Special educational needs and disability (SEND)

Assistants playing with special needs children

Special educational needs, disability and areas of need

The Special Educational Needs and Disability Code of Practice (2015) defines special educational needs as follows

 “A child or young person has SEN if they have a learning difficulty which calls for special educational provision to be made for him or her. A child of compulsory school age or a young person has a learning difficulty or disability if he or she:

  • has a significantly greater difficulty in learning than the majority of others of the same age,
  • has a disability which prevents or hinders him or her from making use of facilities of a kind generally provided for others of the same age in mainstream schools or mainstream-post 16 institutions.”

For children aged two or more special educational provision is education or training provision that is additional to, or different from that generally is made for other children of the same age. For a child under the age of two, special educational provision means education provision of any kind. A child under compulsory school age has special educational needs if he or she is likely to fall within the definition shown above when they reach compulsory school age, or would do so if special educational provision were not made available for them.

Children’s special educational needs are generally thought of in the following four broad areas of need and support:

  • communication and interaction;
  • cognition and learning;
  • social, emotional and mental health, and;
  • sensory and/or physical needs.

There is often an overlap between disability and special educational needs. Therefore, a child can be defined as having special educational needs (SEN) or having special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

The Equality Act (2010) defines disability as

a physical or mental impairment and the impairment has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.

This definition provides a relatively low threshold and includes many children and adults. Long term is defined by the Equality Act as a year or more and substantial is defined as more than minor to trivial.

The Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) and SEND

The EYFS sets out the statutory framework for children’s early education aged 0 to 5 years providing standards for all children’s learning (including those with additional needs), development and care in early years settings.

All Ofsted-registered settings offering early years provision must meet these standards to ensure that children learn and develop well and are kept healthy and safe. Settings must follow the safeguarding and welfare requirements and the learning and development requirements (unless exempted) for children with special educational needs and disabilities. 

Those in group provision are expected to identify a SENCO and childminders are encouraged to identify a person to act as SENCO to help support children with SEN. 

The EYFS framework requires non-maintained providers to have arrangements in place for meeting children’s special educational needs. They should have clear arrangements in place for identifying children’s additional needs and to promote equal opportunities. This approach should form part of the provider’s overall approach to monitoring the ongoing assessment of all children’s progress and development.

The EYFS states that those that work with young children should be alert to emerging difficulties and respond early to concerns.  SENCOs need to be aware that in particular, parent/carers know their children best and it is important that all practitioners listen and understand when they express concerns about their child’s development. They should also listen to and address any concerns raised by children themselves.

If a child is also disabled then the child is offered support and protection under the Equality Act 2010. Additional duties are set out within the Act for those settings in receipt of public funding.

How can settings ensure that children with SEND are supported?

Identifying and meeting the needs of children with special educational needs is the responsibilities of everyone working within non-maintained early education provision.

Funded early years settings should follow the EYFS and SEND Code of Practice to ensure all requirements outlined are incorporated into all aspects of their provision. This ensures children's needs are identified early, appropriate support is given and children are referred onto external agencies if their learning and development continue to be a concern.


  • Our SEND Code of Practice 2014 for the Early Years publication guides early years providers through the key steps to identifying and supporting children with SEN and disabilities
  • The Alliance publication  Ready Steady Senco provides guidance on the essential qualities to being an early years Senco   
  • Member settings can access free mini guides on SEND from our members area and access training via our online platform EduCare 
  • The Alliance has also produced a publication called the Guide to the Equality Act and Good Practice for early years settings to help them both in their provision of services for children and families and in their employment practices. 

Behaviour issues and SEND

Positive behaviour in young children is located within the context of their development of personal, social and emotional skills.  

Settling into a new environment such as an early years setting is an emotional transition for young children especially as they learn to develop and master the complex skills needed to communicate, negotiate, and socialise with their peers. Skills such as turn taking and sharing often instigate minor conflicts between children as they struggle to deal with powerful emotions and feelings.

In early years settings a dedicated key person is responsible for individual children’s needs who will know a child’s level of development, their personal characteristics and specific family circumstances. This knowledge ensures children’s individual needs are understood and supported and issues with behaviour are quickly picked up on. During minor disputes, a child’s key person can help them reflect and regulate their actions and in most instances young children start to learn how to resolve minor disputes themselves. However, some incidents are influenced by other factors such as the child feeling ill, being tired or having a new baby in the family. Because of the key person’s relationship with the child and the family these issues can be discussed and with relevant support the behaviour is usually short lived.

Sometimes a child continues to exhibit challenging behaviour despite intervention from their key person and family. In these instances more investigation is needed to rule out more serious issues such as an underlying special educational need/disability or a safeguarding issue. These situations are usually managed by the setting’s SENCO or manager who can apply relevant interventions to seek further help to stop the behaviour escalating and causing further harm.


  • The Alliance Behaviour Matters (2016) publication guides how to identify and support children's behaviour
  • The Alliance You Tube channel presents webinars on identifying and addressing behaviour issues in the early years
  • Member settings can download our mini guide on Promoting Positive Behaviour from our members area
  • Member settings can also access free training on behaviour via EduCare 

Useful documents

SEND Code of Practice 0 to 25

SEND guide for early years settings

SEND guide for parents and carers


Useful organisations 

Autism Education Trust


Council for Disabled Children

Family Fund

Independent Parental Special Education Advice (IPSEA)



National Deaf Children’s Society

Portage Association

Royal Society for Blind Children



The Communication Trust






If you are an early years setting and need advice on training on SEND/behaviour please contact our Training Centre on 01732 363070.

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