What if we focused on the strengths of our SEN students?

Written by: Daniel Sobel | Published:
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Continuing his focus on the state of our SEN system, Daniel Sobel asks what would happen if we shifted our mindset and attitude – from thinking of the barriers of SEN to considering the strengths and skills that SEN can give students

In my recent article on “the state of SEN” (Sobel, 2021), I laid out how many of the big ticket issues were well captured in the recent 2019 Education Select Committee report into SEND.

The report highlighted a number of significant failures, all of which are common knowledge for most of us working in schools (see also SecEd, 2019). In this article, I would like to suggest an idea that could radically shift the way we “do” SEN and hopefully budge us out of the quagmire in which we find ourselves.

An educational placebo

It took me three times to pass my GCSE maths. I had undiagnosed ADHD and I had become used to thinking of myself as incapable. Despite not passing A levels or getting a first-class degree, I managed to wangle my way on to a Master’s in education psychology and subsequently managed to undertake post-grads in education and psychology and even a PhD.

Something weird happened when I did the compulsory module of statistical research and analysis during the EdPsych MA – I did fairly well. I asked the lecturer (a former maths teacher) what level he considered the maths to be and he said “approximately first-year degree level, definitely harder than A level”.

So how do you square these two facts? Well, there are probably a range of factors, not least the type and context of the maths. But the one key difference which resonates with me is this…

At school I had shockingly low self-esteem and since then I had built up a strong sense of self-belief. The very fact that I thought I could do it significantly contributed to me achieving it. A sort of educational placebo.

I have encountered many such stories demonstrating this phenomenon and it is self-evident for many people I speak with, despite the fact that there is not much research evidence to back it up. In fact, I would guess that 99.9 per cent of people who work in SEN and a majority of teachers would recognise self-esteem as a reasonable and important factor.

So, what if we swung the whole SEN system in the direction of “self-esteem boosting”? Would it influence outcomes? Would it change anything in the SEN quagmire?

Reframing SEN

SEN causes low self-esteem (bear with me) and therefore if we boost self-esteem then this will lead to better outcomes for children with SEN. Here is a way of boosting outcomes.

We need to reframe what SEN actually implies about success vs limitation. At the moment, SEN is a medicalised diagnosis that essentially carries a psychological message of “you are limited”. I wouldn’t argue with medical colleagues. I want to simply add to this formula and suggest that it also means you may have advantages over your neuro-and-cognitive-typical friends. For example…

Dyslexia: Dyslexia has been linked to higher visuospatial ability and creativity. There is evidence that dyslexics are over-represented among entrepreneurs and art students. There is a suggestion that coping strategies dyslexics adopt, such as delegation, may be beneficial for entrepreneurs (Martinelli et al, 2018).

Autism: Noted cognitive strengths in autism include enhanced visual and auditory perception of certain stimuli, hypothesised to be involved in the “savant” abilities observed in some.

Some autistic people also have noted strengths in systematising and attention to detail: these give rise to “special areas of interest” where autistic people frequently develop exceptional knowledge and autistic children display exceptional vocabulary. There is evidence that unexpected cognitive strengths can be found in autistic children typically labelled “low-functioning”, such as the non-verbal (Mottron et al, 2006; Baron-Cohen et al, 2009; Courchesne et al, 2015).

ADHD: There is a variety of research (for example, Lerner et al, 2017; Wiklund et al, 2016) that finds a positive association between ADHD and both entrepreneurial intention and entrepreneurial action. This suggests that there are real benefits to ADHD when it comes to risk-taking and adventurousness. I relate to my own ADHD as a super power (slightly overdoing it I’ll admit). I can brain-cope with far more than most, hyper-focus and learn complex material at quick speeds. There are advantages and the advantages are great – but only if you know what they are, how to access them, and how mitigate the challenges.

The strengths of SEN

The good news is that compared with 25 years ago, every teacher in the country knows what the major SEN types are – their common terms and basic presentations. This is a massive achievement and we can be proud at being ahead of the curve internationally.

The bad news, as I have said previously, is that these terms can distract us from thinking of the student as an individual. “Ben is ASD” makes it almost impossible to see Ben as an individual child.

The ugly news is that I bet hardly any teachers, children or parents can tell you some of the obvious wonderful strengths that can be found in the varying types of SEN.

Can you imagine what every child with SEN might feel if their teachers saw them as not only having a “lack” but also a “strength”.

The attitudes our teachers have towards our children are the vehicle for conveying belief in them. We can assume that if our teacher’s view of our children increases in aspiration and positivity then our children’s self-concept and esteem will in turn rise.

Practical takeaways

So, instead of just thinking of SEN as a weaknesses audit – lead with the strengths. Do a strengths analysis of the children on your SEN register and share this with them and their teachers.

Then train your staff in a completely different form of INSET and see how it goes – share with them the strengths of SEN.

Move towards ditching labels altogether in your school. Simply say: we don’t label (we leave that to the medics and psychologists), we only deal with individual children.

Then target your SEN students with two interactions which can shift their performance. First, specific praise: “I love that idea you came up with, so creative.” Second, encouragement: “You come up with brilliant creative ideas and you will be at an advantage in this task.”

If my teachers had done that, I might even have passed maths GCSE the first time. This is not a policy shift or a major investment of funding. There is no paperwork alternative or intervention. This is just about our attitudes towards SEN – shifting from thinking of SEN as just a barrier to also being a recipe for success too.

This is not about papering over the cracks but beginning to shift the perspective in how we think about SEN. I think of this as a piece of the puzzle, not the full answer.

Perhaps we need a new terminology to help us do this? I’ll need to find someone with the word-creativity of an archetypal dyslexic to ask for help with this problem!

Daniel Sobel is founder of Inclusion Expert which provides SEND, Pupil Premium and looked-after children reviews, training and support. You can find all his articles for SecEd on our website via http://bit.ly/seced-sobel

Further information & resources

  • Baron-Cohen et al: Talent in autism: Hyper-systemizing, hyper-attention to detail and sensory hypersensitivity, May 2009.
  • Courchesne et al: Autistic children at risk of being underestimated: school-based pilot study of a strength-informed assessment, Molecular Autism (6), March 2015: https://bit.ly/3xi7Iu2
  • Education Selection Committee: Special education needs and disabilities, October 2019: www.parliament.uk/education-committee
  • Lerner et al: Entrepreneurship & ADHD, IZA Institute of Labor Economics, October 2017: https://bit.ly/2QO4JJm
  • Martinelli et al: Common Beliefs and Research Evidence about Dyslexic Students’ Specific Skills: Is it time to reassess some of the evidence? Interdisciplinary Education and Psychology, November 2018: https://bit.ly/2Qnr2ph
  • Mottron et al: Enhanced perceptual functioning in autism: An update, and eight principles of autistic perception, Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders (36), February 2006: https://bit.ly/3aqQIZ1
  • SecEd: Families seeking SEND support left exhausted by 'adversarial and bureaucratic' system, October 2019: http://bit.ly/2xEogm9
  • Sobel: SENCOs under siege, SecEd, February 2021: https://bit.ly/2Mk0F1y
  • Wiklund et al: Entrepreneurship and psychological disorders: How ADHD can be productively harnessed, Journal of Business Venturing Insights (6:14), August 2016: https://bit.ly/3elW5dd


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