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What is SEND?

SEND stands for special educational needs and/or disabilities. A child or young person who has difficulties in learning is said to have special educational needs (SEN). You can find easy-read guides on the government's website:

There are legal definitions of SEND. The SEND code of practice provides guidance on the laws that relate to SEND. 

What does it mean to have SEN?

A child or young person has SEN if they have a learning difficulty or disability which calls for special educational provision to be made for them.

A child or young person of compulsory school age is said to have SEN if they: 

  • have a significantly greater difficulty in learning than the majority of others of the same age
  • have a disability which prevents or hinders them from making use of educational facilities of a kind generally provided for others of the same age in mainstream schools or mainstream post-16 institutions

A child under compulsory school age has SEN if they fall within the definitions above, or would do if special educational provision was not made for them. 

Many children and young people who have SEN may have a disability under the Equality Act 2010. That is:

"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"

Equality Act 2010

 This definition provides a low threshold and includes more children than many realise.

  • 'long-term' is defined as 'a year or more'
  •  'substantial' is defined as 'more than minor or trivial'

This definition includes sensory impairments and long-term health conditions, for example:

  • sight loss
  • hearing loss
  • asthma
  • diabetes
  • epilepsy
  • cancer

Children and young people with such conditions do not necessarily have SEN, but there is a significant overlap between disabled children and young people and those with SEN.

Areas of SEND

Children with SEND may need extra help or support, or special provision made for them to allow them to have the same opportunities as others of the same age. If a child has SEND, their needs will fall into one or more of the following four areas listed in the SEND code of practice:

Communication and interaction

Children and young people with speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) have difficulty in communicating with others. This may be because they have difficulty saying what they want to, understanding what is being said to them or they do not understand or use social rules of communication. The profile for every child with SLCN is different and their needs may change over time. They may have difficulty with one, some or all of the different aspects of speech, language or social communication at different times of their lives.

Children and young people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), are likely to have particular difficulties with social interaction. They may also experience difficulties with language, communication and imagination, which can impact on how they relate to others.

Cognition and learning

Support for learning difficulties may be required when children and young people learn at a slower pace than their peers, even with appropriate differentiation. Learning difficulties cover a wide range of needs, including moderate learning difficulties (MLD), severe learning difficulties (SLD), where children are likely to need support in all areas of the curriculum and associated difficulties with mobility and communication, through to profound and multiple learning difficulties (PMLD), where children are likely to have severe and complex learning difficulties as well as a physical disability or sensory impairment.

Specific learning difficulties (SpLD) affect one or more specific aspects of learning. This encompasses a range of conditions such as dyslexia, dyscalculia and dyspraxia.

Social, emotional and mental health difficulties

Children and young people may experience a wide range of social and emotional difficulties which manifest themselves in many ways. These may include becoming withdrawn or isolated, as well as displaying challenging, disruptive or disturbing behaviour. These behaviours may reflect underlying mental health difficulties such as anxiety or depression, self-harming, substance misuse, eating disorders or physical symptoms that are medically unexplained. Other children and young people may have disorders such as attention deficit disorder, attention deficit hyperactive disorder or attachment disorder.

Schools and colleges should have clear processes to support children and young people, including how they will manage the effect of any disruptive behaviour so it does not adversely affect other pupils. The Department for Education publishes guidance on managing pupils’ mental health and behaviour difficulties in schools. 

Sensory and/or physical needs

Some children and young people require special educational provision because they have a disability which prevents or hinders them from making use of the educational facilities generally provided. These difficulties can be age related and may fluctuate over time. Many children and young people with vision impairment (VI), hearing impairment (HI) or a multi-sensory impairment (MSI) will require specialist support and/or equipment to access their learning, or habilitation support. Children and young people with an MSI have a combination of vision and hearing difficulties. Information on how to provide services for deafblind children and young people is available through the Social Care for Deafblind Children and Adults guidance published by the Department of Health (see the 'references' section under chapter 6 for a link).

Some children and young people with a physical disability (PD) require additional ongoing support and equipment to access all the opportunities available to their peers.

Medical conditions

The Children and Families Act 2014 places a duty on maintained schools and academies to make arrangements to support pupils with medical conditions. Individual healthcare plans will normally specify the type and level of support required to meet the medical needs of such pupils. Where children and young people also have SEN, their provision should be planned and delivered in a co-ordinated way with the healthcare plan. Schools are required to have regard to statutory guidance. The Department for Education has published a guide to supporting pupils at school with medical conditions that you can download.

Dyslexia and specific learning difficulties

A child with a specific learning difficulty is as able as any other child, except in one or two areas of their learning. For instance, they may find it difficult to recognise letters, or to cope with numbers or reading.

There are many different types of specific learning difficulty, but the best known is probably dyslexia. In dyslexia, the child has difficulty with spelling and reading. It may be difficult for parents and teachers to realise that a child has this sort of problem, especially if their development has progressed without concern in the early years.

Often, the child will appear to understand, have good ideas, and join in storytelling and other activities, as well as other children, and better than some. Sometimes it can take years for adults to realise that a child has a specific difficulty. Find out more about specific learning difficulties on the Royal College of Psychiatrists website.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

ADHD is a condition that affects people's behaviour. People with ADHD can seem restless, may have trouble concentrating and may act on impulse. Symptoms of ADHD tend to be noticed at an early age and may become more noticeable when a child's circumstances change, such as when they start school. Most cases are diagnosed when children are 6 to 12 years old. Find out more about ADHD on the NHS website.