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Why a diagnosis should not dictate the intervention offered to SEND pupils

A diagnosis does not correlate with the cognitive challenges the pupil may have, finds a new study 

We can reduce school exclusions by ensuring that we tackle problems early, says Jack Davies

A diagnosis does not correlate with the cognitive challenges the pupil may have, finds a new study 

Schools may need to adapt the way they support pupils with SEND, according to a study published by the Centre for Attention, Learning and Memory at the MRC Cognition & Brain Sciences Unit, University of Cambridge.

Writing in the 2 November issue of Tes, the authors of the study – Dr Joni Holmes, Dr Duncan Astle and Dr Joe Bathelt – explain how they assessed 550 children with cognitive-related learning challenges and used artificial intelligence to map the results. 

“All children completed a broad set of assessments of cognitive abilities known to be impaired in children with learning difficulties,” they write. “These included tests of vocabulary, sound processing (phonological processing), memory, problem-solving (executive function and IQ) and attention. They also completed assessments of maths and literacy skills.”

SEND diagnosis

The authors expected to see children with the same diagnosis grouped together around the same cognitive challenges, but this proved not to be the case. 

“We predicted that children with, say, ADHD would sit together in the map,” they write. “After all, they have the same diagnosis, so they must be very similar to each other. But that was not the case. For example, a child with an ADHD diagnosis was equally likely to sit anywhere within the map, indicating that the diagnosis did not correspond to their cognitive profile. In fact the same was true of other diagnoses that were represented within the clinic, like dyslexia or autism spectrum disorders (ASD).”

They conclude that this should mean schools do not rely on diagnosis to determine intervention, but rather use cognitive tests to create a true picture of where the child may need more support. 

“It clearly demonstrates that diagnoses do not map onto cognitive skills,” they write. “These findings underscore the need to understand more about why children are struggling in the classroom, rather than simply adopting off-the-shelf interventions for particular labels.”

You can read the full analysis, including an in-depth look at the results, in the 2 November issue of Tes

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