Case study

Early years teacher and special educational needs coordinator — Kat Billingham

Kat shares how seeing children progress makes all the hard work of being a SENCO worth it

How did you start working in education, and SEND in particular?

My route into education came from an interest in music therapy. I completed an introductory course alongside my undergraduate degree and wrote my dissertation on using music therapy as an intervention for children with autism.

After graduating, I was working as an ABA tutor for children with autism, shadowing them at school and working with them in their homes. Alongside this, I worked in a nursery as an early years practitioner, where I learnt about recognising early signs of special educational needs (SEN) as well as the referral process.

My interest in supporting children with SEN started here and I completed the CACHE Level 3 Diploma for the Children and Young People's Workforce, choosing optional modules specialising in SEND. After this, I completed my PGCE and taught for two years in KS1 just outside of London. I then taught for two years in Mexico City, in a school with a huge inclusion department that valued special educational needs and disability (SEND) as well as mental health needs of children and young people.

What's a typical working day as a SENCO like?

It's usual for your SENCO duties to be additional to your role as a teacher, so a typical day involves regular teaching work, plus some extra responsibilities.

These can include completing longer observations on children who are being monitored or who have been identified as having special educational needs, planning and/or delivering one to one interventions, providing training and support for other staff, meeting with parents, completing paperwork (such as Individual Education Plans (IEPs) or Support Plans) and applying for/allocating funding for specific children.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

It's amazing seeing even tiny steps of progress that a child makes after successfully implementing plans and setting goals for them alongside their parents and practitioners who know them well. You really feel like you're helping and that all the hard work is worth it.

What are the challenges?

As a SENCO you're often the first person to meet with parents and families to discuss that their child may have an additional need of some sort. This can be difficult for them to hear, especially if they don't agree, and so you need to be sensitive, professional and understanding. It's always difficult to predict how the first meeting will go and sometimes you need to make decisions about how to progress these discussions.

Another challenge is fitting everything in alongside your teaching responsibilities. You need to be organised and manage your time effectively.

How has your role developed and what are your career ambitions?

I attend regular SENCO cluster meetings in Bristol where SENCOs from different settings meet up for training, discussions about any changes and other relevant issues. This has taught me a great deal. My role has also progressed into supporting children with behavioral needs and children with English as an additional language.

My future career ambitions are to become an educational psychologist - I'm currently completing a Masters in the psychology of education and hope to complete the professional doctorate in the future.

How has your Masters degree helped you in your career?

My postgraduate study is teaching me a great deal about how children learn, including about cognitive changes that occur in early childhood and the social psychological elements that can affect a child's behaviour.

I've also become more interested in current research related to SEN and education in general since studying at Bristol - reading more articles and studies often informs my practice as a teacher and a SENCO.

What are your top tips for those considering a Masters?

It seems obvious, but make sure you're interested in what you're learning about. You'll have to read a great deal and it makes all the difference in the world if you actually enjoy what you're reading and writing about.

You get so much more out of lectures and seminars when you have done as much of the recommended pre-reading as possible, so make sure you'll have enough time to do this alongside other responsibilities.

What advice can you give other aspiring SENCOs?

It's important to stay up to date with current research and developments as things change all the time.

Try to get some experience of working with children with SEND first to see if it's the right path for you. It's an amazing and rewarding job but it can be tough, so you need to be sure it's the right choice.

In early years settings, SENCO positions may not always be externally advertised. If you're interested, I'd suggest mentioning this in applications or interviews for jobs.

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