You can never be too early

The younger the child the greater the chance to identify the onset of learning difficulties and intervene effectively, says Philip Smith

OME years ago I went to a conference which was described along the lines of "The early recognition of specific learning difficulties". The day was, in fact, given over to recognition of specific learning difficulties in the early years of school and not, as I expected, the early years of life.

All too often "early" when used in an educational context, as in "early identification" and "early intervention", is seen in the very narrow context of a curriculum and not in terms of a child's life. All of us are guilty of treating children like small adults and as a consequence we easily forget the steep gradient of their early development.

Although children generally tolerate this lack of sensitivity to age and stage, it has particular significance for those with special needs. Any problem of development in the first five years has a significance relative to this gradient of development and is out of all proportion to problems in later life and its impact magnified accordingly.

The problem is that most very young children who have special needs of such degree as to interfere with their development and progress are not readily identified because of the subtlety of the manifesting signs. The information and research on which the Warnock report was based is now 30 years old and there are good grounds for believing that a similar trawl of special needs in Scotland would produce different results in terms of nature and degree.

In the area in which I worked, the incidence of profound and severe learning difficulties (confusingly renamed "complex" learning difficulties) reduced significantly over the past 20 years. However, there was a corresponding rise in other, less obvious but nevertheless significant and intrusive problems.

This group of children do not have recognisable physical characteristics and their behaviour problems, where they exist, are readily confused with those of any badly behaved two-year old. The difficulties they have are relatively specific: slow language development, communication difficulties, clumsiness, poor appetite, allergies, food intolerance. The problems are, however, frequently masked by skills and abilities in other areas, particularly visually mediated activities (for example, computer games).

These are complex and subtle difficulties which are nevertheless extremely intrusive. They are alarmingly common and unrecognised and, if untreated, can severely affect a child's progress.

What makes identification so difficult? First, because of the steep gradient of development the signs of special needs in the under-fives are not easily recognised: a primary child who does not read, who misbehaves or does not understand instructions is very obvious. An 18-month-old who isn't walking or a two-year-old who doesn't speak does not generate the same concerns (and is not open to the same kind of regular scrutiny as a school or nursery child).

Second, multi-agency and multidisciplinary teams are notoriously difficult to organise and to maintain partly because of the varying allegiances they represent - education, social work, health, medicine - but also because there is no recognised or statutory framework.

If we take the 1978 Warnock report as a benchmark, how much progress have we made in developing procedures for identifying special needs in the very young? How many specialist, multi-agency teams exist in Scotland? How many councils and health boards have a joint policy and practice?

Unless the Executive (and not just its education or health departments) takes up the baton and leads the way, the special needs of pre-school children will continue to go largely unrecognised and without provision at a time in their lives when they are most open to help.

Philip Smith is a retired educational psychologist.

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