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SEN support – Working in partnership with parents

Effectively working with parents will help schools provide successful support for children with SEN, says Sara Alston...

  • SEN support – Working in partnership with parents

In schools, we are often forced to tread an impossible tightrope between parents who demand a diagnosis and SEN support for their child, and those who struggle to engage in the process at all. 

The SEN Code of Practice (CoP) recognises that ‘sometimes discussions between home and school can be challenging, but it is in the child’s best interests to maintain a positive dialogue’.

While parents are the experts on their children, too often schools feel that they are working against, rather than with them, to ensure the best support for children with SEND. 

Listening and respect

Parents and the school are often looking from different perspectives. The SENCo and school staff focus on the child in school, engagement in learning and progress against formal assessments.

For parents, this is only a small part of a much wider picture, including speech, eating, toileting, sleeping, interactions with siblings and behaviour in public. 

Children often behave very differently at home and at school. This can be a response to different boundaries and expectations or a ‘masking’ of difficulties.

As school staff, we can struggle to believe parents in such scenarios. Too often either the school or family place ‘blame’ on the other’s management and expectations of the child.

But we need to listen, respect and understand parents’ experiences and view of their child, not dismiss them because they are not the same as ours.

However we cannot provide SEN support in school for what is happening elsewhere. If the child does not need ‘additional or different’ support to their peers in school, we need to signpost parents to other services. 

Parents and schools often lack a common language or understanding of learning. Parents, even those who are also teachers, struggle to look at their child’s learning in a dispassionate way.

They tend to focus on the highs – variations of ‘my child is a genius’ – or the lows – ‘why can’t they read, behave’, etc. There is often a fear that their child won’t be able to achieve, leading to a natural and commendable desire to protect and help them.

Equally, there can be a defensive response when parents feel professionals are suggesting that their child is less than perfect. Indeed, parents can produce both responses within the same conversation making it even harder for professionals to respond constructively. 

For many parents who fear that there is ‘something wrong’ with their child, a diagnosis can seem like a golden bullet that will explain everything.

Sadly, while a diagnosis can add to our knowledge of a child, it will neither cure nor change the child. A diagnosis of dyslexia will not on its own improve a child’s reading.

The thing that will make the difference is how we respond to the child. We need to be clear that support in schools is not dependent on a diagnosis.

Equally, a diagnosis does not automatically entitle a child to SEN support, EHCPs or additional time in exams. Support is provided in response to children’s needs with or without diagnosis.

Parents also need clarity about what a school can and cannot do. For instance, the Local Authority issues EHCPs, but they cannot be distributed by the SENCo.

Parents (and medical professionals) can apply for an EHCP, but a school cannot apply for one where they have no evidence that it is needed.

Having difficult conversations

Conversations with parents who struggle to accept that their child requires special needs support are also difficult. Many do not see the difficulties or understand their significance.

Some parents just want their child to be happy, but for others, their own experiences of education or cultural background mean they see SEN as a source of exclusion or stigma.

In these cases, it takes time, tact and persistence to work with parents to build trust. However, when managing parents, emotional responses should not come at the expense of their child’s needs.

There are occasions when disregarding a child’s needs becomes neglect and a safeguarding issue.

The SEN CoP emphasises the role of parents in decision making and the importance of parental choice.  However, in reality, much of the responsibility for this rests with the local authority and is relevant at EHCP level.

If the school is making SEN provision for a child, they need to inform the parents. They should record the details of the SEN support provision being made and share this formally with the parents.

They should seek to involve parents and ensure decisions are informed by their insights, but their agreement is not required at this level.

If the school wishes to involve an outside agency such as a speech and language therapist, then parents should be involved in the decision and their agreement should be sought.

The school should record the involvement and share this with parents.

Schools must also provide parents of SEN pupils with an annual report on their child’s progress as they do with all children, and should meet with them at least three times a year to set outcomes and review progress.

These meetings could be part of the normal cycle of parents’ evenings and discussions, though they may need to be longer for children with SEN.

A record of the meeting should be kept and shared with all the appropriate school staff and given to the pupil’s parents. 

Effective working with parents is key to successful support for children with SEN. We need to be open to and listen to each other’s point of view and be realistic about what the other can offer.

It is vital that we keep the child at the centre of the conversation so that the promotion of their welfare and learning are paramount.


Sara Alston is an independent consultant and trainer with SEA Inclusion and Safeguarding, and a practising SENCo. Find her on Twitter at @seainclusion.

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