Understanding SEN: The Four Crucial Categories

The term ‘SEND’ is one that you may have heard of when talking about school and education. If you’re not sure what it means, or what it refers to, then this introduction is for you!

SEND means Special Educational Needs and Disability and refers to children and young people who experience difficulties and barriers to learning. As a result of these difficulties and barriers, it is harder for them to learn when compared to most of their peers. SEND also includes children and young people who have a disability which affects their ability to access the educational facilities offered to their peers.

Government figures report that there 12% of school-age children in England (around 9 million in total) have SEND needs. In Scotland and Wales, this percentage is approximately double at 24%. This means that there are a significant number of children in British schools with SEND needs who face additional challenges when accessing their education.

SEND covers a broad and diverse range of needs. Some SEND needs are more complex than others and some are more evident than others. There are also a lot of misconceptions (and sadly, stigmas too) around SEND that need dismantling. The aim of this blog is to support these efforts by providing parents and carers information around the four broad areas of need identified by the Department for Education.

Let’s have a look at each one in turn.

1) Communication and Interaction

Children with communication and interaction needs may struggle to communicate with others and/or struggle to understand what others are trying to communicate to them. Examples of SEND needs that fall under this category include Speech, Language, and Communication Needs and autistic spectrum disorders (ASD).

Children with communication and interaction needs may struggle to say what they want or understand what is being said to them. However, it is important to remember that communication is not only about the words we use as we speak with each other, but also the way in which words are spoken. Words are used to emphasise different elements in a sentence and convey emotion, each of which adds an additional layer to verbal communication.

There are also social rules around communication; for example, what is polite and what is rude? This also varies depending on social and cultural context. Body language, emotional cues, and the social rules of language can be a particular challenge to some children, such as those with ASD. Where children have communication and interaction needs, they may become frustrated as they struggle to communicate with others or understand what others mean.

2) Cognition and Learning

‘Cognition and learning’ refers to a wide range of SEND needs. They are divided into two broad categories. The first is ‘learning difficulties’, which means that children learn at a slower pace than their peers. This usually means a child with learning difficulties will be at least 2-3 years behind the typical learning profile of a child the same age. ‘Learning difficulties’ affect all aspects of learning and may be divided into three sub-categories, each indicating the level of need:

  1. Moderate learning difficulties.
  2. Severe learning difficulties.
  3. Profound and multiple learning difficulties.

All children with learning difficulties will require some form of appropriate support. This covers academic skills and emotional and social needs too. For example, a child with learning difficulties may struggle with self-esteem as they compare themselves to their more able peers. Communication and interaction are also likely to be a challenge for children with learning difficulties, such as those with ASD, which may further be complicated by physical disability and sensory difficulties.

The second broad category is specific learning difficulties (SpLD) which affect more specific aspects of learning. SpLD needs are more common and include examples such as dyslexia and dyscalculia. It is important to remember that each child’s SpLD profile will vary, even if they have the same identifying label (such as dyslexia).

Although there are individual variations for specific types of SpLD, common difficulties also exist. These include weaker working memory (the ability to hold information temporarily for use in completing a task) and challenges with practical aspects of life, such as time management and personal organisation. Despite these difficulties, children (and adults) who have SpLD needs may also have areas of comparative strength, such as creativity.

3) Social and emotional mental health difficulties (SEMH)

Children with SEMH difficulties typically struggle with social skills and/or managing their emotions, which may affect their ability to develop and maintain healthy relationships with others. This, therefore, affects their experience of education.

There are various reasons for SEMH difficulties. Mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression may affect children’s social and emotional behaviour. Fortunately, public awareness of mental health has improved in recent years and schools are now expected to help educate children about mental health difficulties and support those affected by them. and support children with mental health difficulties.

There are also medically diagnosed conditions associated with SEMH difficulties. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is perhaps the most well-known and is a lifelong condition. Children with ADHD may appear less mature than their peers and struggle with keeping still, behaving impulsively, and remaining focussed on a task. As a result, children with ADHD may find themselves getting into trouble at school due to their behaviour unless suitable support is put into place.

Dysfunctional family relationships and/or the experience of trauma are another cause of SEMH issues. Children who have had negative experiences of care from their parents or carers when very young can develop what are known as attachment disorders. This affects their ability to form healthy relationships as they get older and as a result, their behaviour towards others can be challenging and difficult. Traumatic experiences can also affect the behaviour of children, such as outbursts of anger, and they may result in mental health problems. These kinds of SEMH issues can be complex and difficult to support due to some of the accompanying behavioural challenges presented by some children. However, with the right support, they can be successful both academically and socially.

4) Sensory and/or physical needs

Children with these needs have a sensory need or disability that means they need additional support and perhaps equipment to access education. There are five categories within this final group:

  1. Visual impairments
  2. Hearing impairments
  3. Multi-sensory impairments.
  4. Sensory processing difficulties.
  5. Physical disability.

Visual and hearing impairments occur where children have a partial or complete loss of their sight or hearing. Where these occur together, a child is said to have a multi-sensory impairment. Sensory processing difficulties are where a child is over and under-sensitive to the different senses, such as touch, sound, or smell. As a result, they can become distressed due to over or under-stimulation. Sensory processing difficulties may also occur alongside other SEND needs.

Finally, there are some children with physical disabilities, which may have occurred from birth, because of a degenerative condition or a physical injury. As with all other SEND needs, sensory and physical needs vary in their severity and the level of support required as a result.

Final thoughts

With all SEND needs, it is important to remember that they may change over time which in turn has an impact on the support required by children. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, as children invariably change as they grow and develop; their SEND needs can often change as part of this growing process.

Although there remains work to be done in identifying SEND needs and providing appropriate support, all children with SEND needs are entitled to the appropriate support within school and sometimes beyond to help them thrive in school and at home. Fortunately, there are many dedicated professionals and parents/carers who are working to provide such support.

SEN tutors

You may find the following blog post useful:

5 most common Special Educational Needs (“SEN”) in schools

5 most common Special Educational Needs (“SEN”) in schools

In this blog, Jonathan - a teacher who has taught special educational needs classes in schools and professionally tutored students with autism, dyslexia and attention deficit disorder - breaks down five of the most common special educational needs found in UK schools and provides some advice for teaching those who have SEN.

Jonathan May, 2021