing what they are capable of and having a very clear understanding of what they need to be taught next, informed by carefully delivered assessment.
3 Be flexible
While we should try to consider the value of those approaches specifically designed to meet the needs of pupils with particular designations or diagnoses, we also need to consider the value of those approaches intended for other groups, or, indeed, no particular group. The risk of only looking for a solution shaped by a label is that it may not be the perfect fit that you think it will be. It is essential to be open-minded about what may work best and allow your own professional judgement, and that of your colleagues, to inform a considered view of what is right for each individual child.
4 Talk to the family
Involve the family in your thinking. Discuss your approaches with them and ask whether they think that it would work for their child. After all, they are experts by experience and they can add a valuable alternative perspective, which can help avoid time being wasted by trying methodologies that are a poor match.
5 How to make it work
Admittedly, working like this can be challenging and requires a long-term investment in terms of both time and money from schools.
While potentially more expensive, ensuring that professional development isn’t focused too heavily on those with individual responsibilities can help to distribute knowledge throughout the school. This builds a better collective understanding and mitigates the risk of poorly cascaded information.
It is understandable to look towards the SENDCO or the pupil-premium champion to provide advice and guidance, but it is essential that we also take individual responsibility for the children within our classrooms and not see these roles as a way of abdicating that responsibility – something that applies just as equally to those leading schools as well as classroom teachers. After all, we are all supposed to be teachers of SEND now and that also applies to other vulnerable groups.
We need to provide teachers with time to assess students and take risks, too. A better understanding of the characters who sit behind the labels can enable us to make more effective changes based on individual need. To achieve this, there needs to be a culture of willingness to make evidencebased judgements in order to take informed pedagogical risks. Investing in the time to explore alternatives may allow your pupils to reap the rewards.
For example, symbol-based communication systems can have a positive impact on the acquisition of new vocabulary irrespective of whether or not it is seen as a student’s primary communication tool. We are also increasingly seeing the broad use of Makaton sign language in early years settings to support the development of verbal language.
Finally, we need to invest in resources so that teachers have the tools at their disposal to fully engage with individuals. For example, getting the family view by sending a camera home to collect images of the child completing everyday activities helps to ensure that pupils’ individual interests are reflected in their work.
In doing this, we aim to avoid presumptions about their personal experiences. Placing the child at the centre of their work in this way can improve engagement through a reduction in the level of abstraction contained within tasks.
So, let’s stick to focusing on the child and avoid the trap of perpetuating stereotypes through defining children by the diagnoses that they have and where they come from. Let’s focus our attention on who they are and what they as an individual need to learn. Let’s make sure we look beyond the label.
Simon Knight is deputy head at Frank Wise School in Banbury and is associate director of the National Education Trust He tweets @SimonKnight100
Effective practice in special schools
Simon Knight will be writing a monthly article focused on effective practice in special schools and how lessons from the sector can have an impact in mainstream settings. His next features are:
Why you need to sweat the small stuff (8 May)
The relationship between consistency and uniformity and how we balance the two, looking at the environment, behaviour, communication, professional development and aims and values.
Grow your own (10 June)
Knowledge production versus knowledge consumption. Looking at how we have built sustainable quality within the classroom and insulated ourselves from staff turnover by collectively developing resources, rather than relying on commercial solutions.