For those children who enter our early years settings with an identified special educational need or whose progress raises concerns, the Individual Education Plan (IEP) is a crucial instrument in the cycle of assessing, planning, teaching and reviewing, to use in meeting needs and raising their achievement.
An IEP should clearly document teaching and learning strategies that will make it easier for children to progress and for practitioners to plan and monitor that progression. We see the compiling of an IEP as an opportunity to involve the creative thinking of several members of staff and the parents, who can discuss practical ways of how to move a child on in specific areas of development.
Observations allow practitioners to contribute knowledge of the child's level of development in a variety of areas as well as the information they receive about the child from parents and other professionals.
It is also important to observe what the child can do as well as focusing on areas of concern. The observations should be descriptive and should use clear non-judgmental language. Ambiguous and vague comments, like 'Charlotte is very shy' should be avoided.
Analysis of need should be based on:
* collection of records of incidents
* perspectives of colleagues from their observations
* typical developmental milestones
* information from home about the possible influences of significant factors, such as medical concerns, like 'glue ear', or particular events, like the arrival of a new baby
* Experiences of English if it is not the child's first language.
Parents' reactions Practitioners must recognise that gathering information from parents where a child's development may raise concerns is a very delicate issue and requires a sensitive approach. Practitioners may find parents' responses to this vary considerably - from relief that their concerns are shared and acknowledged, to denial, anger and a refusal to engage. Finding out that your child has a special educational need has been described as similar to a loss or bereavement. Adjusting can follow a similar pattern to the grieving process. Parents have expressed this as the loss of their 'perfect child' for whom they had made plans and had many expectations of achievement.
A term that we use for this process of gathering further information and observation is 'active waiting', which indicates that the waiting is not a passive activity.
Following the period of active waiting, which could be six weeks or longer (a child may be settling in and need this time to familiarise themselves with the setting), a decision should be made whether to complete an IEP at Early Years Action. The triggers for intervention are outlined in the Department for Education and Skills, Special Educational Needs, Code of Practice, November 2001, Chapter 4. The targets set and the strategies devised in the IEP allow the practitioner to 'take additional or different action to enable the child to learn more effectively' (Code of Practice paragraph 4.13).
Sometimes practitioners may feel that they lack skills in responding to the diversity of children's special educational needs in their setting, and feel overwhelmed by the challenge ahead. This sometimes shows itself when, for example, consulting with practitioners about the behaviour management issues for a child. A frequent response from early years colleagues to the team's collection of information about a referred child is that a particular behaviour happens 'all the time' and any suggestion of strategies to change the behaviour has 'already been tried many times'.
Ensuing discussions actually reveal that the expression 'all the time' in fact means 'sometimes'. The behaviour had just recently occurred and the impact was so great that it felt to practitioners like it happened 'all the time'.
The negative response from practitioners that they have 'tried that strategy many times and it does not work' can be more a reflection of their frustration and disappointment when behaviour has not changed immediately or significantly when a strategy is used, rather than an account of the number of times the strategy has been tried.
One of the roles of the team is to facilitate a discussion that restores the confidence of practitioners, who then become able to take control. This evolves from focusing on particular areas of teaching and learning styles, or causes and consequences of certain behaviours. It can lead to the development of strategies through the use of:
* practitioners' observations
* monitoring charts, such as those that record the frequency and intensity of a behaviour such as a tantrum
* Antecedent, Behaviour, Consequence monitoring charts, known as ABC.
Often the involvement of the team leads to practitioners making plans and writing IEPs which activate appropriate interventions that support progress.
Matthew was just such a case. He joined his nursery when he was two years and 11 months old. It became obvious to the staff very early in the settling in period that he had significant needs. However, it was some time before members of the team became involved with him and his family.
Although the practitioners had established a friendly relationship, they were unsure of how to begin a dialogue with his parents about their concerns and how to begin to respond to Matthew's many needs.
The team's area special educational needs co-ordinator (SENCO) was asked by the setting to meet with the key worker for a consultation. It became apparent that a priority area in which the nursery needed support was in the collection of information and engagement with the parent. At the time we became involved we observed a pattern of practitioners colluding with parents, which manifested itself in an affectionate acceptance of Matthew's behaviour as idiosyncratic. This, we felt, could be his mother's way of coping with her anxiety of what initially appeared to be a significant delay in some areas of her child's development and the staff's reluctance to relay concerns to her.
Observation of Matthew in the key developmental areas of language, motor skills and play showed that Matthew was spending a lot of time at nursery passively observing other children from the edge of their activities. When he did communicate it was by uttering sounds, which he repeated but were generally unrecognisable to the staff. He coped by indicating to a practitioner through pointing or leading them to what he wanted.
We encouraged the keyworker, who had a good relationship with Matthew's mother, to invite her to a meeting to discuss his progress. We advised her to include in the meeting the areas of strengths and progress that had been observed and to then approach the areas of concern around language, gross motor skills and play.
It is very important that practitioners describe the child rather than attribute a diagnostic label to any developmental features observed. This is the remit of the medical profession and is not in the realm of an educator.
During the meeting, the keyworker described Matthew's style of communication, interaction with siblings and peers in his home setting and his level of physical skills. She asked his mother whether she had any concerns around these areas - how had she found Matthew to be at home? Parents have an in-depth knowledge about their child gathered from their shared lives and how they respond in a variety of contexts.
It was decided to prioritise two areas of need on the IEP. The keyworker and the area SENCO, in consultation with Matthew's mother, set a target for each area of need and devised a variety of strategies. It is important to keep the number of targets to a maximum of three but to be as creative as possible when devising strategies, of which there can be many.
Matthew's mother was keen to support the plan at home. Some weeks later at a review meeting the charting of Matthew's progress was discussed and it was agreed that Matthew's difficulties were complex. The Area SENCO recommended a referral to the Early Years Intervention Team in order to gain further advice from the team's educational psychologist and speech and language therapist.
By this time four months had passed. The IEP had provided the structure for all staff to address Matthew's needs in a clear and consistent manner. It allowed progress to be observed and recorded and it provided crucial information for the future involvement of other professionals. NW
* Camden Early Years Intervention Team was established in 1998. The team includes two teachers, an educational psychologist, a speech and language therapist and an area special educational needs co-ordinator, offering a service to all early years settings in Camden EYDCP, London.
Unfortunately, the team cannot enter into personal communication with readers, but letters for publication in Nursery World can be sent to the address on page 3.