Ever feel like you’re missing something?
For the last few years I have found assessment for children with SEND questionable. I continued down the path of setting SMART targets and planning next steps in line with reaching development goals, but I felt uneasy. I began to get the feeling I was missing the point somewhere. I found that much of the assessments I made demonstrated a negative view of the child, highlighted gaps in learning and described the things that many children could not do rather than celebrating what they could do and what unique abilities they had. Different areas of my assessments stood in isolation along with the interventions and therapy to support children’s learning.
Was I only just reaching the tip of the iceberg? I wanted to develop a more holistic approach, with an understanding that learning differences in one area impact on other areas of learning and an understanding that areas are interlinked and must be considered together as a whole picture of an individual child’s learning profile.
When Pen Green’s A Celebratory Approach to SEND Assessment in the Early Years was published in May 2021 I was keen to embrace the model. The notion that ‘children must not be defined by their needs, we need to be courageous and aspirational for all children, igniting curiosity and encouraging them to be all that they can be’ (Pen Green 2021) particularly resonated with me and reflected the shift I was hoping to make in moving away from a deficit model of children’s attainment. The ‘Celebratory Approach’ described the change in assessment culture I was hoping to bring about in Doncaster.
I set about developing a strengths based holistic approach to assessment. Firstly reaching out to colleagues in my team and regional partners. After conversations with my team in Doncaster and attending regional meetings regarding assessment I couldn’t find a model which encompassed the range of areas that I wanted to cover for an individual child. My colleague Shelley Petta, who leads on assessment and moderation in Doncaster, had spoken to Stephen Kilgour at Tapestry about what I was seeking, and she connected us. Stephen brought his experience of developing the Cherry Garden Branch Maps assessment tool to the project. We worked together to design a toolkit that offered the opportunity for practitioners to reflect on a range of aspects for each child, lifting the lid of opportunity for individual children. Our collaboration led to sections including basic needs, inclusive practice, characteristics of effective teaching and learning, speech and communication, well-being and involvement, executive functioning, sensory aspects, belonging, schemas, and family aspiration. Prompting questions, and space to record reflections and actions, formed the basis of this Reflection Toolkit.
Our regular meetings took us on a journey of professional development. As we began to devise and develop the Reflection Toolkit we were introduced to new vocabulary and concepts about ableism and neurodiversity - the beginnings of a necessary change in culture around SEND. As we learnt more, we were committed to ensuring that the toolkit was neurodiversity affirming, celebrating learning differences not difficulties and embracing the authenticity of every child’s play and learning.
Stephen and I were keen to emphasise a strengths-based approach and a celebration of a child’s individual learning. We were led by the work of neurodiversity affirming advocate, Emily Lees (An Autistic Speech and Language Therapist). Emily’s advocacy for radical changes in therapy practices developed our thinking about the assessment process and the toolkit evolved to represent all forms of communication instead of focussing on speech and language. We thought more deeply about observation and about recognising children’s communication in all its forms.
Emily’s advocacy of well-being and emotional safety also led to a reflection of our own practice. Historically the education sector interprets observations of children’s emotional states from a neurotypical perspective. For neurodivergent children, well-being could present very differently. We felt the toolkit needed to support practitioners to focus on knowing a child in depth and how they demonstrate well-being, not on how well-being looks for neurotypical children.
Emily's collaboration with Stephen to develop A Beginner's Guide to Ableism was particularly influential in shaping the Reflection Toolkit. The Guide opened up more conversations between Stephen and I about our own practice. These included sometimes difficult reflections that we had not always got it right. We painfully had to admit that at times there may have been aspects of our practice that might have had a negative impact. We needed to reflect and unlearn some of the practice we had upheld for a long time.
One of the most powerful aspects to consider was the notion of privilege, and the privilege of neurotypical people. A lightbulb moment came with Emily’s quote from David Gaider – ‘Privilege is when you think something isn’t a problem because it’s not a problem for you.” We reflected: had we, as part of an already established system, spent much of our careers trying to ‘fix’ children to be more neurotypical?
Following on from Emily Lee’s influence, Stephen introduced me to the work of Kerry Murphy, an independent early years specialist and trainer. Kerry’s advocacy of neurodiversity affirming practice in the early years and her book A Guide to SEND in the Early Years also heavily influenced the content of the Reflection Toolkit. Kerry talks passionately about staying true to the authenticity of play for every individual child. Play happens naturally for neurotypical and neurodivergent children and we need to celebrate that individuality.
Kerry’s insight into our sector’s role in continually making things in education be ‘normal’ and the notion that we are continually advocating power and privilege in the normality of our education systems, struck a chord with Stephen and I. We reflected that too much emphasis for too long has been placed on how a child fits into a school or a setting, when the real notion should be how do we, as early years educators, ensure children belong in the provision they attend. How do we make provision fit for the individual child? How do we enable true acceptance and value all children? We were keen for the Reflection Toolkit to be used to enable practitioners to consider a child’s learning profile in a holistic way, encompassing many aspects and using their depth of knowledge of the child to change their provision to create a sense of true belonging.
Our collaborative journey so far has led us to develop and publish a final draft of the Reflection Toolkit. We hope it will aid practitioners in developing their provision for individual children and support the sector in recognising the need for cultural change away from stereotypes and existing historical practice entrenched in neurotypical perspectives. Kerry writes that ‘upholding the rights of the child’ is at the heart of her book ‘SEND in the Early Years’. We aim for the Reflection Toolkit to uphold those rights and enable reflection and knowledge, to change early years practice and ethos and move towards achieving true belonging for all children.
You can download the free Reflection Toolkit from this link: