The Pro’s & Con’s of a Specialist Placement

Mainstream, primary, for us was an extremely challenging and traumatic time, as you will see from my earlier blogs: ‘Our Primary School Journey – ‘4-5yrs’, ‘5-6yrs’ and ‘6-7yrs’.

At the time, and like so many other parents, I was guided by the ‘professionals’ and the ‘system’. I felt that I had to follow a set procedure, go through all the possible interventions and then wait for the ‘professionals’ to decide that my daughter’s placement had failed!

With hindsight, I SHOULD have been stronger and more forceful sooner! I SHOULD have stood firmer and called a halt to the umpteenth ESBAS worker coming in and offering yet another similar service, which had failed multiple times previously! I SHOULD have called a halt to having to pick my daughter up early on numerous occasions! I SHOULD have called a halt to my daughter being in isolation for weeks at a time! Hindsight is a wonderful thing, however, being brutally honest, it took a while for me to have the confidence to do this.

At the very beginning of Year 3, having started the new school year with a half day exclusion (which, unbelievably had been carried over from the end of the summer term!), I eventually stood my ground and said enough was enough!

This was a safeguarding issue, not only for staff and myself but primarily for my daughter! The emotional impact on her well-being, from being in isolation, 2:1 staff who could not met her needs, causing extreme behaviours, was evident! So, at the tender age of 7, I made the decision to withdraw her from her mainstream placement.

You can never underestimate how detrimental it is to a child who is in the wrong setting! Was it the school’s fault? No but yes!

‘No’, because they have their own systems and protocols to follow, however and that firmly put aside, there were multiple failings…

What went wrong!

Initially, pre diagnosis, my daughter was treated as a naughty, wilful child who was ‘choosing to behaviour in this way’. Seriously? What child would ‘choose’ to become so distraught, hurt others, ‘choose’ to isolate/alienate themselves and have no friends?

Even post diagnosis this mindsight was challenging to change! They had NO idea the importance of implementing PDA strategies and as such her behaviours continued to deteriorate.

Fortunately, we were already well into the EHCP process and was issued a Specialist placement within 4 months of being out of school.

Yes, it was an anxious time and I had serious doubts as to whether she would be able to reintegrate back into education?

As the time grew closer and as anxieties started to crank up, it broke my heart when I was questioned over and over again, ‘will my new school shout at me?’, ‘Will my new school chase me?’, ‘Will my new school hold me?’, ‘will my new school like me?’

The Pro’s

Following her taster sessions, I was amazed that my daughter felt so positive about her new school! In fact, we had to slow the process down a bit as she wanted to go full time from the word go! Phew! The relief for me was overwhelming!

Following a transitional period, the biggest pro for me was that my daughter was finally back in education and was happy! The past 2/3 years had been nothing short of exhausting and it had taken it’s toll on my employment too.

Over time there was the remarkable realisation that I wasn’t needing to regularly check my phone to see if I’d had any missed calls from school! Whilst initially, my heart would sink whenever her new school called, it quickly became apparent that they weren’t calling to inform me of an incident or calling to request me to come and collect her or to inform me of yet another exclusion! I had NEVER experienced, with my youngest, receiving a call from school that WASN’T for any of the reasons above! How refreshing was this?!

The huge difference between mainstream and a specialist placement was they got it! They not only understood but took on board my daughter’s difficulties. They were actually there to support not only my daughter but ME as well! This was totally alien to me but very welcomed nonetheless!

Within her specialist placement it was the norm to have a 4:5 staff ratio. Gone were the days of having 30 pupils with one teacher and one teaching assistant! She also had a named 1:1, specifically for her, her very own trusted adult!

Also, due to how highly staffed the school is, if needed, they were able to mix staff up, bring in a different member of staff, bring in 3 if needed, whatever the situation was, they were able to manage the situation and support my daughter.

Gone were the daily calls to collect, gone were the days of violence and aggression where she would be lashing out at staff and being restrained. I felt great comfort that THIS was the best place for her!

Honeymoon period

Naturally, I did anticipate that there was going to be a ‘honeymoon period’ and dreaded the day that the mask would slip, however this lasted much longer than I could have anticipated, nearly a whole 6 months!

At the time I saw this as a positive thing, she was able to hold it together! I wasn’t getting the dreaded calls! However, I have since come to learn that ‘masking’ is NOT a positive and can be very detrimental on a young person’s mental health.

Anyway, despite the honeymoon period coming to an end, I was in awe of how the school supported my daughter through her difficulties. She wasn’t put in isolation, she wasn’t excluded and I never received THAT call! They just managed and dealt with situations as they arose! Continuously looking at strategies to support her.

The Con’s

I’m not going to lie, I wasn’t naïve enough to think it was all going to be plain sailing and this was going to be the answer to all our prays. I had prepared myself of the fact that it was highly likely my daughter would not only be a teacher but also the learner of some less desirable behaviours!

I also knew, deep down, that it was likely my daughter would be subjected to language and behaviours that no one would wish their 7yr old child to be subjected to. But what was the alternative? All I could do was hope that the Pro’s outweighed the Con’s.

Despite being semi-prepared for behaviours of other students being learnt and copied, it transpired that in fact I wasn’t as prepared as I thought, particularly when my daughter started coming out an even more very colourful language and phrases! By the age of 7 and a half, we pretty much had the full repertoire of expletives!

Additionally to this, and this has been more of late, punching walls and kicking fences/doors etc has also be witnessed and copied.

Home/School Communication

Whilst school have generally been great at two-way communication, this has, frustratingly, been an uphill battle at times. As a parent of a child with complex needs, I want/need to know everything! I am pretty sure I’ve been a thorn in their side at times, however, just give me the information lol!

Being a Specialist school, with all children there having their own needs and difficulties, I can appreciate that negative and disruptive behaviours are, for want of a better word, the ‘norm’. But that aside, and I’m sure many a parent with a child with additional needs can relate, I still need to know ALL of the good, the bad and the ugly!

Friendships

Growing up, ‘friendships’ are often a rollercoaster of a ride! I remember when my elder two daughters were younger and the challenges that came with the constant falling out with friends and then making back up, it used to drive me nuts! However, this is on a whole new level for our children who are on the spectrum and/or with other additional needs, including mental health conditions!

Even making friends in the first instance is difficult, let alone sustaining them! Particularly, when all the students within the school are there due to their needs and difficulties.

Key Stages

Within my daughter’s Specialist school, they don’t group the students into year groups, possibly because there isn’t enough students to do so! However, they DO group the students into Key Stages.

The problem with this is that, for someone like my daughter, who is currently 11 and just gone into Year 7, meant that she has been grouped with other students of different ages, including some who are 13.

She was also put in a class with 3 boys. She is the only 11 year old girl who attends this school. Not only do school group students by Key Stage, but also by need and ability. As you can imagine, having only 60+ students across the whole primary and secondary sector, the chances of having someone of similar age, needs and ability to my daughter, to buddy up with, is pretty much impossible!

The added difficulty of being grouped by Key Stage is the exposure my daughter has had to things that she definitely should not be aware of at this age, ie the boys (and older girls) talking about ‘sexual relationships’ and even ‘porn’!

As you can imagine, the questions I get asked are enough to make your toes curl!

So, overall, is a Specialist placement the right placement?

Despite the difficulties and challenges, I have got to say that the Pro’s DO far out way the Con’s and I really do believe this is the best place for her and most definitely more suitable and appropriate than her mainstream placement!

What to do if mainstream is not meeting your child’s needs

If mainstream is not the correct placement for your child, please don’t EVER give up the fight for the correct placement! Don’t wait years, as I did, to find the confidence to stand up and be counted!

If a Specialist placement is what your child needs, it shouldn’t be down to waiting for a mainstream placement to fail, it shouldn’t be down to the lack of funding and it certainly shouldn’t be down to the Local Authority trying to cut corners at the expense of our children!

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