A while ago I went for a coffee with a friend. She was in a quandary familiar to so many mums. Which school should she send her child to? Only her situation was slightly different to the majority of this world as she was trying to decide between a special needs school or a specialist communication unit. As we talked she told me how a friend of hers was shocked and believed that by considering a special needs school she was “giving up on her child” at the age of 4. These words imprinted on my heart, and not in a good way. It made me realise the warped view that many hold about special schools and how a very commonly held view is that they are simply institutions for “no hopers”. This couldn’t be further from the truth. And here’s why.
When kiddo was 3 it was already apparent that mainstream school was not for him. He didn’t understand verbal instructions, he had no safety awareness in the classroom or playground, he was still in nappies and he couldn’t cope with the noise, movement or visual displays that all naturally come with a happy bustling classroom atmosphere. All of these things stopped him from learning. He simply couldn’t access the education in that environment. It was time to look for something different.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I first looked round a special needs school. I was so nervous that I would witness a depressing building, no laughter inside the walls and children being simply “managed” in the hours they were there. But nothing could have been further from the truth. Here’s what I did see.
As I walked in I saw a child sat outside in the playground with a teaching assistant. Maybe he was having a time out? When I looked closer I saw that they were actually doing English work and the child was writing a story using macaton pictures (macaton is a form of sign language). It was so beautiful to watch. All the creativity was coming from the child and simply being channelled by the TA on to the paper. My spirits lifted a little.
As I went inside I saw a class doing PE. PE? But that’s a normal lesson right? I looked a little closer. A specialist PE teacher was turning sensory therapy into a lesson of such fun that all I could hear was giggles from the children. Their faces beamed. As a mother who struggles most days to entice her child to do his sensory therapy I knew how amazing this was. We moved on.
We walked past the nurses station. The first really noticeable difference to mainstream schools. Many of the children had complex medical and physical needs. Up until this point kiddo had had so many medical appointments that I may as well have camped in the hospital car park to save on petrol money. But this school recognised that. They saw. They knew. Here they had their appointments in school time and the hospital came to them. No more missing days of education. Just half an hour out of class in a familiar building with familiar people. So much calmer. I started to yearn for this life for my son.
As we walked past each classroom I saw normal playtime, cooking lessons, art lessons. This was not what I expected. I also saw children sat to one side, or off for a walk with a TA. I saw children in sensory rooms taking a break and some having a nap because they hadn’t slept for 24 hours. Every individual child was just that. Individual. Celebrated for their talents, supported with their needs, and challenged academically in the most appropriate way.
Now of course it wasn’t all like this. There were meltdowns in corridors, there was shouting, tears and confusion. But what struck me most was how normal it all was. Just as a TA would help a child in a school dining hall open a banana, or help them find their pencil, these staff members expertly brought meltdowns to a calm finish. They new immediately what the child needed, whether it was to be outside or in a dark room. It was the norm. It was expected. And no one was penalised for it.
I sat in reception and flicked through the prospectus. Talent shows, a prom, a trip to Africa?? And then the school moto caught my eye. “Everyone has a voice. No one is excluded”. I welled up and had to really concentrate on not bursting into tears. But not tears of sadness, tears of joy. Tears of relief. My son would get the same opportunities as everyone else. He just needed something a little different.
We are two and a half terms in to kiddo attending his special school now. His school reports are glowing. He gets involved in activities and has even taught himself to read. The staff understand his needs so well and I confidently leave him knowing he is safe and loved by all who work there. All because he is in the right environment.
He just needed something a little different.
So please, if you know someone considering a special needs school, don’t assume they have given up on their child. It’s actually the complete opposite. They’re looking for the best environment for their child to learn, develop and be celebrated. It’s just a shame more children don’t get the chance to go.
Thanks for reading,