What are special educational needs?

If your child has more problems than most children their age with their schoolwork, communication or behaviour, plenty of help and advice is at hand from specialists, teachers and voluntary organisations.

What 'special educational needs' means

The term 'special educational needs' has a legal definition, referring to children who have learning problems or disabilities that make it harder for them to learn than most children of the same age. Many children will have special needs of some kind at some time during their education.

Help will usually be provided in their ordinary school, sometimes with the help of specialists. If your child has special educational needs, they may need extra help in a range of areas, for example:

  • schoolwork
  • reading, writing, number work or understanding information
  • expressing themselves or understanding what others are saying
  • making friends or interacting with adults
  • behaving properly in school
  • organising themselves
  • some kind of sensory or physical needs which may affect them in school

Your child's progress

Children make progress at different rates and have different ways in which they learn best. When planning lessons, your child's teacher will take account of this by looking carefully at how they organise their lessons, classroom, books and materials.

The teacher will then choose suitable ways to help your child learn from a range of activities. If your child is making slower progress or having particular problems in one area, they may be given extra help or different lessons to help.

Just because your child is making slower progress than you expected or the teachers are providing different support, help or activities in class, this doesn't necessarily mean that your child has special educational needs.

Getting help

Your child's early years are a very important time for their physical, emotional, intellectual and social development. When the health visitor or doctor makes a routine check, they might suggest that there could be a problem. If you have any worries of your own, you should ask for advice right away.

You should first go to your child's class teacher, the person in the school responsible for help for children with special educational needs or the headteacher.

You could ask them if:

  • the school thinks your child is having problems
  • your child is able to work at the same level as others of the same age
  • your child is already getting extra help
  • you can help your child

If your child's school agrees that he or she has special needs in some areas, they will adopt a step-by-step approach to meeting these.

Special educational needs: basic principles

There are a number of basic principles that all those involved in your child's education will consider. When talking to your child's teachers, there are some basic points to bear in mind:

  • if your child has special needs, these should be met and they should receive a broad, well-balanced and relevant education
  • your views should always be taken into account and the wishes of your child should be listened to
  • your child's needs will usually be met in a mainstream school, sometimes with the help of outside specialists
  • you should be consulted on all the decisions that affect your child
  • you have a vital role to play in your child's education

More information is available from the Department of Education's website:

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