Special educational needs

6min read

Two boys playing

How do you recognise whether your child has special educational needs?

All parents want to give their child the best possible start and see them develop into a happy, confident and successful adult. However, there may be times when your child seems to be having difficulty in mastering a new skill or seems slow in a particular area of development. As a parent you will want to know whether this is normal or whether it is something you should be concerned about. It can be particularly worrying if other children you know seem to be developing more quickly than your child. It is important to remember that all children develop at different times.

How will I recognise that my child has difficulties?

Parents know their child better than anyone else and will usually be the first people to notice that something is not quite right. These are some of the things parents say to us: 

  • my child seems different from other children 
  • always play with the same things or plays on their own most of the time 
  • seems to be behind and is not as independent as other children 
  • can’t do the things my older child did at this age 
  • tends to wander around a lot and doesn’t seem to settle to anything
  • we can’t understand anything they say 
  • doesn’t listen when the whole group is asked to do something 
  • can’t share
  • wants my attention all the time 
  • often gets upset and is difficult to console or has tantrums
  • doesn’t seem able to hold a paintbrush or build with bricks like other three year olds

What should I do if I’m worried about my child’s development?

If you have any worries about your child’s development or have noticed any of the things described above, speak to your health visitor, doctor or early years staff at nursery or toddler group or their school teacher. Make some notes before speaking to staff or professionals so that you have clear examples of what you are worried about. It is important to check out if the difficulties are significant and, if so, how your child can be helped.

Suppose I am worrying unnecessarily, I don’t want people to think I’m a fussy parent

Checking out things that are worrying you is not being a fussy parent, it’s being a good parent.
Children do develop at different rates and although some are ‘slow starters’ this doesn’t
necessarily mean there is a long-term difficulty. However, if your child does have a real difficulty
then the earlier it is picked up the better, because then your child can get the help he/she needs.

Surely the health visitor would tell me if she thinks there is a problem with my child’s development?

Your child will be offered regular developmental checks at 18 months and three years, as well as
the normal programme of regular visits. During these checks your health visitor may notice that
your child seems to have greater difficulty in some areas of development than other children of the same age; or, your child may appear to have some difficulties with hearing or vision, a physical difficulty or behaviour problems.

If the health visitor is concerned about anything she notices or anything you tell her about your
child, she will arrange for your child to be seen by a specialist to find out more.

What specialist services are there?

There are many kinds of specialist services available. These include community paediatricians who specialise in child development, a sleep and behaviour clinic, an eye unit, an audiology clinic, speech and language therapy and occupational therapy, to name just a few. Specialist services are usually very busy and you may have to wait a little while for an appointment. When you get an appointment time, do keep it because you may have to wait a long time for another one. When you see the specialist, pass on as much information as you can about your child. As a parent you may have noticed something which others are not aware of. If further action is needed the specialist will be able to arrange this or may make suggestions as to how you can help your child at home.

I have been told that my child may have special educational needs, what does this mean?

Special Educational Needs (SEN) means that your child has a difficulty in learning or has emotional, behavioural, sensory or physical problems, or has problems with communication. For many, the difficulties are temporary but a small number of children have difficulties that are more complex and long-term.

If your child has significant SEN the community paediatrician will ask your permission to inform the local authority (LA). The LA will then decide whether to make a statutory assessment of your child’s SEN. The purpose of this would be to make a detailed assessment of all your child’s difficulties and may result in a statement of SEN.

If the LA decides to make an assessment of your child’s SEN, they will arrange for an educational
psychologist to visit him/her, either at home or at their school.

What is an educational psychologist?

An educational psychologist is a qualified psychologist who is a specialist in understanding how
children learn. They work very closely with schools and early years settings, advising about SEN,
observing and assessing children who have difficulties and suggesting suitable learning programmes. You will be asked to give written permission before the educational psychologist assesses your child and will have a chance to talk to him/her after the assessment.

What happens if my child’s difficulties don’t become obvious until he/she starts school?

Some children’s difficulties only become noticeable as they go through primary or occasionally
even secondary school. Your child’s school will take steps to identify what the difficulties are and
may give your child extra help. For most children this is sufficient to enable them to learn


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