Every child is different, and they develop at different speeds, so there's a big range of what's 'normal'. All babies and young children should have regular check-ups to make sure they're developing well. Check-ups are there to make sure any long-standing or big differences are picked up quickly. The Department for Education guide 'What to expect, when?' (PDF 2.93MB) can tell you what your child should be able to do by different ages between birth and five.
Special educational needs are sometimes picked up at birth or soon after, or within a child's first few years. If this happens you're likely to get information and support through Early Years Complex Needs Service (portage) and specialist services.
For many children though, their SEN isn't picked up until they start pre-school or school, when it starts to affect their ability to learn.
Identifying SEN at pre-school or nursery
All early years providers, such as nurseries and pre-schools, must have plans in place to identify and support children with SEN or disabilities.
They have guidance to help them assess how well a child is developing. It sets out what most children do at each stage of their learning and development. These include typical behaviours across the seven areas of learning:
- communication and language
- physical development
- personal, social and emotional development
- understanding of the world
- expressive arts and design
If your child seems to be behind expected levels, or there is concern about their progress, the professionals supporting them should look at all the information about their development. That includes information from you and any of the people involved in supporting your child.
If your child is 'behind' in their learning and development, it doesn't always mean they have SEN or a learning difficulty or disability. Challenging or withdrawn behaviour doesn't always mean a child has SEN either. However, if you or a professional have concerns, your child should be assessed, and support put in place if it's needed.
Identifying SEN at school or college
As with pre-schools and nurseries, every school must have plans in place to identify children with special educational needs and put support in place for each child.
If your child's teacher thinks they are struggling in school, or that something isn't quite as it should be, they will usually speak to other staff and their SENCO first. They will also look at all the information they have about your child including previous reports, assessments and progress records. They should also talk to you. This helps them to get an all-round picture of your child and can help to show more clearly whether there is a special educational need.
Class teachers and subject teachers should also regularly assess all children to see what progress they are making. Progress isn't always about academic and learning progress, it can be about things like social skills and physical development too.
They will be looking for any child who is making less than the expected progress. That might mean
- a child is making a lot slower progress than other children of the same age
- a child is not matching or improving on their previous progress
- the gap in progress between a child and other children the same age is getting wider
Teachers and SENCOs use a tool called the graduated response to identify and support children with SEND. The first part of the graduated response is to assess a child – in other words to identify any special educational needs. You can find out more about the graduated response in the next section.
Sometimes a special educational need will start to show when a young person has left school and is in further education, such as a sixth form college. If this happens, the legal guidance states that “teaching staff should work with specialist support to identify where a student may be having difficulty which may be because of SEN.”