Special Educational Needs and Disabilities

What are special educational needs and disabilities?

Children and young people with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities have difficulties or disabilities that make it harder for them to learn than most children or young people of the same age.

What Does Special Educational Needs Mean?

Children and young people with Special Educational Needs may need more support to learn than the majority of children and young people of the same age; some may have a disability which prevents or hinders them from making use of the educational facilities provided for learners.

About one in five children and young people may have Special Educational Needs at some time.

All children and young people learn at different rates and have different events going on in their lives that can affect their rate of learning.

Early years’ settings, schools, colleges and Local Authorities can help most children overcome these difficulties. For some, these difficulties are short–term; for other children, however, they will have Special Educational Needs throughout their school or college life. Some will have Special Educational Needs in particular areas of their education, whilst others may need help with all or most aspects of their education.

A child or young person has Special Educational  Needs if he or she:

  • has a significantly greater difficulty in learning than the majority of others of the same age,
  • has a disability which prevents or hinders them from making use of facilities for education or training of a kind generally provided for others of the same age in schools or settings.
What are other types of Special Need?

There is not a direct link between having a disability and having a Special Educational Need (SEN). However, there will be some forms of disability where a child or young person is more likely to have SEN. The critical factor is whether the disability prevents or hinders the learner from making use of education or training that is generally provided.

English as an additional language
A child or young person does not have a learning difficulty or disability solely because the language (or form of language) in which he or she is or will be taught is different from a language (or form of language) which is or has been used at home.

Healthcare needs
Not all learners with a medical or healthcare need will have SEN. Medical conditions will not be regarded as SEN where:

  • they do not cause a significantly greater difficulty in learning, or 
  • where they do not constitute a disability that necessarily affects access to education or training generally on offer.

However, if a healthcare need does impact on a child or young person’s capacity to learn, they may require some adaptation to the curriculum which is set out in an Individual Health Care Plan.  

You may also see the following words:

  • Additional Educational Needs
  • Additional Needs
  • Disability
  • Learning Difficulties or Differences

These can also be described as Special Educational Needs 

When do you know if a child or young person has Special Educational Needs?

Some learning difficulties are clear from an early age, but in some cases the difficulties may not be noticed until the child is attending a school or setting. Also, children may have difficulties in several areas.  If children have levels of attainment well below expected levels, after teachers have tried different ways of helping, this can be called Moderate Learning Difficulties (or MLD) or General Learning Difficulties (or GLD).

Children who are behind in their work (or are struggling) will often have low self-esteem, low levels of concentration and low motivation. They may refuse to try new work because they think they will fail before they start. Children like this need support to access the curriculum.

What are some examples of the Special Educational Needs that a child may experience?
  • reading, writing, number work,
  • understanding information,
  • expressing themselves or understanding what others are saying,
  • making friends or relating to adults,
  • behaving appropriately at school,
  • organising themselves,
  • difficulty in hearing, seeing or moving around which may affect their learning.

With many children, these difficulties are not severe and are temporary. (e.g.  learning a new language).

What might a child or young person with Special Educational Needs or Disabilities need extra help with?
  • thinking, understanding and learning,
  • physical activities,
  • managing sensory issues,
  • understanding and managing emotional or social difficulties,
  • expressing their needs, knowledge and skills using alternative to speech,
  • understanding language,
  • understanding how to relate to and behave with other people,
  • accessing environments and activities within an educational setting.
How can schools and settings support children with Special Educational Needs?

Schools and other settings can help most children overcome the barriers their difficulties present quickly and easily, but a very few children will need extra help for some, or all their time in school.

The way that schools and settings assess and identify whether a child or young person has a Special Educational Need or Disability may vary but all schools and settings must follow the SEND Code of Practice (2015).

An overview of how a school or setting meets the needs of the learners with SEND is shown in their SEN Policy, Local Offer for Special Educational Needs or SEND Information Report. This can be found on each school or setting’s website.  

You will also find the school or setting’s Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator’s (SENCo) contact details on their website.

If you need the SEND Information Report in a different format you should ask the school for help with this.

Examples of Special Educational Needs

A child with Special Educational Needs might experience difficulties in one or more of the following areas:

Cognition and Learning Difficulties

If a child or young person has cognition and learning difficulties it means that they learn at a slower pace than their peers, even when learning tasks are changed to support them.

Learning difficulties cover a wide range of needs, including moderate learning difficulties (MLD), severe learning difficulties (SLD), through to profound and multiple learning difficulties (PMLD).

Children and young people with MLD or SLD  are likely to need support in most if not all areas of the curriculum and may also have difficulties with mobility and communication.

Children and young people with PMLD are likely to have severe and complex learning difficulties as well as a physical disability or sensory impairment.

Specific learning difficulties (SpLD), affect one or more specific aspects of learning. This encompasses a range of conditions such as dyslexia, dyscalculia and dyspraxia. 

Communication and Interaction Difficulties

If a child or young person has a communication and interaction difficulty, also known as a speech, language and communication needs (SLCN), it means that they may have difficulties either saying what they want to, understanding what is being said to them or they do not understand or use social rules of communication, which makes it harder to  build relationships with others.

The profile for every child with SLCN is different and their needs may change over time. They may have difficulty with one, some or all of the different aspects of speech, language or social communication at different times of their lives.

Autistic Spectrum Condition (ASC) is a communication and interaction difficulty.  Children and young people with ASC are likely to have particular difficulties with social interaction. Autism is a lifelong neurodevelopmental condition that affects how people perceive, communicate and interact with the world. Autism is referred to as a spectrum condition because, although autistic people often share certain difficulties, their autism will affect them in different ways.

Physical and Sensory Difficulties

If a child or young person has a physical or sensory difficulty it means that they have a disability which makes it challenging or prevents them from making use of the mainstream educational facilities generally provided.

Sensory Difficulties
Children or young people with sensory difficulties are those with hearing impairment (HI) or vision impairment (VI). Some children may also have a combination of hearing and vision difficulties which is known as a multi-sensory impairment (MSI). Many children with these sensory difficulties will require specialist support and/or equipment to access their learning.

Physical Difficulties
Some children and young people with physical difficulties (PD) require additional ongoing support and equipment to access all the opportunities available to their peers, including access to learning. These physical difficulties are usually linked to a medical diagnosis.

Social, Emotional and Mental Health Difficulties

Children and young people may experience a wide range of underlying, unmet social and emotional needs which show themselves in many ways. These may include internalised behaviours such as withdrawal or isolation, as well as externalised behaviours such as verbal and physical aggression or agitation.

Other behaviours may also reflect underlying mental health difficulties such as anxiety or depression which can present as self-harming behaviours, substance misuse, eating disorders or physical / psychosomatic symptoms that are medically unexplained.

Some children and young people may receive diagnoses that health professionals will use to specify or name the nature of the presenting behaviours, but which do not necessarily identify the underlying cause e.g. ‘attachment disorder’ or ‘attention deficit hyperactivity disorder’.