Stories of tiger mothers: Struggling to survive in the SEND jungle

I recently asked parents of children with SEN statements about their decisions on school placements and their child’s schooling. My findings suggest that for many young people with statements of SEND, now known as EHC (education and health care) plans, it is the fight put up by their mother that ensures their survival in the “SEN jungle”, otherwise known as the English school system.

Many parents struggled to find a school that they felt met their child’s needs, with many children having to attend more than one school in the search for a “right fit”.

When asked about their school placement dilemmas, participants described their situations in terms of conflict, with phrases such as “I had to fight”; “it is who fights the hardest”; “it’s been a fight”; “it’s all a battle”; “been prepared to have to fight longer and harder if we had to” and “we had a fight on our hands with her”.

Participants described their situations in terms of conflict

These quotes resonate with the findings of the Lamb inquiry (2009), which looked specifically at information around special educational needs and disability, and found that the system seemed to create “warrior parents” with little faith in the schools and professionals that were meant to be supporting their children. Parents ended up feeling that they had to “fight for what should be their children’s right.

Parents in the study fell into a range of types in their responses to these dilemmas and battles – there were the fighters, the project managers, the intuitive ones, the well trained, the bolshie and, a type that cut across all of them, the relentless ones.

One family of a child with a hearing impairment prepared thoroughly for every meeting. They described one in which they had typed up their own set of notes about the things their son needed at secondary school, with his strengths and weaknesses, so they could put the case forward for him. They said: “we didn’t want to have to fight, but I think part of what we did, part of what we set out to do in going to the transition meeting was to show the county that, as parents, we meant business and we were not the sort of parents to pick a fight with.”

For mothers of children with autism spectrum disorder, the situation was even more difficult. Perhaps the lack of visible signs of impairment, coupled with the difficulties in finding the right education for their child’s often complex needs, makes these mothers’ experiences of trying to get support more complicated and often conflictual.

However, while the women in the study may have been relentless, many also still “grieved” for their child, just as they had when they were first diagnosed. One mother explained it to me:

“It was quite a lengthy grieving process . . . you think you get through it and you think you’re OK . . . because with Asperger’s it’s quite invisible, you don’t see it, you’re not reminded of it every day. He appears to be doing fine, he appears normal and his behaviour’s great. And then all of a sudden something will, kick off and it can go on for weeks. Then you remember this is a child with autism. It’s like ripping a plaster off a wound again.

Research can help school staff to understand more about these “warrior parents” or “tiger mothers” and how best to work with them to ensure an inclusive educational environment that supports the needs
of their children.