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What are special educational needs and disabilities?

A child or young person of compulsory school age has special educational needs (SEN) if they:

  • have a learning difficulty or disability which makes it much harder for them to learn than other pupils of the same age
  • require special educational provision to be made for them

SEN is a legal term. A detailed description can be found in the SEND Code of Practice (SEN on page 15 and disability on page 16).

What is a disability?

A disability is described in law (Equality Act 2010) as: 'a physical or mental impairment which has a long-term and substantial adverse effect on a person's ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.' 


Not all children or young people with a disability have special educational needs (SEN) but there can be an overlap.  


Find out more about support available for children and young people with disabilities in educational settings.

Different types of special educational needs or disability (SEND)

Children with SEND may need extra help or support, or special provisions to be made, for them to have the same opportunities as other children of their age.  


Most children and young people with SEND attend their local, mainstream school.  If your child has a special educational need or disability their needs will fall into one or more of the following 4 areas:


Communication and Interaction Needs

Children and young people might:

  • struggle to talk or say what they want to 
  • find it hard to understand what other people are saying
  • find conversations and play confusing or challenging

Cognition and Learning Difficulties

Children and young people might:

  • learn at a slower pace than others
  • find the curriculum difficult
  • struggle with organisation and memory
  • have a specific difficulty, for example, in literacy or numeracy

Social, Emotional and Mental Health Difficulties

Children and young people might:

  • find relationships difficult
  • appear withdrawn or isolated
  • behave in ways that affect their learning, for example, being disruptive
  • do things that impact on their health and wellbeing

Sensory and/or physical needs

Children and young people might have a disability such as:

  • a visual and/or hearing impairment
  • a physical difficulty

The Graduated Response shows how educational settings support children and young people with SEND.

Jargon busters

Use the Council for Disabled Children's jargon busters page to help you understand some of the terms people might use when talking about SEND.

We have also put together our own guide which you may find useful.