Last reviewed 30 April 2021

Recent research reveals that there has been a dramatic rise in the number of children with special educational needs (SEN) at nursery so it is essential that early years providers are aware of their responsibilities and can fully support the children in their care. Elizabeth Walker investigates.

What are special educational needs for young children?

A child has SEN if he or she has a learning difficulty or disability which calls for special educational provision to be made for them. For school-aged children, this means they have a significantly greater difficulty in learning than the majority of other children of the same age and/or have a disability which prevents or hinders them from making use of the sort of facilities generally provided for others of the same age.

Children who are under compulsory school age have SEN if they have a learning difficulty or disability that is likely to require special educational provision when they reach compulsory school age. For children under the age of two, special educational provision means educational provision of any kind, including home-based programmes.

What are the requirements for early years providers?

The Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) Framework requires all early years providers to have arrangements in place to support children with SEN or disabilities and provide parents with information on this. Settings must promote equality of opportunity for children in their care and all providers who are funded by the local authority to deliver early education places must have regard to the Special Educational Needs Code of Practice. The EYFS also states that maintained nursery schools must identify a member of staff to act as Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator (SENCO) and other providers in group provision are expected to do so.

The Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) Code of Practice builds on the EYFS Framework and sets out that all providers must have:

  • arrangements in place to support children with SEN or disabilities

  • a clear policy on identifying and responding to children with SEN, with early identification a priority. (A model policy is available here.)

Maintained nursery schools must:

  • ensure that children with SEN gets the support they need

  • ensure that children with SEN engage in activities alongside children who do not have SEN

  • designate a teacher to be responsible for co-ordinating SEN provision (the special educational needs co-ordinator (SENCO))

  • inform parents when they are making special educational provision for a child.

They must also prepare a report on:

  • the implementation of their SEN policy

  • their arrangements for the admission of disabled children

  • the steps being taken to prevent disabled children from being treated less favourably than others

  • the facilities provided to enable access to the school for disabled children

  • their accessibility plan showing how they intend to improve access over time.

Early years providers must work closely with parents and provide information on how they support children with SEN and disabilities, regularly reviewing and evaluating the quality and breadth of the support they offer or can access. Providers must also work in partnership with the local authority (LA) and other services or specialists where required.

All early years providers must also meet the requirements in the Equality Act 2010 by promoting equality of opportunity for disabled children, providing inclusive practice and making reasonable adjustments including aids to prevent disadvantage.

Identifying and assessing needs

Early years practitioners should monitor and review the progress and development of all children throughout the early years. There should be an ongoing assessment of children’s development and providers should not wait for formal progress checks, such as the integrated review or the , to identify any concerns. The Code of Practice sets out the importance of early identification of SEN and the consequences of delay such as learning difficulties, loss of self-esteem, frustration in learning and behaviour difficulties. Early identification and action are seen as critical to a child’s future progress and outcomes.

The four broad areas of need set out in the Code of Practice are communication and interaction; cognition and learning; social, emotional and mental health; and sensory and/or physical needs. It is important to remember that children may have specific needs that cover more than one of these areas, or needs that change over time. More information on the .

Practitioners can use the non-statutory Early Years Outcomes guidance as a tool to assess the extent to which a young child is developing at expected levels for their age. The guidance sets out what most children do at each stage of their learning and development.

A delay in learning and development or behavioural issues in the early years may not necessarily indicate that a child has SEN. However, if practitioners or parents have concerns, there should be an assessment to determine whether there are factors such as an underlying learning or communication difficulty. All the information on the child’s emerging needs, including from any external specialist and the views of the child and parents, should be considered when coming to decisions about the type of support and interventions that are needed.

Four-stage graduated approach to supporting needs

The SEND Code of Practice sets out a graduated approach to provide support for children with four stages of action.


Assess the child’s development and needs. Include parents and the child where age and stage appropriate. Do you need to seek more specialist help from health, social services or other agencies?


Agree what strategies, interventions and support are required. Do staff or parents/carers need any information or training? Include a date for reviewing plans and progress.


Implement the plan and observe the child’s response to the action taken.


Review the effectiveness of the support and the impact has there been on the child’s progress. Reviews should include the key person, SENCO, parents and the views of the child, including any agreed changes to outcomes and support.

This process needs to become a regular cycle, identifying the most appropriate way of ensuring the child is making good progress, including seeking further specialist help if required.

What is an education, health and care (EHC) assessment and plan?

If a child’s progress or development is still a cause for concern despite relevant action to identify, assess and meet the SEN of the child, early years providers should consider requesting an EHC needs assessment from the LA. This should be done with the knowledge, and where possible, the agreement of the parents.

An EHC plan identifies educational, health and social needs and sets out the additional support to meet those needs including specified outcomes for the child.

The LA will decide whether an EHC assessment is necessary following a consultation with the child’s parents and will give its decision within six weeks of receiving the request.

What is the Local Offer?

LAs must publish a Local Offer which sets out in one place information about the available provision in their area across education, health and social care for children and young people with SEND, including those who do not have EHC plans.

Early years providers can access information on:

  • SEN, learning support and sensory support services

  • area SENCOs, specialists and therapies

  • at home support available to families.

Practitioners can also find out about local strategic arrangements including arrangements for:

  • identifying and assessing children’s needs in the early years

  • providing top-up funding for children with high needs

  • EHC needs assessments and plans.

All early years providers must co-operate with the LA in reviewing the provision that is available locally and in developing the Local Offer.

Supporting the transition to school

Providers should include planning and preparing for transitions in their SEN support before a child moves to another provision or school. This can include a review of the SEN support being provided or the EHC plan. Providers should agree with parents any relevant information to be shared with the future setting or school to support the transition and involve the child in the process.

Best practice and action points

Early years providers should ensure:

  • information is provided to parents about how children with SEN and disabilities are supported

  • staff receive regular training on their duties under the SEND framework

  • they place children and parents at the centre of any SEN provision and decision-making

  • they regularly review and evaluate the quality and breadth of the support on offer or can access for children with SEND

  • they work together with other services to secure the support and interventions that will help the child achieve the best outcomes

  • their SEN policies and procedures are reviewed regularly

  • they follow the Code of Practice when identifying and supporting children with SEN and disabilities

  • that all approaches and interventions are evidence based and focus on outcomes for children rather than processes

  • they work in partnership with the LA on the Local Offer and where necessary on EHC assessments and plans

  • they support effective transitional planning and arrangements for children with SEN.

Further information