Where on earth do you start when you realise your child’s behaviour has reached a point where you need to accept a label of SEBD (social, emotional and behavioural difficulties) or SEMH (social, emotional, and mental health) issues and start to find an SEBD school?
This is where we now find ourselves.
The latest fight for the right support has begun.
Monday: transition planning
On Monday, we had an INSET day. It’s now an established routine for us to visit school on the last day of the holidays to help with the transition back, so we did that. The girls took their PE kits in and hung them on their pegs, reclaiming their spaces. We traipsed into the classrooms and said hello to the teachers.
And then the teachers kept them occupied for half an hour while we talked to the head about the transition back, particularly about how Joanna was going to handle it after her three-day exclusion for violence at the end of last term. We explained that she was not in a good place mentally, because her learning support assistant is changing to a job-share arrangement with a second person; she was worried what others in her class would say about The Incident and her exclusion; and she had heard a rumour that her ‘boyfriend’ (yes, they are only eight years old) was now pursuing the girl in her class of whom she is jealous. (This girl is clever. She’s calm. People aren’t frightened of her.)
And then we discussed the forthcoming EHCP review. The head had sent us the paperwork a few days before, and we took our draft in to show her. Her comments on the form had included the question of whether her current (mainstream primary) school was able to meet her needs. In other words: they are not coping. Joanna is only in the class half the time; the other half is spent elsewhere with her LSA, either trying to head off a meltdown they have seen brewing, or calming down after they didn’t manage to stop it. They don’t have the space or specialist training to handle her level of violence. It’s just not safe. More of this in a moment.
Tuesday: the latest incident
They went back to school. Pete went off to work. I started on my own work. And then at 10.30 my mobile rang. I always have a sense of dread when I see that it’s school.
‘Hi, it’s Amy from the school office. Joanna’s just jumped over the school wall [which has a 7ft drop the other side] and we think she might be heading home – could you walk this way and keep a look out for her?’
It’s a ten-minute walk to school that is pretty much field all the way. This is all very bucolic and safe in theory, but there are little copses of trees and a river and plenty of child-snatching opportunities for those so inclined. I walked our usual route with my eyes on stalks. As I approached the school I saw Joanna’s LSA. I called out ‘Do you know where she is?’ She shrugged and gestured around the corner. It was at this point I did start to seriously worry. I went in that direction, doing a full circuit of the school before getting back to the school gate.
And then I finally saw Joanna, in the school garden, shouting and screaming at the headteacher. I’ll take that over being run over or kidnapped.
I went in. I got screamed at too. Joanna was full-on dysregulated. She threw a bucket at me. I caught it. She threw a handful of grass cuttings at the head. I could read the head – she wanted me, ‘the Joanna expert’, to take charge. I could read Joanna. She needed me to. So within ten minutes, I had got her from full-on rage to sitting at a picnic bench doing Lego. The staff all went inside, and Joanna and I had a chat. I did some Lego too, sitting beside her, deliberately not making eye contact and trying to look absorbed in what I was making.
‘So, I see something’s been really difficult for you this morning. I wonder what that was.’
‘The classroom’s all different. They gave me a SPAG test and I’d already done it before and it was boring. And I had Mrs X [the usual LSA] and they said it was going to be Mrs Y [the new one]. That’s why I’m cross.’
‘Yeah, that’s not what I was expecting today either. I’m not surprised you’re cross. I understand.’
And then after a few more minutes of Lego, I walked her back to her classroom. The head and deputy head were waiting. We went to the head’s office and the head started asking her questions. ‘What happened? What can we do you help you?’ Joanna squirmed on my lap. This was too much for her.
‘It would help Joanna if we could talk in statements rather than questions at the moment, please. Questions will be too overwhelming for her.’
The others took this in. I explained what Joanna had told me outside – all the unexpected things that had upset her. They nodded. Then Joanna piped up that she needed a printed timetable, like she’d had in Year 2. (I thought she still had this. Why do they remove stuff that’s working?) They nodded. I asked Joanna if she still had her mindfulness colouring book that helps her calm down. ‘No, I finished it.’ I whipped out my phone and she chose one from Amazon on the spot. (I tried not to do my ‘look, it really is this easy’ face. The head showed me the list of half a dozen children who Joanna had injured during her meltdown. I was already picturing the lynching I was going to get at the school gate.
After a bit more discussion about what helps her, I took her back to her classroom. Her LSA was nowhere to be seen, so I stayed with Joanna in her maths lesson for 45 minutes until she reappeared. And then I walked home, calling Pete en route. Not quite the restorative day of peace and quiet I was hoping for.
Wednesday: the debrief
Pete and I dropped the girls at school. We went in to see the head and discuss Tuesday’s events without the presence of small ears. She said she was desperately concerned about her ability to (a) keep Joanna safe if she was intent on scaling walls, and (b) keeping the other children safe is Joanna was going to start attacking them when she became dysregulated (previously she has always gone for staff, not children). She asked us for ideas. We said we’d told her everything we knew already.
Thursday: the sensory assessment
Joanna’s sensory assessment at 10.00am. For which we received seven forms to complete at 7.00 am. I managed two before the OT arrived. This was fine. The OT was amazing. She took a brief rundown from us and then had Joanna crawling through a Lycra tunnel, throwing a ball at a target, and drawing a picture of herself. She picked up things that no-one had spotted before, such as hypermobile joints in her hands which would make writing harder work than average (which would explain why she finds English frustrating, as her super-creative brain is streets ahead of her ability to write for long periods of time).
Friday: the EHCP review
And then the day we’ve been anticipating for a few weeks. The EHCP review. We’d already spent upwards of six hours on the paperwork and the research. Everyone assembled: us, the headteacher, the class teacher, our social worker (well, technically it was our social worker’s manager, but we see more of her these days because we are those parents who advocate loudly), an SEN officer from the LA, and our EP’s manager (because our EP doesn’t do Fridays).
We did introductions. I put a framed photo of Joanna on the table in front of me and Pete. There was half an hour of general waffle to start with. I wanted to cut to the chase. I brought up the issue of school not coping and the head’s suggestion of alternative provision. Boom. Let’s get this going.
The head then spoke about Tuesday’s incident and her fear that Joanna was going to seriously injure herself or another child. The concern that she is really bright and still meeting her targets despite missing half the lessons, but how she could be achieving so much more with the right support. And then the issue of other schools was in play. Bring it on.
How to Find an SEBD school
It was Joanna’s former therapist who suggested a specialist boarding school. We had considered it before in a moment of ‘it’s this or disruption’, but having it suggested by a professional made it feel like it was something we were officially sanctioned to investigate. So I came home from our meeting with her and Googled ‘boarding schools for violent children’. Bingo.
Straight away I found one that sounded amazing. They had lots of looked-after and formerly-looked-after children there. They understood about early trauma and the reasons behind behaviour like Joanna’s. All the psychotherapists and OTs and facilities were available on-site, and these were an integral part of school life. And they took both day pupils and boarders on a weekly or termly basis.
When we had the meeting with our current headteacher on Monday, I gave her a printout of the school prospectus. Pete and I spelt out all the reasons why it looked like a great option for Joanna. The head agreed, but named two other state-run SEBD schools that the LA would be bound to prefer, primarily on cost grounds.
We went home and looked those up too. There was a lot of scouring of websites, learning of the SEBD jargon, reading of policies and comparing and contrasting. The LA-run schools don’t really compare. One has a behaviour policy with which children must comply. Um, hold on. Where is the mention of trauma-informed care?
The non-maintained school is closer, despite being outside of our LA. It is more specialist in terms of understanding early trauma. It takes boarders, which is a big deal for us as it would give us some respite from Joanna’s violence (though we’d still have Charlotte’s to deal with) and allow their needs to be met individually instead of as a package deal. This would also be great for Joanna, who finds transitions really hard. And one of the key selling points for us: this school take pupils from primary age right through to 18. So we’d avoid yet another transition to secondary school.
The EHCP again
We presented these arguments at the EHCP review. Alternatives were suggested. We’d done our homework and explained why the alternatives were not as good. Obviously, people mentioned the issue of The Cost. I played my trump card: a marvellous piece of research: the NASS cost comparison report. What a beauty.
This document (honestly, I could kiss it) examines the cost of non-maintained special schools against equivalent packages of support when provided by the LA. And it comes out in favour of the non-maintained schools, which offer a holistic approach, take out the stress of patching together a package of support, and are often cheaper than LA provision, especially when weekly boarding is weighed against the cost of daily transport.
And, to our immense frustration, the conversation suddenly finished when the SEN officer stood up and said his car was parked at Sainsbury’s and he had to go. What, is our daughter not worth the £1.60 it costs to park in the public car park right outside? Me and Pete were Not Pleased. Anyway, he left and the lovely EP manager told us exactly what we need to do to get the SEN board to agree to our choice of school. She’s been on very similar boards and knows the system.
#win. Take that, Mr SEN Officer. .
Mrs EP Manager has told us to visit all three schools under discussion. Great. We didn’t have time to do this before the meeting, so our analysis was all based on the websites. But lining up a few visits is no problem. Then she advised us to write a thorough comparison, based on our visits as well as our reading. It carries more weight if we write from that perspective. It’ll also help if Joanna writes something to submit, explaining why her current school isn’t meeting her needs. (This will be tricky to do without telling her we’re looking at another school, but I’m sure I can work it out.)
Meanwhile school need to gather evidence from every possible source. Behaviour logs. Therapists’ reports. Social work reports. A letter from the GP, perhaps. The letters of complaint from other parents (not sure I want to see those, thanks). And then we send it all off to the SEN panel and they decide. Obviously the next panel is this coming week and we have no chance of getting everything together in time.
And the next one after that? It’s not until OCTOBER. So realistically, we’re looking at January at the earliest.
But we’ve started the process, at least. Our girl is worth it. And so the fight begins. But we’ve started the process, at least. Our girl is worth it. And so the fight begins.
You might also like to read 30 questions to ask SEBD schools.
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