What are special educational needs and what is a disability

Children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) have learning difficulties or disabilities that make it harder for them to learn

What does special educational needs mean

Children and young people with special educational needs (SEN) often need extra help and support to learn. 

The SEND Code of Practice sets out four areas of SEN:

  • communicating and interacting
  • cognition and learning
  • social, emotional and mental health difficulties 
  • sensory or physical needs

Communicating and interacting

Speech, language and communication difficulties make it difficult for a child or young person to understand how to communicate effectively or appropriately with others.

Cognition and learning

Children and young people with cognitive and learning difficulties:

  • learn at a slower pace than others their age
  • find it hard to understand parts of the curriculum
  • have difficulties in organising themselves or remembering things
  • have a specific difficulty with one particular part of their learning, such as literacy or numeracy
  • Social, emotional and mental health issues 

This means a child or young person:

  • finds managing relationships difficult 
  • is withdrawn
  • behaves in a way that causes problems for themselves and others

Sensory or physical needs

This includes visual or hearing impairments, or a physical need that means they require extra ongoing support and equipment.

Some children have needs in more than one of these areas.  An easy read guide about SEND support is available for parents, and for children and young people

How a disability is different to SEN

Not all children with special educational needs are considered to be disabled. The Equality Act 2010 describes a disability as:

‘A physical or mental impairment, which has a long term (a year or more) and substantial adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day to day activities’. 

This includes sensory impairments, such as those affecting sight or hearing, and long-term conditions such as asthma, epilepsy and cancer.

Children and young people with such conditions don’t necessarily have SEN, but there are significant overlaps between disabled children and young people and those with SEN. 

If a disabled child or young person needs special educational provision they’re also covered by the SEN definition. 

Download an easy read version of the Equality Act from the GOV.UK website.

Who to talk to if you think your child has SEND

If you think your child might have special educational need or a disability, contact the person in your child’s nursery, school or college responsible for SEN.  This person is called the SEN coordinator or SENCO. 

Your child’s teachers or SENCO will discuss your child’s needs with you and decide what help to give. This could mean a different way of teaching certain things or some extra help from a teaching assistant.

If your child is under 5 years old and not at nursery, contact their health visitor or doctor. 

If your child is over 19 years old and not at college, contact their doctor.
Our Local Offer website offers guidance, support and advice on getting extra help from specialists