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I Would Have Told Them If They'd Asked

Derrick Armstrong, David Galloway, and Sally Tomlinson

Revelations about what can go wrong if the child's perspectives are not recognised during an assessment for special educational needs.

Journal issue: 

I Would Have Told Them
If They’d Asked

Derrick Armstrong

David Galloway

Sally Tomlinson

University of Sheffield

University of Durham

Goldsmith’s College, London


PUPILS’ PERSPECTIVES ON SCHOOLING have received attention from at least three areas of research. School ethnographies carried out in the 1960s and 1970s examined children’s experiences of classroom and school settings; psychologists working on motivational style have emphasised the importance of children’s beliefs about how others perceive them; and researchers and practitioners working in North America have been active in developing programmes to prevent the emergence of behavioural and psychological problems in schools. There is a strongly held view that we cannot understand the origins or appropriateness of behaviour without understanding the context in which it occurs and the child’s perception of this.

The interest in the child’s perspective reflects recent developments in child care legislation and educational practice in New Zealand and Australia, as well as the United Kingdom, where this research was undertaken. For instance, within the British education system the importance of self-evaluation for the learning process has been emphasised by the introduction of Records of Achievement and pupil profiling.

The importance of the child’s perspective has also been recognised in assessments of special educational needs. This article looks at the role of children in the assessment of their special needs and their perceptions of this process. We examine how children’s perceptions of professional intentions can affect their behaviour in ways professionals may not recognise and finally we identify some of the constraints on professionals’ ability to gain access to the child’s perspective and take account of it.

(All names and identifying characteristics of the children have been changed).

Aims and scope of the research

The research involved an observational study of the formal assessment of 29 children (5-16 years old), referred to the Schools Psychological Service because of emotional and behavioural difficulties. Only four of the children were girls. This gender ratio is broadly consistent with another recent study of referrals for emotional and behavioural difficulties.

With the co-operation of clients and professionals the researchers observed the main parts of each child’s assessment, including psychologists’ interviews with children and parents, and medical examinations. Following the main observation sessions, separate interviews were held with each of the participants — professionals, parents and children — in order to explore their understanding of the purpose of the interview, what had taken place during it, and what outcomes were likely to ensue.

While this sample of 29 children elucidated children’s perceptions at each stage in the assessment, it threw no light on their retrospective perceptions following completion of the process and their placement, usually in a residential school or special unit. As time did not permit a longitudinal study, we identified an additional retrospective sample of 18 children who had been placed in an off-site unit on account of behavioural problems or in a residential school specialising in emotional and behavioural difficulties. One off-site unit and two residential schools took part.

Children’s perceptions of the assessment process

Despite departmental and professional advice about partnership with children, interviews with the children indicated that they rarely believed genuine attempts had been made to involve them in the assessment process, or even to encourage them to contribute. Many of these children appeared to be unaware how decisions had been reached. Nearly all of the children did remember being seen by a psychologist yet only three out of the eighteen were able to give any account of what the psychologist’s role in the assessment had been. One of these children said of the psychologist’s visit:

That’s how I found out I was dyslexic …. I saw him because I had learning problems. I saw him and he said I was dyslexic.

This child believed he had been seen by the psychologist “to help him [the psychologist] find out what was wrong with me” thus reinforcing his negative self-perception.

Children reported how anxieties they felt about the assessment were fuelled by the lack of information given to them about the purpose and outcomes of psychological and medical interviews. Frequently children felt they had little more than their own assumptions and beliefs to guide them in interpreting events.

In one case Tony gave a graphic account of his sense of powerlessness in the decision-making process. Before finally being placed in a residential special school for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties Tony had initially attended a mainstream school, had then been placed in a day special school before once more being moved back into the mainstream. Talking about his move back into mainstream he recalled:

I left it [the day special school] because the teachers wanted to try me in a normal school. I went to a [mainstream] school one afternoon a week and was getting on well. I then went full-time to a different [mainstream] school and didn’t get on at all …. I used to take a nice walk, which was 25 miles, round to the special school to see the kids and the teachers. I wish I’d never left there. I would have gone back if I’d had the chance. I would have told them if they’d asked.

In this account Tony offers a clear picture of how he saw his own needs and how he felt those needs to have been created, in part at least, as a result of decisions taken about him by adults. Yet from Tony’s point of view, as with many of the children with whom we talked, the assessment procedures provided no opportunity for him to articulate an account of his needs and how those needs might be met in the future.

From the perspective of many of the children the decision to initiate an assessment was interpreted as itself implying the subordination of their account to that of those requesting the assessment, usually teachers but occasionally parents. Even though children might identify aspects of their own behaviour as probably unacceptable to other people there was evidence in every case to suggest that these children believed their problems in school had complex origins. The way the school dealt with children’s problems was seen by them to be directly relevant to their present needs. Where outside professionals were seen to be responding to teachers’ or parents’ perceptions of the “problem” the assessment was often seen by children as part of their punishment. Nineteen of the children explicitly referred to the assessment in these terms.

Darren, for example, believed the assessment was taking place because his teachers were “saying I was the worst 1st year”.

In discussing the circumstances of his case with a researcher Darren contrasted his teachers’ views with his own account of the problems he faced in secondary school:

There were a lot of people aggravating me because I wasn’t bright. I was more or less the thickest in the class and I used to smash out at them …. I got on with the teachers bad. They just didn’t know what my problems were …. I used to always get taken the rip out of and that was the trouble really. I never bothered to listen. I just sat there making jokes.

When seen by a psychologist, however, Darren made no reference to his feelings about the way the situation had deteriorated in school even though the psychologist had tried to give him the opportunity to make his views known. Far from providing him with an opportunity to put forward his point of view and have it given genuine consideration, Darren saw his referral to the psychologist as an expression of the power the school had over him and the means by which it was enforcing its view of the world on his life:

There was nothing I could say really because they wouldn’t have me back in school …. I didn’t want to be away from my family and friends but he [the psychologist] put me here [residential school]. He’s the one who got me sent away.

Darren believed there was nothing he could contribute to the assessment because he had no control over the issues that had been identified as important nor over the decisions that were being taken about his future.

Implications for professional practice

In at least 20 cases in our research there was evidence that the child’s beliefs about the purpose of an assessment and about the role of professionals carrying it out had an effect upon the child’s behaviour during the assessment. For instance, in the case of Stephen, a primary aged child whose assessment we observed, the psychologist stated the purpose of initiating formal assessment procedures to be that of identifying whether or not the child’s needs would be better met in a residential school rather than the off-site behavioural unit he currently attended. Stephen’s parents were unhappy about him being placed in a residential school and sought to influence the outcome of the assessment by having him accepted into a mainstream primary. When this occurred Stephen commented “now I can start being good”.

Prior to this, his understanding had been that he was attending the behavioural unit because his behaviour was “bad” and there was nothing he could do about this. His removal from that unit meant to him that he was now able to reassert control over his behaviour and act according to the changed expectations he perceived others to have of him. His transition back into mainstream was a reasonably smooth one according to the teachers at his new school and the assessment was subsequently abandoned.

Other assessments we observed suggested how professionals may misinterpret behaviour when they are unaware of the child’s understanding of the aims of the assessment. In turn their misinterpretations may be used to support recommendations that influence the eventual outcome of the assessment. The possibility for a breakdown of communication between a child and the professionals conducting the assessment is clearly illustrated in Peter’s case. Peter’s assessment shows how interpersonal processes may lead to misconceptions about children’s thinking on the part of professionals and vice versa.

On the evidence of personality testing, Peter’s psychologist suspected that he might have a personality disorder. Following an interview between the psychologist and Peter (who presented as “unco-operative” and “emotional”) the psychologist argued that this behaviour confirmed his hypothesis:

He’s very introverted with a high level of neuroticism and a range of features that indicate he is specifically depressed … a reduction of interest … one could almost say he showed no emotion. “You do what you like mate, I’m not changing.”

These observations were used by the psychologist to support the recommendation that Peter would benefit from placement in a residential school for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties.

During his interview with Peter, the psychologist reiterated his view that a residential school would be an appropriate placement:

You know I’m thinking of an entirely different sort of school for you. A residential school where you don’t come home until the holidays … what do you think about that?

Peter’s response was an emphatic “no”. He was asked by the psychologist to elaborate upon this but remained silent. Our field note observation made at the time read:

He is clearly upset at the talk of residential placement. His hands are clenched and he’s holding back tears. This seems to be the first time during the interview … that he’s shown any sort of emotion or reaction to what’s going on.

Peter’s apparent lack of involvement in the interview until this stage is quite clearly open to a number of interpretations, one of which was advanced by the psychologist, i.e. a personality disorder. However, the child’s own account of these interviews, given in a subsequent discussion with a researcher, suggested a quite different interpretation.

From Peter’s own perspective the assessment threatened his chances of continuing to live with his family and as such was a source of considerable anxiety:

The psychologist wants to send me away … they’re horrible there [residential schools]. You get put in straight-jackets if you’re naughty. You get locked up and they have walls round to keep you in.

This anxiety about the role of the psychologist led Peter to distrust the psychologist’s intentions and hence to his refusal to co-operate in the assessment. Thus, whilst the psychologist interpreted Peter’s behaviour at interview in terms of his clinical diagnosis of a “personality disorder”, the child’s account of his behaviour during the interview was in terms of his expectations of the assessment process itself. Had the psychologist in this case been aware of Peter’s own understanding of the purpose of the assessment and how this understanding had influenced his intentional behaviour this may or may not have affected his recommendation. What is significant, however, was that the psychologist was not aware of Peter’s views. Consequently he was also unaware of his attempts to influence the outcome of the assessment.

Constraints on professionals

The disturbing behaviour of children may arise from tensions in the home or school, as well as from personality or constitutional “disorders”. It would be fair to say that all the psychologists we talked to were sensitive to the influences on children’s behaviour of the contexts in which the behaviour occurred. Nevertheless they often felt constrained to define the problem in terms of difficulties the child presented to others. These educational psychologists did not, and could not, simply assess the child. They were also responding to teachers’ legitimate expectation of receiving a professional service. Referrals did not arise solely from a disinterested concern to establish if the child had special educational needs. Reasons for referral were also related to teachers’ expectations of the outcome of the referral. These might include the acquisition of additional resources, the removal of the child from school, or a promise to act quickly if matters deteriorated in the future. Thus, in practice psychologists often felt constrained to negotiate a solution acceptable to the school because the school was also their “client”. In this sense governmental departments which allocate scarce educational resources are also clients of the psychologists.

The power of the psychologist’s different clients to realise their expectations of the assessment will vary from client to client. However, where conflict resolution is a major concern, the child may be at a particular disadvantage. This may be so even where, as was always the case in our study, the psychologist identifies the child as principal client. For example, Matthew, who was 15, was referred by his school for a formal assessment of his special educational needs after he had been indefinitely excluded because of his aggressive behaviour towards staff. In the psychologist’s opinion Matthew’s education was likely to suffer were he to be placed in a special school with its limited curriculum. Moreover, the psychologist was sympathetic to the child’s account of the problems he had experienced in this school. Matthew wanted to be readmitted to his school and the psychologist agreed that this was desirable if ground rules could be established with the school for this.

Because the school excluded Matthew pending psychological assessment I see the preparation of a statement as being a safety net. I do not want to send Matthew to a special school if possible because I believe he can cope with a normal curriculum. I want to say to his school that a statement is being prepared so I can recommend that he is readmitted with a behaviour contract.

For their part the school refused to entertain this proposal. As an alternative Matthew suggested a transfer to another mainstream school in the district. Again the psychologist felt this to be in Matthew’s interests. However, after initial enquiries he became aware that Matthew’s reputation had travelled and that no other school in the area was willing to take him in. In this circumstance the psychologist felt he had no real option but to recommend a special school placement for Matthew.

This case illustrates how psychologists’ assessments may become focused on the child, either as “problem” or “victim”, in consequence of the “need” to take account of the interests of other clients who have greater power to affect the outcome of the assessment procedures. Thus, even where, as in this case, the psychologist is aware of the child’s wishes and is willing to take serious account of them in the assessment process, he/she may be prevented from doing so by the expectations other “clients” have of the appropriate outcome.

The need for extra training

Interview data from our study revealed that many psychologists and teachers would like to involve children in decision-making and would welcome initiatives leading to this being undertaken, although they were concerned about the difficulties of turning good intentions into good practice. Child self-report procedures in assessments are one way in which training may be appropriate. Others are suggested by the work of psychiatrists and psychologists who have been closely concerned with the question of how to listen to children. Recent work on records of achievement and pupil profiling is also of direct relevance here. What is clear from the experience of those authorities and schools where records of achievement have been successfully implemented is that the positive co-operation and involvement of teachers, pupils and parents, as well as the effectiveness of the schemes in terms of learning outcomes, has depended upon the existence of coherent programmes of in-service training. The importance demonstrated by this experience of combining coherent policy with well-informed practice is particularly relevant to attempts to maximise children’s contributions to the assessment of special needs.


Derrick Armstrong is a research fellow in the Division of Education, University of Sheffield. Previously he worked in the Educational Research Department at Lancaster University in the department’s Economic and Social Research Council funded project on the “Identification of Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties”.

David Galloway was formerly Reader in Education in the Department of Educational Research, Lancaster University and is now Professor of Primary Education at the University of Durham. He was co-director with Sally Tomlinson of the Economic and Social Research Council funded project on the “Identification of Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties”.

Sally Tomlinson at the time of the research was a Professor in the Department of Educational Research, Lancaster University. She is now Professor of Education at Goldsmith’s College, London.

This article is based on a seminar given at The New Zealand Council for Educational Research in 1991. Details of the research can be found in:

Galloway, D., Armstrong, D. & Tomlinson, S. (1994). The Assessment of Special Educational Needs: Whose Problem? London: Longman.

Armstrong, D. & Galloway, D. (1993). Assessing Special Educational Needs: The Child’s Contribution. British Educational Research Journal, 19, (ii) 121-137.

Ethnographic studies of pupil’s perspectives and schooling can be found in:

Hargreaves, D.H. (1967). Social Relationships in a Secondary School. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Hargreaves, D., Hestor, S.K. & Mellor, F.J. (1975). Deviance in Classrooms. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Lacey, C. (1967). Hightown Grammar. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Willis, P. (1977). Learning to Labour: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class jobs. Farnborough: Saxon House.

Woods, P. (1979). The Divided School. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

The importance of children’s beliefs about how others perceive them is documented in:

Little, A.W. (1985). The child’s understanding of the causes of academic success and failure: a case study of British school children. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 55, 11-23.

Rogers, C.G. (1982). The contribution of attributional theory to educational research. In C. Antaki and C. Brewin (Eds.) Attributions and Psychological Change. New York: Academic Press.

The North American programmes to prevent the emergence of behavioral problems in schools are detailed in:

Bond, L. & Compas, B. (Eds.). (1989). Primary Prevention and Promotion in the Schools. California, Newbury Park: Sage.

Trueba, H., Spindler, G. & Spindler, L. (Eds.). (1989). What do Anthropologists Have to Say About Dropouts? New York: Falmer.

Child self-report procedures have been developed in:

Gersch, I.S. (1987). Involving pupils in their own assessment. In T. Bowers (Ed.) Special Educational Needs and Human Resource Management. London: Croom Helm.

The question of “how to listen to children” is posed by:

Ravenette, A.T. (1977). Personal construct theory: an approach to the psychological investigation of children and young people. In D. Bannister (Ed.) New Perspectives in Personal Construct Theory. London: Academic Press.

Rutter, M. & Graham, P. (1968). The reliability and validity of the psychiatric assessment of the child: Interview with the child. British Journal of Psychiatry, 114, 565-579.

Tammivaara, J. & Enright, D.S. (1986). On eliciting information: dialogues with child informants. Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 17, 218-238.

The effectiveness of schools with records of achievement is documented in:

Garforth, D. (1986). Instituting records of achievement at County level: The Dorset/Southern Regional Examinations Board Assessment and Profiling Project. In P. Broadfoot (Ed.) Profiles and Records of Achievement: A Review of Issues and Practices. London: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.


The research was funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council Grant No. R 000 23 1393. This article is based closely on the Armstrong et al article in British Educational Research Journal (see above) and is published with the kind consent of the BERJ editor.