Children with SEN shouldn’t be set additional targets.

Children with SEN shouldn’t be set additional targets.

Children should not be set targets as part of their written plan of SEN support.  This change came about in 2014 with the publication of the Special Educational Needs and Disability Code Of Practice.

Don’t believe me?  Well I did an audit of the use of the word target in the SEN COP.  The results are as follows:

  • There are 4 references to the word ‘target’ and 8 to ‘targeted’ outside of the sections on EHC Plans.
  • The word target appears once in section 6 (Schools) – to clarify that teachers should have a good understanding of the general ability of children with disabilities and be ambitious for them: 6.12 “Teachers should use appropriate assessments to set targets which are deliberately ambitious”.  I took this to mean as part of their whole class initiatives?  
  • There are 3 further references to teachers demonstrating their ambition for children with SEN through their use of targets throughout the rest of the document and again appears to be in the context of general target setting across the school population as a whole.
  • The remainder (8) of the references to the word ‘targeted’ relate to the targeting of provision and resources, both at individual levels and commissioning on a wider scale.  An example of the former is “Using well evidenced interventions targeted at their areas of difficulty” (6.27). 

It is clear, children should not be set individual additional targets as part of their written plan of SEN support.  It is also clear that all children with a SEN should have a written plan of support and I have previously written about that (see here).

When targets go wrong

A recent thread on a social media highlighted some ineffective practice with regard to target setting for children with SEN.  Some examples are below with commentary from parents:

  • “To manage her autism better in school” You’d never write on a blind person’s IEP – ‘not to be so blind’ would you?
  • My favourite target for him last year, so for Year 7, was “reading for pleasure”.  He is at a specialist dyslexia school, his reading age is – Age 6.  How many 12 year old’s would read a 5 year old’s book for pleasure?
  • On my son’s first IEP it stated “to act less autistic”…. (reception child).
  • My ASD/ ADHD son has a target to “concentrate more and stop being distracted”, and another “To refrain from fiddling with things.”
  • We also have an attendance target “To avoid missing school for unnecessary medical appointments”… like the ones he has had to investigate absent seizures!!
  • Our best one was “will learn to understand when she has not understood” … our daughter is deaf.
  • “Will overcome sensory issues to join in team sports such as football and rugby”.  My response: “Why stop there, why not go just a little bit further and cure autism altogether?”
  • “To see the joy in everyday things”
  • Will sit still for one lesson (sitting still is a barrier to his learning – do you want him to learn, or to sit still?  You can’t have both..)
  • “By the end of KS3 J will make and maintain friendships in socially accepted ways”  He is profoundly autistic, non-verbal and avoids children as much as possible because they are too noisy for him.  Oh well, I just have to wait and see how that goes. Good target generally, but more of a lifetime goal than KS3; he is nowhere near!…
  • …And for the same profoundly autistic child “Take responsibility for his own safety”!! Again lifetime goal.  He wouldn’t live very long if they tried it now!….
  • …And  I particularly like that “His level of independence should be consistent with age and general level of ability”!  He will basically be cured from autism by the end of KS3, if what they say is true!  I hope they have a magic wand! ”  
  • For my 4 year old: “Will be able to follow instructions given by adults and to take turns with other children before starting school” (ASD, PDA) No suggestions on how to help him with any of the skills either.  It was a preschool target set by an educational psychologist and overseen by the extremely perplexed early years staff.  Needless to say we haven’t met the target 3 years later.
  • “B will learn to produce insulin for herself”
  • “H will have grow himself a new functioning leg”

OK so the last two are made up….  More than anything though, these targets that were set demonstrated to the parents that the teachers had an extraordinarily poor understanding of their child’s disability.  This in turn affects the confidence that the parents have in the teachers of getting anything right for their child and makes building a relationship seem pointless.  The gap between the teacher’s understanding of their child, and what they need to know to be able to help them, makes the situation feel pretty hopeless.

Another theme in the comments hinted at flooding the child with experiences that they are unable to cope with, in the hope that their disability will disappear, or their learned anxiety responses will dissipate.  This, when recommended and implemented by those who are inadequately trained simply adds to their trauma “Rosie and Jo’s Mum” is best at explaining this:

“I would never agree to someone using graded exposure or flooding on my child unless I was confident that, once the process began, they would quickly discover that their fear was unfounded.  You can only help a child to learn to stay in situations that cause them anxiety if exposing them to that situation will not reinforce the fear.  It won’t help them unless they really will find out that the situation is manageable once they are there.  If you use to teach the child that you can keep increasing the length of time they are stuck in a situation that continues to terrify them, and from which they cannot escape, you will achieve nothing positive and simply add to the number of experiences that they will need support to recover from .”

Before I move on to being more constructive I must make this point:  Anything, and I mean anything, that hints in any way that the child should be something that they are not is thoroughly toxic.  Put simply, targets or phrases used about a child such as “to act less autistic”, “to improve eye contact” or to “be less impulsive” are no better that “we will exclude all brown eyed children from class” or “all those will blond hair must disguise this at all times”.  Dr Mona Delahooke describes this in more detail here, as does Rosie and Jo’s Mum.

Helping can be easier than you think:

Disability is innate, BUT, there may be variances on how significant its impacts on every day functioning.  For example, a child with sensory processing difficulties cannot stop having them, but the impact that they have on their day to day life can be altered quite dramatically if the people around them take responsibility to reduce the triggers; reduce their anxiety and everything will be easier to tolerate, from their clothes, to the sun bouncing off the door handle or the sound of the pencil from the child on the next table.  This is where the possibilities from examining “barriers to learning” and “targeting support to overcome them” can come in to play.

The SEND Code of Practice describes a graduated approach to supporting children with SEND.  The first part of this is to identify ‘barriers to learning‘:

Screen Shot 2017-04-09 at 09.40.12
For example, from the targets above: “Will sit still for one lesson”.  So, this child has ADHD, ASD and high anxiety.  He is unable to sit still and this is a barrier to his learning.  Because of his ADHD (and possible sensory needs too) his body needs to move.  He can sit still, or he can learn… take your pick!  For him to learn then the provision needs to include opportunities to support movement and biofeedback.  Once that biological need has been met then he may be able to learn a little more easily.

Demonstrating an understanding of his NEED though, won’t only help him to learn, it will teach him that his teachers understand him which is more powerful than you will ever know.  It will teach his parents that they care enough to understand and their relationship with them is likely to be much more easy.

It’s not that simple though, because anxiety will also complicate matters meaning his need to move is exacerbated.  This element of his need to move is likely to be modifiable if the adults and the environment accommodate this need as much as possible….

  • So anxiety is an additional barrier to learning… this will need to be unpicked so that provision can be targeted in the same way.
  • It is a similar story for making eye contact (another target received by a child).  He can make eye contact, or he can listen to his teacher and learn – take your pick…
  • Fatigue won’t be fixed with target that says it must be fixed.  If a child has less energy as a resource then this is a barrier to learning and there must be some thought about how they might want to prioritise the energy resource that they do have.
  • A child whose neurodevelopment means that they struggle to concentrate or manage their impulsivity will not manage to concentrate more until these barriers are understood and evidence based strategies to overcome them are tried and evaluated.

To me there is a subtle but significant change in the emphasis that Chapter 6 of the COP brings.  That is, that it is no longer the responsibility of the child to be less disabled or to manage and control their difficulties unaided.  No longer is it deemed appropriate to blame a child for not meeting a target that makes them responsible for managing their disability or their barriers to learning.  The responsibility now lies primarily where it should do: with the adults.  It is the responsibility of the adults to start to better understand each child’s barrier to learning.  It is no longer OK to simply imply that the child should be less disabled and then to blame them when they don’t achieve this.

Aside for proper, thoughtful implementation of chapter 6 of the Code of Practice, my one wish is for everyone involved with these children is for them to understand the power of being believed and being understood.  Most parents understand that there is no such thing as a perfect world for their child; all we want is one that they can function in and that offers them opportunities to achieve their best.  This is only possible when their barriers to learning are properly understood and support is appropriately targeted.

The new COP brought with it some fabulous opportunities for schools to think differently about disability, a framework to enable teachers’ understanding of disability to improve – just by following different thought processes with parents and other experts.

However, Government policy makers, please take note: you can’t simply press ‘publish’ on a policy and expect it to happen.  Implementing public policy is a skill set that takes training, experience and management support (for example, I completed a Master’s Degree module on it, it became the focus of my dissertation and I have been supported to manage the implementation of Cancer Policy across large geographical areas).  It doesn’t happen all on its own, through bullying or through wishful thinking.  Clear, intelligent and supportive leadership is required.  Implementing policy requires change; the stressors to constant change on staff are well known – and many of your leaders and teaching staff are already pretty exhausted.

It seems unlikely that leaders in education are going to support and promote the opportunities that chapter 6 of the SEN COP offers, but all hope is not lost (I can be ‘pathologically optimistic).  I firmly believe that individual teaching staff can make a difference.  First by changing their own practice at a pace that they can, and then by role modelling this to others.  By sharing their success stories others will follow.  With every individual child that is helped, there is a whole family that will benefit – and that matters, the ripple effect is powerful – so a message to them is “please don’t give up, you’re work is of great value to each and every child you help and also to their family”.  

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