New to SEND?

Finding out your child has special educational needs (SEN) affects everyone differently.

Some parents feel upset, overwhelmed and worried about how they’ll cope. For others, it’s a relief to finally know what’s going on. Everyone’s experience is different.

However you’re feeling, you’ve probably got lots of questions about all kinds of things. It’s a whole new world to get used to with its own language, systems and services. It can be full of uncertainty too.

But we’re here to help you make a start. The information on this page can help you get to grips with some of the basics and point you in the right direction for where to go next.

Here at DiAS we have lots of information about SEN support, how things work in Devon, the law and how to find your way to the right services and people. There are lots of other services in Devon that can give you support and show you the way too. You can find out more about them below.

If you can’t find what you need here, or you simply want to talk things through with someone, you can talk to us directly by email or phone. Or you can use our contact form to ask for support.

What does SEN mean?

SEN is short for Special Educational Needs. It’s a term you’ll probably hear a lot from now on.

A child has special educational needs if both of these things are true for them:

1. They have a learning difficulty or disability.

This means:

  • they have ‘significantly greater difficulty’ in learning than most of the other children in their age group or class;
  • or they have a disability which prevents them making use of what’s on offer in a mainstream school.

2. Their learning difficulty or disability means they need educational or training support that is additional to, or different from, that made generally for other children or young people of the same age.

So, in other words, if your child or young person has both a learning difficulty or disability and they need extra or different support from others of their age, then they have a special educational need.

Special educational needs affect different children in different ways. For example, your child may find it hard to:

  • understand things
  • make friends and manage relationships
  • concentrate and settle down to learn
  • talk to others or make themselves understood
  • read, write or understand maths
  • emotionally regulate themselves and ‘behave’ in school

SEN is a really broad area with lots of different kinds of need. Some children may have SEN in a specific area or just need some support to make progress, whereas other children may have a range of needs or need a lot of support. Sometimes these are called complex needs.

Some children or young people may need extra support which isn’t special educational support, for example, if they need medicines given at school to manage a health condition.

You’ll also see the term SEND. This stands for Special Educational Needs and Disability.

All children and young people with SEN are entitled to extra support with learning at nursery, school or college.

What does disability mean?

The Equality Act 2010 says that someone has a disability if they have:

‘A physical or mental impairment, which has a long-term and substantial adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day to day activities’.

Long-term means it’s lasted a year or more. Substantial means it’s not minor.

Disabilities include:

  • hearing and sight impairments
  • long-term physical or mental health conditions such as asthma, epilepsy, anxiety and depression
  • conditions that change, so sometimes symptoms are minor and at other times they’re more severe, such as rheumatoid arthritis, ME and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
  • conditions that affect development, such as autistic spectrum disorder (ASD)
  • learning disabilities
  • brain injuries

Children and young people with these kinds of conditions don’t necessarily have SEN, but there are large overlaps between disabled children and young people and those with SEN. Not all children with special educational needs are also disabled.

You can find out more about what a disability is, and isn’t, by looking at the guidance about the Equality Act .

What should I do if I think my child might have SEN, but I’m not sure?

Many parents with a child with special educational needs will tell you they had an instinct that things were not quite right, before a professional suggested it or before any diagnosis.

You might see subtle behaviour that on it’s own might seem like nothing, but put together might form a pattern. Or your child might do the same things as other children, but do them much more often, with more intensity and for different reasons. One mum shares her experiences and offers some tips on the Special Needs Jungle website.

If you think that things aren’t quite right, here are a few suggestions to help you get a clearer picture:

  1. Keep a diary about your child. Write down the things you notice, such as how they behave in certain situations or the things that really seem to challenge them. Note down what might have set off a tantrum, meltdown or withdrawal. It’s a great way to gather ‘evidence’, and that can be helpful when you start speaking to professionals.
  2. If your child is at pre-school or school, try and find ways to spend time with them while they’re there – go on your child’s school trips, or volunteer in class or at an after school activity that your child goes to. That way you can see how they are with other children and in an environment that’s different from home.
  3. Talk to other people about your child, such as your family and friends, your childminder, health visitor, teacher, teaching assistant or nursery staff. Ask how your child behaves when they aren’t with you.

Once you have more information, if you still think your child may have special educational needs, make an appointment to speak to a professional. This might be your child’s

  • GP or health visitor
  • staff at nursery
  • your child’s teacher
  • a Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator (SENCO)

Take the information you’ve collected about your child and talk about the things you’ve noticed or are worried about.

How are special educational needs usually identified?

Every child is different, and they develop at different speeds, so there’s a big range of what’s ‘normal’. All babies and young children should have regular check-ups to make sure they’re developing well. Check-ups are there to make sure any long-standing or big differences are picked up quickly. The Department of Education has a guide called ‘What to expect, when? which can tell you what your child should be able to do by different ages between birth and five.

Special educational needs are sometimes picked up at birth or soon after, or within a child’s first few years. If this happens you’re likely to get information and support through Early Years Complex Needs Service (portage) and specialist services.

For many children though, their SEN isn’t picked up until they start pre-school or school, when it starts to affect their ability to learn.

Identifying SEN at pre-school or nursery

All early years providers, such as nurseries and pre-schools, must have plans in place to identify and support children with SEN or disabilities.

They have guidance to help them assess how well a child is developing. It sets out what most children do at each stage of their learning and development. These include typical behaviours across the seven areas of learning:

  • communication and language
  • physical development
  • personal, social and emotional development
  • literacy
  • maths
  • understanding of the world
  • expressive arts and design

If your child seems to be behind expected levels, or there is concern about their progress, the professionals supporting them should look at all the information about their development. That includes information from you and any of the people involved in supporting your child.

If your child is ‘behind’ in their learning and development, it doesn’t always mean they have SEN or a learning difficulty or disability. Challenging or withdrawn behaviour doesn’t always mean a child has SEN either. However, if you or a professional have concerns, your child should be assessed, and support put in place if it’s needed.

Identifying SEN at school or college

As with pre-schools and nurseries, every school must have plans in place to identify children with special educational needs and put support in place for each child.

If your child’s teacher thinks they are struggling in school, or that something isn’t quite as it should be, they will usually speak to other staff and their SENCO first. They will also look at all the information they have about your child including previous reports, assessments and progress records. They should also talk to you. This helps them to get an all-round picture of your child and can help to show more clearly whether there is a special educational need.

Class teachers and subject teachers should also regularly assess all children to see what progress they are making. Progress isn’t always about academic and learning progress, it can be about things like social skills and physical development too.

They will be looking for any child who is making less than the expected progress. That might mean

  • a child is making a lot slower progress than other children of the same age
  • a child is not matching or improving on their previous progress
  • the gap in progress between a child and other children the same age is getting wider

Teachers and SENCOs use a tool called the graduated response to identify and support children with SEND. The first part of the graduated response is to assess a child – in other words to identify any special educational needs. Devon schools can all use an online tool which is adapted for each key stage of education. You can find out more about the graduated response in the next section.

Sometimes a special educational need will start to show when a young person has left school and is in further education, such as a sixth form college. If this happens, the legal guidance states that “teaching staff should work with specialist support to identify where a student may be having difficulty which may be because of SEN.”

What should my child’s nursery, school or college be doing to support my child?

If staff at your child’s pre-school, school or college have identified a special educational need they must tell you. SEND law and guidance is clear that professionals “must have regard to”

  • the views, wishes and feelings of the child or young person, and the child’s parents
  • the importance of the child or young person, and the child’s parents, participating as fully as possible in decisions

That means you and your child (where possible) must always be involved in the discussions and decisions – that’s the law.

Once it’s clear that your child has a special educational need, they should get support to help them manage. Special educational support (provision) in schools is called SEN Support.

SEN support in nurseries, schools and colleges is based around the specific needs of each child or young person. The staff, equipment, resources and support that help your child are decided using the graduated response. This is an ‘assess, plan, do, and review’ cycle. That means if your child special educational needs, the school or college should:

  • assess what support they need
  • plan the support
  • do the support set out in the plan and then
  • review how well it’s working

Information about your child’s needs, support and goals should be written down in a plan, which is used by staff and updated regularly. Schools and colleges use all kinds of plans, so your child’s plan may look different from one for a child from a different school. What’s important is that your child has a clearly written plan which lists all their needs, support and goals. For most children and young people with SEND the support the school gives works and they make progress.

This is what the legal guidance for local authorities, schools and colleges says about a schools duties:

“Mainstream schools, including academies, maintained nursery schools, 16 to 19 academies, alternative provision academies and Pupil Referral Units (PRUs), must:

  • use their best endeavours to make sure that a child with SEN gets the support they need – this means doing everything they can to meet children and young people’s SEN
  • ensure that children and young people with SEN engage in the activities of the school alongside pupils who do not have SEN.”

What are the different types of SEN?

There are four main areas of special educational need. Your child may have difficulties in one area, in a few areas or in all of them. The SEN Support your child needs should be matched to their identified SEN.

Cognition and learning

This is about how your child learns and how they think. Some learning difficulties may be obvious, whereas others aren’t. SEN in this area might include:

  • difficulties reading or writing or with maths
  • specific difficulties such as dyslexia or issues learning new skills
  • issues with memory, organisation or planning
  • a reduced ability to learn because they have difficulty managing their emotions

Communication and interaction

This is about how your child communicates with others and their relationships and social skills. SEN in this area might include:

  • speech and language difficulties
  • problems communicating with others, such as not being able to say what they want to, or having difficulties understanding what’s being said to them
  • not understanding or using social rules or how relationships with other people work
  • struggling with their relationship with you, any siblings, wider family and friends

Sensory and physical

These are physical and sensory things (over or under sensitive senses such as touch or hearing) that could make it more difficult for your child to learn in a usual school or college environment. SEN in this area might include:

  • difficulties with hearing or sight or multisensory impairment
  • sensory triggers or difficulties
  • any physical disability
  • problems with fine or gross motor skills – fine motor skills are small movement skills such as picking something up between thumb and fingers and using it, gross motor skills are larger movements such as running and jumping

Social, emotional and mental health

These kinds of difficulties can show in lots of ways, such as being withdrawn or isolated or having challenging and disruptive behaviour. Difficulties could include things like:

  • social anxiety, phobias or refusing school
  • mental health difficulties such as anxiety or depression, self-harming or an eating disorder
  • physical symptoms that there is no identified cause for
  • attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD)
  • attachment disorder or difficulties
  • self-esteem and confidence issues

What might it mean for my child and my family?

Everyone’s experiences with a child with SEND are different, because every child and family is different. But, there are some things that parents have told us are important for everyone to know.

  • Looking after yourself is really important – you need to be in good health and able to take time out for yourself to switch off. Find ways to do this regularly (yes we know it can be hard, but it’s probably the most important thing you can do for yourself and your child!).
  • Sometimes it’s an emotional rollercoaster. Life with a child with SEND is not the life you may have imagined for your child and for some parents that can be tough. There will be ups and downs – there can be lots to celebrate as well as uncertainty and worries.
  • You’ll need to learn the language of SEND and how to find your way around services and support. Our Jargon Buster can help with SEND terms and the Local Offer is the best place to start to find out what services and support are available in Devon.
  • You will probably be meeting and working with lots of professionals – from SENCOs to specialist teachers, from social workers to enablers. Good relationships really help you and your child, so it’s well worth making the effort to build these.
  • Meetings at school and with professionals will become part of life. Preparing well for these is the key to making sure they go well, as well as helping you get what you need. DiAS has resources to help you with this, including a meeting form and training.
  • If you want to feel confident and well prepared, you’ll probably need to go on your own learning journey. It can really help to know as much as you can about your child’s SEN. So, talk to other parents, find and read information and make the most of any training that’s on offer. Many parents become ‘experts’ in their child’s SEN as well as their child themselves.
  • Change is probably going to be difficult for your child. Many children and young people with special educational needs find moving from one thing to another tricky – whether that’s from lesson to lesson, from home to school or from key stage to key stage. These changes are called transitions and they usually work best when everyone is well prepared.
  • Sometimes it’s hard, but it’s always better to deal with issues early on, before things reach crisis point. Sometimes that’s easier said than done! Early help is the way to pick up problems early and get support in place in Devon.
  • Getting the right support at the right time is crucial. Many families have a good support network of friends, family members and other parents sharing similar experiences. Devon has lots of local support groups, leisure and relaxation activities and events that you can tap into. And of course, we are here to give you information and support too.

Where can I get more information and support?

A good place to start

If you’re looking for information about education, health and care services available for children and young people with SEND and their families go to……

Devon’s SEND Local Offer website

For local support groups or services in Devon

If you want to connect with other families or find out what’s in your local area – from support groups to childcare, from leisure activities to family support – go to…..

Pinpoint Directory website

For more in-depth or specific help

If you need more detailed information about any SEND issue or would like to talk things over, contact us! We also have details of other helpful SEND websites.

For legal information and advice

If you want to know the law around SEND, including SEN support, EHC plans, tribunals and exclusions – go to…

IPSEA (Independent Providers of Special Educational Advice)

For mentoring and support

Navigate is a national mentoring service from Scope, that provides online emotional support for parents and carers of disabled children who are finding out about their child’s additional needs. It is a 6-week programme that puts you in touch with a personal adviser, who will help you to talk about your feelings and concerns. It’s open to any parent or carer who:

  • lives in England or Wales
  • has parental responsibility for a child under 18
  • has a child on a pathway to diagnosis or who has received one in the last year

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Page last updated: November 2019 Page due for review: November 2021