Recent calls from local TDs for more access to psychologists for school children have highlighted a worrying trend in the younger sections of Ireland’s population. Educationalists notice a yearly increase in the number of children entering secondary school who already have a ‘report’ (a psychological assessment’, who have been diagnosed with a specific emotional or behavioural disorder or who have been identified by primary teachers as possibly needing a psychological assessment. There has also been a corresponding increase in the numbers of pupils presenting with reading ages considerably lower than their actual age, or with a severe numeracy/literacy deficit. Social and behavioural disorder diagnoses are also increasing.
Recent statistics released by the National Educational Psychologists Service (NEPS) show that 1 in 4 Irish pupils have special educational needs and up to 1 in 5 are experiencing emotional or behavioural disorders. It would be morally wrong for us to refuse to acknowledge that we have a major crisis on our hands if 25% of our children are labelled as having SEN. Such a statistic spells havoc for schools which are already understaffed and in many cases, are struggling to give children with SEN the professional, structured help which their diagnosis has declared they must receive.
There are many children who genuinely do have special needs, a lower than average IQ, or an emotional disorder. They do need help. However, from observing the surge in SEN and social/cognitive disorder diagnoses, I have been often given reason to wonder how genuine some of these perceived ‘issues’ are – or whether perhaps they are issues that have arisen due to inadequate parenting, motivational and discipline issues, sheer laziness, or the fact that Mom and Dad have enough money to pay for a private psychologist.
Because the hidden dangers in this consistent growth are firstly, the risk that the children who genuinely do need help are getting lost in the system and secondly, that by filling our classrooms with a variety of diagnoses, we, as teachers, are being forced to lower our own standards to ‘include’ everyone.
The Irish Education Inspectorate has spoken strongly against streaming or setting, even in Maths and English, and has intimated that best practice is to have all abilities together in the same classroom. While there are a limited number of separate classes provided for SEN pupils, they will still spend most of the school-day in mainstream classes. Thus, we have children presenting with diagnoses ranging from dyslexia, dyspraxia, Asperger’s Syndrome, anxiety, depression, and very low numeracy and literacy abilities all in the same classroom. As a rule, we are mainstream teachers trained in one or two specific subject areas, with little or no knowledge of accommodating SEN or other issues in our classrooms. Our lack of training and resources combined with the unreasonable demands by the Department of Education to educate all levels together and the unrealistic expectations of certain parents are contributing to a serious sense of disillusionment and burnout in our staffrooms.
Several problems ensue consequently. Our classes become either ‘who-cares’ sessions where everyone has great fun but very little learning occurs, or unable to cope with catering for everyone, we focus on the few pupils who seem eager to learn and will do reasonably well while the rest tune out. The pupils who have psychological assessments do not worry however, because they will probably receive several allowances during exam time, including perhaps a reader, a scribe or a spelling exemption. Other pupils, realising both these benefits and their own intellectual inadequacies, wonder whether they perhaps should also undergo psychological assessment – or their parents recognise that a child with a ‘report’ appears far better than a lazy, unmotivated child. Thence the vicious circle, and the eventual dumbing down of education.
While I re-emphasis that there are many children who do have SEN, we must acknowledge that there are parents who are simply abusing the system. I once spoke to a mother about how her child’s irregular attendance was resulting in poor assessment results; she responded by saying that he had an ‘anxiety issue’ and that I was exacerbating it by asking him to give oral answers in class. When I asked to see proof of this issue, I was told coldly that the boy was undergoing appointments with a psychologist. I was now to ‘be careful and accommodating’ when dealing with this pupil. In another case where a teacher reprimanded a pupil for negative behaviour in class, she was informed that the pupil was suffering from depression – even though a psychologist’s report was not forthcoming.
Psychological diagnoses are often subjective and ‘incorporate an ever-increasing range of cognitive and self-regulatory deficits including poor working memory, processing speed limitations, attention/concentration problems, difficulties in analysing and synthesizing complex information and in organising and expressing ideas’ (Julian Elliott, author of The Dyslexia Debate).
Often, early childhood intervention, a secure relationship with parents, good emotional and physical health, consistent parental involvement with all aspects of the child’s life including homework completion, loving discipline and a healthy spirit of motivation can go a long way in eliminating/curing many psychological diagnoses.
Perhaps the answer to Ireland’s perceived need for psychologists is to instead encourage parents to get involved with their kids and to emphasize to them by words and actions that all children can achieve their dreams.
That might free up the psychologists to deal with the children who genuinely do need help.