Special Needs Introduction

Sandra Hutchinson, Editor of The Good Schools Guide - Special Educational Needs provides a practical introduction.

SEN provision

Some special needs are easy to spot, others are only determined once a child has experienced considerable difficulties, frustrations or social and emotional problems. 

In the years since the first edition of our special needs guide diagnosis of, and provision for SEN have improved but both can still be a minefield. We have a lot of help and advice on this site but if you are unsure where to start, make this article your first port of call. 


Identifying different kinds of special educational needs

Identifying SEN

Few children fit a condition perfectly – if they do, we tend to say they are a ‘classic’ case. Most will not be straightforward, some will be comorbid, perhaps a dyslexic with dyspraxia and a touch of ADD, or a child with ASD who also has Down’s syndrome.

Just as special needs are hard to define so the perfect provision can be difficult to uncover; having a wheelchair-accessible school does not make it a haven for the wheelchair user.

Please do not take lists of characteristics to mean your child has an SEN; how many medical students thought they were riddled with cancer because they happened to have some of the symptoms outlined in the oncology module?

Whatever your thoughts, we cannot stress enough the importance of getting expert, professional opinion, sooner rather than later.


Who's who?

Helping children with SENIn addition to teaching staff there are a number of professionals whose role involves helping children with special educational needs: 

  • Special Educational Needs Coordinators (SENCo's) - coordinate SEN provision within schools.
  • Speech and Language Therapists (SALT)  - deal with a range of issues including how children speak and how they communicate and interact with others
  • Physiotherapists (PT) - work to overcome physical difficulties including: posture, core stability, sensory integration and strength.
  • Occupational therapists (OT) - help children with motor skills, coordination and daily functioning.
  • Educational psychologists (Ed Psychs or EPs) - uncover  a child's underlying difficulties and problems through a range of tests, sub tests and assessments. 
  • Music therapists use music to encourage communication and facilitate positive change. 
  • Play therapists - play is not something all children engage in automatically, therapists can assist those who find play problematic.

All have invaluable roles to play in helping children with SEN; what they do they do and how can they help your child is explained in the SEN Professional Help section.


Action to take if you think your child has a special educational need

Special educational needs - first steps

Children progress at different rates and have different ways in which they learn best but, if you have concerns, there are a number of things you can do...

Much will depend on the age and severity of the need, as we outline below.

Pre-schooler (0-5)

 Talk to your child's health visitor, nursery or pre-school teacher or  headteacher. They will advise you on action you can take at this stage. For some conditions, medical, behavioural, motor issues (such as dyspraxia) or speech difficulties for example, your GP can be a good first contact. They can refer you to therapists or for further assessments. The government green paper on special needs proposes that all children should be assessed for special needs during these early formative years. It is likely the onus will be on specially trained health visitors but the paper does not say how they will be trained or when.

School age children (5+)

Talk to your child's class-teacher, the school's SENCo, or head teacher. Voice your concerns; it may be they haven't spotted things you have, or that they have some concerns which, when coupled with yours, suggest some form of intervention may be appropriate. 

Be prepared: consider whether your child is making the progress expected for their age and if there is anything you can do to help at home. If you make an appointment to speak to an education or health professional be prepared before you meet; write down all the points you want to make, better still keep a diary or record of incidents and experiences that support your case. Remember you know your child best.

If the school (or health professionals) share your concerns, they will decide on the appropriate type and level of support or intervention - usually school action or school action plus in school, or referral to a therapists if you have sought medical help.

Exceptionally, medical and/or health professionals may decide your child needs to undergo a statutory assessment, with a view to your child being statemented.  

If the school doesn't share your concerns and you are still not happy with the explanations given, pursue the matter, seeking independent advice or information if necessary. Your GP or health visitor may be able to help. Alternatively seek out independent advice from an Educational Psychologist

Private EP reports usually cost between £300 and £400 but may be more. Their findings are not binding, a school does not have to act on them but it may be enough to set the ball rolling or to give you peace of mind.


The SEN debate - which school type?

Choosing a school is not only about the cut of the cloth, it’s about getting the perfect fit, everything from the first tack to the last stitch.

Helping children with special educational needs

Of course, there’s a difference between bespoke and Burton’s, but that doesn’t mean the former is the only, or even the right option; the suit may fit, the colour may not flatter. Some schools cater extremely well for the very bright, mildly dyslexic child, but would be hopeless for other SEN. Having good dyslexia provision alone does not necessarily make it the right school for your child with dyslexia, just as having a wheelchair-accessible school does not make it a haven for the wheelchair user.

You need to examine a school from all perspectives to ensure the fit is a good one. At one extreme, some schools do not deal with nor recognise any SEN. At the other extreme, some schools are very specialised, suitable perhaps for children with severe communication difficulties. Sometimes provision really does not exist and compromises have to be made.

Visit a selection of schools and visit shortlisted schools more than once. 

Don’t choose a school just because it says it offers provision for dyslexia or whatever; choose a school because it suits your child. If a school doesn’t advertise that it caters for SEN, but you like it and think it suits your child – ask. You’d be surprised how many schools that do well by children with SEN don’t advertise the fact (‘we don’t want to be seen as a special school’).


Further reading

A Special Educational Need or a Passing Phase?

Types of SEN - A comprehensive overview of key conditions that give rise to SEN.

Classroom Help For Children With SEN

School Admissions Policies - SEN

Choosing SEN Provision

Getting an Educational Psychology Assessment 

Getting Reading Right - A Case Study


Seeking a school:

SEN And Schools

Unit And Resourced Provision For SEN

Special Schools Reviewed By The Good Schools Guide

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