Aiming high: intelligence and belief

Having never given birth to a child with Special Educational needs and/or Disabilities (SEND) it is difficult to appreciate, or empathise with, how the parents of a child with SEND actually feel when their child is diagnosed with a learning difficulty. Yet, having used my knowledge of SEND, as a specialist teacher, to advise and support many such parents during my time in education, I imagine their shock, dismay and fear that often accompanies such a diagnosis. Why? Is it because their expectations of achievement and ultimate success in life are immediately lowered? Indeed, there is little doubt that most educational professionals, teachers, as well as parents and society in general, tend to expect less from any child diagnosed with a form of SEND, in comparison with the general population of learners. Yet the purpose of additional support provided by the SEND system in our schools is to enable achievement for all – through inclusion. 

Achievement, arising from inclusion, starts with belief: the expectation that, with the appropriate type and level of support, most children with SEND (except those with the most severe learning difficulties) can reach average mainstream levels. Aiming high is the first priority. 

I wish to outline the progress of one young man who I have tutored for many years, recently turned eighteen, diagnosed with Moderate Learning Difficulties (MLD) and ADHD while in primary school, who was later moved from mainstream to a special school, where he thrived. He is now doing well at sixth form college. Throughout schooling, his parents have never ceased to believe in what their child could achieve. Strong belief has resulted in success and independence.  This young man has an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) that will guide his progress up to the age of 25. He shows above average intelligence in music and IT. While at college, this young man has designed and set up his own website, and  plays the keyboard in a small band. He is succeeding in his own areas of intelligence, and improving in other areas (reading, writing and maths) as he develops. This student’s story illustrates that a diagnosis of SEND, even with an EHCP, need not signify an underachieving future. 

So, one level of intelligence – or multiple? Learning difficulties exist along a continuum – from mild, to moderate, to severe. Intelligence testing has traditionally identified where, along this continuum, a child’s difficulties may lie. The results of one single test, linking intelligence to cognition, have long been used to place children in a below-average category, limiting expectations and achievement. Thankfully, educationalists now accept that intelligence cannot be measured along a single scale: the notion of multiple intelligences, introduced by Howard Gardner in 1983, suggests that all humans have different strengths and weaknesses. The eight identified areas: musical, bodily, visual-spatial, interpersonal, verbal/linguistic, logical/mathematical, and naturalistic, can be more simply summarised as being smart in areas of – music, body, pictures, people, words, logic, nature, and self. 

These eight areas encourage schools to assess children on the basis of both strengths and weaknesses. Does a low score in verbal/linguistic skills (words and reading) indicate that a child is also weak in other areas? It shouldn’t, yet often has. Nor does a lower than average score in logic/mathematics indicate anything more than weakness in that area. Multiple intelligences relate to specifics: a recognition of huge importance when it comes to assessing what children are likely, or unlikely, to achieve, in school and throughout adult life. I do not have a musical bone in my body, but I am good with language, reasonable in maths and get along well with others. Yet, in the race to achieve, mainly in areas of reading, writing and maths, other strengths often languish, unrecognised and uncelebrated. 

Back to parent power. Assessment is not just about identifying weaknesses. Where are the strengths? In sport? Music? Art? Science? Maths? Communication (interpersonal)? Identifying strengths as well as weaknesses also helps to promote well-being – helping children to feel happy in their own skins. Surface assumptions therefore have no place in this broader assessment of what children can actually achieve. What we may see on the outside of children or young people with SEND is no indication of what lies inside individual brains.

So the main message of this blog is for educationalists to work closely with all parents, seeking to find what makes each and every child with SEND actually tick. Their likes/dislikes? What activities engage them? Where can we see progress? Above all, education is about belief – aiming high for every child.

On retirement, I wrote five books (Parents: Help Your Child Succeed series), each aimed at giving parents the tools needed to feel informed and to become more involved in their child’s education. Parents really are the missing link.

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