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Paving the Way

Early intervention for children with learning disabilities whose behaviours challenge

Keeping in sight and in mind – supporting family contact in residential special schools

Claire Dorer posted on 03/05/16

Photo credit: Keith Wyncoll

“Parents often talk about how hard it is to take the decision for their child to live outside the family home – even if they have fought hard for a specialist school placement. Where schools are a long distance from the family home, there are particular concerns about how to stay in touch.

“A good residential school should be aware of and sensitive to these concerns and make staying in touch with family a central part of planning for placements. This can be a challenge when placements are made at short notice and this is one of the reasons why many schools find it hard to take ‘emergency’ placements.

“The best schools will try to reduce the sense of distance between the child and his or her family. This can mean basic things such as access to a telephone, for children with verbal communication, or Skype, which can be particularly valuable where children do not use verbal communication. Some schools also have family accommodation on site to make it easier and more affordable for families to visit their child during term time. A few have access to specialist holiday accommodation that can give families the chance to have a break together – something that may not have been possible for many years.

“More than just the practical actions, the best schools are able to make parents feel that they are all part of one team, supporting their child. This means actively including parents, not just in decision-making, but in the everyday parenting conversations that families with a child not living at home fear missing out on. Good schools ask at the start of the schools placement how often families want to hear from them, and stick to it – whether that’s daily phone calls, weekly emails or more formal newsletters. Videos can be a great way of sharing their child developing a new skill or enjoying an experience with their family. When a child displays behaviours that challenge, families can get used to only hearing about problems with their child. That’s never a child’s full story and a good school will make sure that families stay in touch with their child as a whole person, not just a collection of behaviours.

“In schools we talk a lot about ‘duty of care’ towards a child and recognise that when children live with us we are acting at least to some extent ‘in loco parentis’ – in the place of the parent. This works at its best when there is recognition of families as experts in their child’s needs and schools can act as family allies, rather than family replacements. The idea of a ‘team around the child’ doesn’t have to have all parties physically nearby to be effective – it just needs everyone to be fully held in mind.”

– Claire Dorer, CEO of NASS – the national membership body for non-local authority special schools

This blog post is part of the ‘Keeping in Touch with Home Project’ from the Challenging Behaviour Foundation and Mencap. The project hopes to improve the support offered to families to help them keep in touch with children who are living away from home for a long period, and is funded by NHS England as part of the Transforming Care Programme.

Having previously asked families to share their experiences, we are now looking for professionals who have knowledge of families with children who are living or have lived away from home in a residential setting to share their insights. Please fill in our survey for professionals at the link below:

If you are a family carer, and would like to share your experiences and insights with us, please send us an email, – or leave a comment in the box below!

One Comment

  1. My son was in a residential boarding school from when he was 8 until he was 19 (he’s now 22) 279miles round trio for a visit.

    I realised for many years I didn’t breathe properly as I thought my heart would break.

    We had weekly phone calls and if anything happened during the week I was in my car dragging the other children making sure he was okay.
    I could of applied for LA Transport but I thought it was so important for the school to see me when I drooped him off and picked him up. I did threaten the head that if anything happened to my child that I don’t do police they are more than welcome to call the police on me when I’ve finished with them. Surprisingly she completely understood and said she would feel the same way. You fight for soecialist provision and when you get it you are still in a state of shock because you have to let go so your child can get the best start in life.

    From being restrained by 5 adults at 8yrs still in nappies he has come a long way *wipes happy tears*

    Glenice Lake May, 3rd 2016

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