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Heather Benjamin, head of Assessment Service and SENCo at I CAN’s Dawn House School, speaks to us about her role and how assessment works at the school

Dawn House School is a residential special school for children and young people (5-19) with speech and language disorder or Asperger’s syndrome and associated difficulties which impact on their educational, social and emotional development.

Why are we assessing? And what to look for during assessment

Children and young people of all ages come for assessment at Dawn House School – mainly to find out if their needs can be met at the school, but we also carry out independent assessments. Our assessments provide families or local authorities with a comprehensive picture of children’s speech, language and communication needs. There are a range of factors to consider during assessment. Both formally and informally we need to explore their speech, language and social communication skills – both their understanding and their ability to put their thoughts into words. If the assessment is for school placement, it’s important to know if these are their main area of need.

In terms of an academic assessment, we are looking to understand more about their skills and knowledge in Literacy and Numeracy and to look for any indication of Dyslexia or Dyscalculia. We also spend time investigating how children’s language difficulties can be barriers to learning or socialising – through taking a dynamic approach to assessment we can work out pupils’ preferences for learning; what approaches work best for them.  An occupational therapist looks at their visual-motor integration, fine motor skills, handwriting, sensory processing and sensitivities. In addition, we explore any other areas of need that the child may present with, for example mental health issues. These should be secondary to their language/social communication needs.

Before an assessment

Before an assessment begins we hold a pre assessment meeting to discuss the pupil’s needs and establish if we need any additional resources. We prepare a visual timetable for the pupil, and we go through this with the pupil and the parent together when they arrive in school. This helps to explain to the child exactly what is going to happen, and who is involved; knowing what to expect really helps to lower any anxiety that parents or pupils have. Through a pre-assessment interview with the parent/s we find out as much information as possible about the pupil; things like food preferences, medications, sibling relationships and friendships as well as previous therapy and education. All of this gives us a complete profile, and means that we can plan a tailored assessment. 

The assessment process

The assessment process at Dawn House School is shared between a multidisciplinary team which includes a specialist teacher, speech and language therapist, an occupational therapist and, if needed, an educational psychologist. The assessment takes place over two days – sometimes short days if the pupil has high anxiety needs. Every assessment is slightly different to meet the needs of the pupil and the family, but includes some formal, standardised language and education assessments as well as more informal tasks and tests. The benefit of having the assessment based in a school is that children can spend time with a class group and so the assessment team can see how they communicate and learn in real life – in lessons, at mealtimes and in the playground. Observations and feedback from staff across the school are important contributions and help to work out learning style and how children communicate in different situations. If the pupil stays at school overnight, the residential staff will have a handover meeting with the assessment team at the end of the school day. Often the assessment team remain in the residential setting after school to support that transition.

The staff all work collaboratively in their approach. We work extremely closely with the parents and family both before, during and after the assessment is complete. This is vital to ensure we develop a complete profile and also so the parents and families are kept continually up to speed with proceedings.  As assessment lead, I liaise with both the family and the Local Authority. A panel meeting with an assessment teacher, therapist and OT is held at the end of the assessment process to discuss findings, any decisions – and, if appropriate, suitability of placement. This is then shared with parents and the Local Authorities in meetings where there is an opportunity for discussion and questions.

Rewards

Being part of the assessment team is incredibly rewarding. Each child or young person who is assessed is given a bespoke timetable that meets their needs during their time on assessment. No two assessments are the same, but having the time to investigate means that we can really get a complete profile of strengths, difficulties and of learning style.  It is a privilege to be able to meet and get to know the child or young person in depth over the course of the two days. We received the following email from a father of a 14 year old girl we assessed at home: “You both took the time and consideration to observe my daughter and to write an impartial report expressing your professional opinion in relation to her needs/our needs and the suitability of a placement at Dawn House. While it is saddening that Dawn House is not a suitable placement for Lia, it was both refreshing and a delight to have input from professionals who truly care about the quality of support and provision; enough to provide some genuine and honest feedback and I simply cannot emphasise enough how much this means to parents who need this level of honest and impartial feedback in order to move forward.”

For more information about the assessment service at Dawn House School, please visit www.dawnhouseschool.org.uk

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