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This week sees the Government’s Children and Families Bill debated in the House of Lords, which includes important measures to reform the early years system for children with Special Educational Needs (SEN).
Although delighted to have seen SEN reform amongst the Government’s priorities for this year, leading early years organisations want key aspects of the Bill to be scrutinised and redefined.
Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, believes that the current proposals risk seeing the expertise of their early years members overlooked where key decision-making is required.
He explains: “We are very concerned about the Bill’s lack of involvement and consultation with the private and voluntary early years sector. We are also concerned that some parents and childcare practitioners may not be aware of the consequences of the Government’s proposed reforms for early years services.
“As the early years sector fulfils a similar role to that of maintained schools in meeting children’s special educational needs, we should be given equal consideration and support. Yet the private and voluntary sector is not being included consistently or fairly throughout Part 3 of the Bill.
“Furthermore, we are disappointed that the Government still does not regard early years SENCOs as a priority. They play a valuable role and should receive similar training and support as shown to their school counterparts in the Bill.”
Further concerns raised by the Alliance include the exemption of private and voluntary early years settings from children’s education and healthcare plans; a recommendation to change the graduated response framework to a single assessment process, which the Alliance sees as limiting; together with funding issues.
Some of these concerns are shared by learning disability charity Mencap, which also criticises the Bill for lacking a new code of practice; and for being sketchy on exactly how health and social care agencies are going to be successfully utilised. The charity also calls for a national minimum standard in what help is available to children with SEN, as well as seeking a guarantee that help will be available to children not attending an education setting.
Mr Leitch concludes: “Given the emphasis the Government is placing on early intervention, it is perverse that there will be less Government support for childcare settings to help them meet the needs of this vulnerable group of children and parents. Should these proposals be implemented, they will lead to a sector that may eventually lack the expertise and the guidance to adequately identify and meet children's needs and support their parents.”
Looking after children with SEN is a crucial challenge for day nursery and childcare providers, who are often faced with finding an effective approach to helping youngsters whose needs are difficult to define and in constant flux.
Special education needs co-ordinator at Kiddi Caru Day Nursery Colchester, Colchester, Natalie Jones, shares with us her own approach to caring for early years children with special educational needs:
“My role in the nursery is to understand the needs and requirements of each of our children with Special Education Needs (SEN) and to develop and co-ordinate appropriate activities for each child.
“Once I understand the needs of the child, I can assess whether or not additional training is required. So for example we have a child with us at present who is autistic. Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with, and relates to, other people and the world around them.
“It is a spectrum condition, which means that, while all people with autism share certain areas of difficulty, their condition will affect them in different ways. We needed to understand the specifics of this child’s particular autism so our team attended an in-depth training session to ensure that we can provide the best possible childcare for the child.
“One of the areas for development for this child is to encourage them to make eye contact. We have therefore developed ways in which this child can achieve this goal by understanding what the child likes to play with and applying our knowledge from the training to make this happen.
“We know that this child loves water play so the practitioners will play a tipping and pouring game, stopping the pouring until eye contact is made and then starting the game one again. Through this play based learning, the child is learning what they need to do in order for the game to start once more.
“For our autistic children if it is appropriate we will adopt a programme of intense interactions. So for example many autistic children will rock. The practitioner will copy this action. The child notices and then changes their action. The practitioner will do the same. We find it is a really effective way of engaging these children and ensuring they develop interaction skills.
“To successfully help children with SEN develop requires a combination of understanding what they enjoy and what motivates them and understanding how this can be used to address their specific needs. It is also about ensuring that whatever activity is being enjoyed in the nursery that no child is ever excluded from anything.
“One of our children has Cerebral Palsy and therefore quite specific physical needs which include stretching exercises and the use of a special walker. We educate the other children about what Cerebral Palsy is and have a selection of books for them to read so ensure inclusion. Children are naturally aware of anything they perceive to be different and it is our job to educate them that being different is not a bad thing and that everyone is different in their own unique way.
“We also work closely with outside agencies to ensure the best possible level of care for our children. So for example, with regards to the child who has Cerebral Palsy, we work with both the Occupational Therapist and Physiotherapist so that when the exercises change, we are fully aware of the changes and take the time to learn how to actually perform the exercises correctly.
“We also have a lot of experience working with children with SEN who need to develop their speech. We work on a lot of mouth exercises that can be great fun as well as using signing throughout the nursery so that all children can communicate with the practitioners and more importantly with each other. We also have sing and sign as an activity that all of our children enjoy.
“We have found that working with children with SEN is extremely rewarding and we can really see their development come on in leaps and bounds. Not only that, what we learn in working with these children is really useful across the whole nursery and makes us think through how to communicate with one another, with children and with their families effectively on a day to day basis.”
Kiddi Caru currently operate 19 day nurseries located throughout the Midlands and South of England, all designed to maximise the play and learning potential of children during the early years.