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Gareth D Morewood

Developing self-advocacy in young people as part of a family-centred approach

I often get asked what I think the most important SENCO skills are.

This has always interested me; starting with one of my first pieces of published writing The 21st Century SENCO right through to considering the SENCO role within the framework of significant chance.

I was certain at the start of my SENCO career and am still resolute in thinking that advocacy is one of, if not the most important SENCO skill.

Indeed, I think good SENCOs have high levels of self-awareness and I have been privileged to welcome many to visit my school over the last few years. One of the most important associated developments of a SENCO who can advocate for all, is the ability to support young people’s self-advocacy.

What is self-advocacy?

Self-advocacy is the action of representing oneself or one’s views or interests.

Find out more from Inclusion International. The ability to self-advocate is an interesting one and has raised questions about young people’s ‘mental capacity’ (see IPSEA summary) in relation to parental choice (see Special Needs Jungle post on decision making) within the current discussions and reform.

Historically, self-advocacy was a term applied mostly to adults with disabilities, but recently more focus has been placed on teaching this skill to young people; or in the case of the proposed new Code, placing them centrally to decision making.

Self-advocacy is about understanding your strengths and needs, identifying your personal goals, knowing your legal rights and responsibilities, and communicating these to others. I would argue that, in the vast majority of cases, parents and carers are the most powerful advocates for the young people with whom we work. The SENCO supports and encourages the parents and carers while promoting the child’s views to draw together a holistic picture of provision at that time.

This is the SENCO skill that I discussed initially. In trying to maintain a solution-focused approach and provide some positive thinking, I have considered my ‘top three’ with regard to developing self-advocacy skills at this time.

Developing self-advocacy skills: three things to consider
  1. Understanding yourself

I have always felt strongly that one of the most important aspects of a young person’s development of independence – or to use more timely terminology, preparing for adulthood - is knowing themselves and their needs well.

A few years ago we were lucky enough to spend a day at school, themed ‘Notions of Self’ (watch the video!).It is important, especially in these times of change that young people understand themselves more. This isn’t always an easy option; indeed finding ways to explain and communicate to some young people is a challenge itself. However, as early as possible (this will vary depending on need, starting point and circumstances) I think it important to find a way to allow the young person to understand themselves and their needs.

This is vital, in my experience, in them trying to ‘frame themselves’ within the world – essential for when supporting transition. This is where new Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCP) should provide much needed additional support. Time will tell.

  1. Involve young people, parents and carers in decision making

With a renewed emphasis on improving parent/carer voice and contribution to discussions about assessment and provision, the SENCO skills in ensuring that a ‘real’ student voice is heard and that the development of self-advocacy is part of a truly person-centred approach. These are all key elements of successful schools at the moment.

For example, using Student Passports proved to be a really effective mechanism to engage students, parents/carers and school staff, while keeping the young person central to all discussions and decisions. Based on ‘high impact’ research, the passports engage students in ‘learning to learn’ - metacognative approaches. It would appear that the idea of passports sits well within the proposed new framework and supports self-advocacy. Win-win?

With any systems of approaches it is important that there is positive engagement with parents and carers. Many schools have great dialogues with parents and carers of students with SEND; this often proves to be a key factor, and should be at the centre of provision for all schools from September 2014 onwards.

  1. Developing Communication

A key component of self-advocacy is knowing how to communicate this self-knowledge to others. I always try to remind people about an important piece of key piece of case law. “To teach an adult who has lost his larynx because of cancer might be considered as treatment rather than education. But to teach a child who has never been able to communicate by language, whether because of some chromosomal disorder... or because of social cause... seems to us just as much educational provision as to teach a child to communicate in writing.” R vs Lancashire County Council ex parte M (1989) You can develop communication skills.

It is important we as SENCOs invest time into supporting appropriate communication strategies and in doing so, support the self-advocacy agenda. It is most certainly possible that schools can employ their own speech and language therapist [link to previous post] to complement existing provision and enhance significantly the ability to support young people and parents/carers with hearing and truly valuing the young person’s voice. It is important to realise that legally it is as important to speak and communicate as it is to read and write.

Whatever the outcomes of the new Code, I think it important we develop our ability to advocate for all involved – with the young person at the top of our agenda. Keeping the students we work with central to everything we do is vital; never lose sight of that. I often think at times like this to what my headteacher would say, and in a nutshell I could go with any ‘crazy idea’ or ‘wacky thought’, but one question always remains – ‘What is the benefit to the children?’… a good question to keep asking and reminding ourselves about perhaps?

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