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What is a Special Educational Need?

Girl with special educational need learning in a SEN school

Special educational needs is a broad term for children that face specific challenges at school, usually due to a disability of some kind. These children do not meet the conditions to attend a standard school because they require extra help with their education. The quality of teaching is absolutely crucial for children that face additional hurdles in the classroom. Teachers in SEN schools must understand what special educational needs are and how they can tailor their approach in the classroom.

What Are Special Educational Needs in Schools?

Girl being taught through art in an SEN school

There are different definitions of special educational needs in schools. The term refers generally to any children that struggle in a normal school setting, but there is a specific legal definition too. The legal definition of special educational needs is a child with learning problems or disabilities that make it harder for them to learn compared with children their own age. Under this definition, only children with a recognised disability or learning difficulty are considered to have special educational needs.

All grant-aided schools are required to provide assistance for children with special educational needs. Sometimes, this help is given directly by the school, but it can come from outside sources too. Parents that are concerned about their children can have them assessed by the local education authority to determine what extra help they need.

What is the SEN Code of Practice?

The SEN Code of Practice is a framework for determining whether a child has special educational needs or not. If a child meets one or both of the following criteria, they are considered to have special educational needs:

  • They have significantly greater difficulty in learning than the majority of other children their age.
  • They have 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 post-16 institutions.

The Equalities Act (2010) sets out guidelines for determining whether children have a disability. This does not necessarily mean that they have special educational needs, but there is a large overlap between the two.

Although special educational needs are complicated and vary from child to child, the SEN Code of Practice defines 4 general areas where children may need extra help:

  • Communication and interaction
  • Cognition and learning
  • Social, emotional, and mental health difficulties
  • Sensory and/or physical needs

Some children will fit into just one of these categories but many disabilities lead to challenges in multiple areas. Autistic children, for example, often face difficulties in all 4 of these areas.

These categories are designed to help you identify a child’s specific needs, so teaching methods can be adjusted accordingly. However, special educational needs rarely fit into neat categories and every child is unique, so this is simply a guideline to follow.

How Does SEN Affect a Child?

Every child has their own needs and teachers must understand the unique challenges they face, so they can adapt their approach. When SEN children do not have their needs met, the challenges they face and the frustrations they feel come out in different ways. Common problems include:

  • Anxiety
  • Truancy/fear of school
  • Social isolation
  • Angry outbursts
  • Refusing to listen to teachers
  • Damaging property
  • Running away from school
  • Harming themselves

It is essential for teachers to make accommodations for SEN students if they are to avoid these problems.

How Can You Tailor Your Approach To Students?

There are a number of things that teachers can do to tailor their approach and create a positive learning environment for children with special educational needs. You can read our blog post about supporting students with Down Syndrome in the classroom for more specific information.

SEN teachers and SEN teaching assistants are specifically trained in different methods for engaging and helping children with special educational needs. Other SEN jobs can offer further support too. Here are some of the core concepts that teachers should know.



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