Review by Meanu Bajwa-Patel

21 Sep 2015, 6:00

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.


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  1. This sounds familiar. With coded responses that kept changing along with goalposts to deal with spelling and writing problems, anxiety, and bullying we put on our professional hats to deal with the professionals.

    We turned up to meetings with notes, typed up minutes after meetings for teacher approval, brought them to check off actions and developments at review meetings.

    It became clear we weren’t dealing with ‘professionals’. Recording meetings made the teacher and headteacher nervous and defensive; suddenly our child’s ‘anxiety’ in school was no longer an issue, his grades miraculously improved, and assaults and bullying? Gone, ‘alleged’ or simply not discussed with us.

    In recording meetings in a professional manner we found ourselves excluded: the headteacher and LA went into legal lockdown (duty of candour doesn’t exist in education). The LA filtered all communication between ourselves and the headteacher; and legal duties on SEN, safety, learning still weren’t met. Every time we pushed, they excluded us further; warrior parents experience ironic moments – being further excluded whilst seeking inclusion.

    The best way to deal with ‘warrior parents’ is to understand how they ended up in front of you to discuss their child. Understand they are representing the needs of a child – theirs. Understand before this meeting they sought guidance on how to help their child and what they can expect (it often isn’t what they get): they expect professionals to act as such with non-defensive behaviour to uphold laws and policies and resolve the matter (a defensive teacher making excuses or refusing to acknowledge the history of the problem is likely to exacerbate the issue). Understand that coded conversations create confusion and fail to manage expectations. Understand that promises should be kept and communication should be transparent and shared. Parents are trusting you (even when they keep records); trust them. And when it really gets out of hand because the LA gets nervous and puts everyone into legal lockdown and the parents now have even more to deal with, remember, nobody ever puts in writing just how far an LA is prepared to bully parents and the parents didn’t see it coming.

    Many a school and LA can learn from restorative practices; a whole country addressed truth and reconciliation. Things go wrong. Be professional. Don’t let it become the white elephant in the room; apologise. Most parents just want to redirect the energy and time fighting you back to directly assisting their child, and sometimes other children who are being failed, too.