For many countries in the northern hemisphere, the new academic year begins around the start of September. Children return to school, excited to see their friends. Teachers are looking forward to getting to know their students, finding out what motivates each one, and seeing the excitement of learning. For some parents it can be a relief to return to familiar term-time routines. For others, there is a great deal of worry over whether or not this year will be one when the student-teacher relationship will boost confidence and learning.
New year, new people
For teachers, the first weeks of term are all about understanding each child’s strengths and needs, establishing working relationships and routines, and recording baselines so that progress can be monitored and ensured. It is, then, perhaps unsurprising that October is such a busy month for awareness raising.
This academic year, awareness raising for me began in September. Anyone who has worked with me will know how passionate I am about all things communication related, so it would have come as no surprise to see me participating in Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) Awareness Day (post here). Working in early years brought back memories for me of our family suddenly transported abroad.
Risks and protective factors
My brother, aged 15 months, had started speaking, but he stopped, and it took almost a year before he began again, speaking a mixture of English and Portuguese that few monolinguals could understand. We returned to the UK in time for him to start Year 1 – his frustration and fury at being misunderstood took most of his primary school career to fade.
My sister, aged 5, had not yet learnt to read. She was lost, eventually my parents moved her to a private school, where the smaller classes suited her better. In my mind, she is the student ‘at risk’ of developing dyslexia. That early gap in her education proved too hard to close, and, despite being a clever lady who has successfully run two businesses, she never did pass that English exam at 16, nor on the various attempts at 6th form college.
Awareness versus knowledge
Autism hour (post here) fell in Dyslexia Awareness Week (post here), which this year, and was closely followed by Dyspraxia Awareness Week (I wrote a journal article for that, I’ll add a link when I can).
October is ADHD awareness month. I’m not sure when I became ‘aware’ of the condition. Perhaps it was when an in-law’s girlfriend announced her sister’s sons were affected. I’m not sure whether they had been diagnosed, or whether this was a comment on her nephew’s behaviour, or her sister’s parenting. It was before I became a parent or a teacher, and for me it was a vague term with no real meaning. I was aware, and I hope I am always accepting of others, but I did not understand. In fact, the first time I attended CPD training related to ADHD, and the first time I knowingly taught a student with ADHD, were both at least a year after one of my own children had been diagnosed.
Acceptance is not enough
In teacher training we were taught lots about inclusion in general, and learnt about how far the education system had come from the days of routine institutionalisation, but the assumption seemed to be that we would learn about learning differences on the job. I was fortunate to have a wide range of students in my first class, and to have the support of an experienced SENCo, and a brilliant Advanced Skills Teacher mentor from a local special school.
Action and inaction
Now I work every day with children and young people who have learning differences. I volunteer. We have diagnosed (and undiagnosed) conditions in our family. Through my work and volunteering, I am aware that schools and the wider community can respond to children’s and young people’s needs with woeful inadequacy. Last night I participated in a live session online, where, once again, parents reported how the health and education systems have failed them and their children. Both systems are financially stretched and have to prioritise. This means that a child may be denied support in Early Years, Primary or Secondary School because their needs are not deemed sufficiently severe, based on a local measure informed by the budget. There is plenty of evidence to show how this can result in mental health problems and long-term adverse effects on life chances.
I know that many people are still unaware, but I think the time has come to go beyond the awareness model and instead insist on understanding, acceptance, and the timely provision of adequate reasonable accommodations. What we need now is action.
You can read an earlier post on autism awareness here.
Other blogs on awareness raising are here.
Posts related to strengths and needs are here.
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