What Are Special Educational Needs?

Special Educational Needs (SEN) or Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) are terms used to describe difficulties or disabilities that might make it harder for children and young people to learn, compared to peers.

As the Department for Education highlights, children with SEND may be affected in terms of behavioural tendencies, reading and writing skills, comprehension and concentration, or physical ability.

With such wide-ranging needs across the SEND spectrum, schools, health and social care teams and other partners who lead on delivering support and specialised for provision for young people must have a detailed understanding of the nuances and complexities that exist.

Here, we take a deeper look at definitions and different needs, to help you consider how to improve support for learners with SEND.


Legal Definitions of Special Educational Needs

The 2014 Child and Families Act, under Section 20, defines a child with SEN as one with a “learning difficulty or disability which calls for special education provision to be made (for them).” Having a learning difficulty might mean experiencing “significantly greater difficulty in learning than the majority of others of the same age” or having “a disability which prevents or hinders them from making use of facilities of a kind generally provided for others of the same age in mainstream schools or mainstream post 16 institutions.”

The 2010 Equality Act considers a person to have a disability if they have a “physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on a person’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.”

In this case, such activities might include dressing, or cleaning, and long-term is considered at least one year. Physical impairments might include sensory difficulties, while mental impairments includes a broader range of SEN including Autism, Dyslexia and Attention Deficit (Hyperactivity) Disorder (ADHD/ADD).

According to national charity KIDS, an organisation supporting disabled children, young people and their families, children may have SEND because of a medical condition or disability, while others may have SEND without a diagnosis or disability.


Types of SEND Difficulties

Children and young people with SEND may experience difficulties in one or more of four key areas, and as such require additional support or specialised provision to meet specific needs.

  1. Cognition and Learning: children may struggle with reading or spelling for example, or it could be the case that learning as a whole proves difficult.
  2. Physical and Sensory: children may have a medical condition that impacts upon their learning, or a visual/hearing impairment, and experience under or over-sensitivity in their processing.
  3. Speech, Language, Communication and Interaction: children may find it difficult to express themselves, or to understand what others are saying to them. Sometimes they struggle to make friends, which could be related to difficulties with interaction, such as being able to “take turns”.
  4. Social, Emotional, Behavioural and Mental Health: children may display tendencies such as being anxious or having low self-esteem, or struggle to adhere to behavioural norms especially in a mainstream school setting. There could also be underlying conditions affecting mental health.


A Closer Look at Cognition and Learning

While each of the above categories are vast and can include many examples and variations, difficulties related to cognition and learning are often the elements of SEND that schools are most closely aligned in supporting.

As such, it might be helpful to know that learning difficulties are classified in four ways, as broken down by KIDS.

  1. Moderate Learning Difficulty (MLD): children with MLD may take longer to learn skills than the majority of their peers and are likely to require extra support in school.   
  2. Severe Learning Difficulty (SLD): children with SLD will have significant learning impairments which will impact their ability to learn without high levels of specialist support.   
  3. Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulty (PMLD): children with PMLD will have complex learning needs. In addition to severe learning difficulties they may have physical difficulties, sensory impairment or a severe medical condition. A high level of specialist support will be needed at all times.   
  4. Specific Learning Difficulty (SpLD): Specific difficulties may include Dyslexia, Dyspraxia and Dyscalculia. Children with SpLD may require some support in school targeted to their specific area of difficulty such as spelling or numeracy.   


How Schools Can Effectively Meet the Needs of Pupils with SEND

In line with the SEND Code of Practice, every school must have systems in place to identify and assess SEND needs among children and young people, and monitor ongoing progress especially where additional support is provided, to ensure this is appropriate and effective.

A designated teacher will be responsible for coordinating SEN provision, known as the SEN Co-ordinator or SENCO, and close collaboration with parents and carers in making supportive arrangements is required.

School governors may help to develop and monitor a whole-school SEN policy, and ensure adequate provision is a key part of the school development plan, as well as ensuring related budgets are spent effectively.

Schools should work closely with local authority partners, particularly where an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) is determined to be a required part of the support provided.


Access more support for effective EHCP delivery via our online training course, and gather with fellow SEND leaders and peers at the annual National SEND Conference.