Clarifying Terms.

Why are there so many terms used to describe ‘special needs’?

Many feel that the phrase ‘SEN’ is somewhat dated and carries with it an unfortunate negative connotation akin to being stupid, inferior and slow-minded. This associated stigma can cause untold heartache and damage and so is often the very reason why students go without the support they need; parents don’t want this negative label hanging over their child’s head.

As a response to this, over the years, the term ‘special needs’ has been adapted to include more positive language, and so you may hear phrases such as ‘additional support needs’, ‘additional educational needs’, ‘learning support needs’, and ‘additional challenges’ being used instead of ‘SEN’.

Why choose the term ‘SEN’ for this blog?

‘SEN’ is the most commonly used phrase, and one that most people recognize. For these reasons, I will use it in this blog when discussing students who require additional support in school.

What does SEN really mean in a school? Who or what does SEN describe?

A student is identified as having a special need if he or she:

Is having a significantly greater difficulty in learning than the majority of others of the same age


Has a barrier or challenge which prevents or hinders him or her from making the same progress as students of a similar age. This progress could be; academic, personal or social development, or indeed, all three.

How is this special need revealed?

A student with a special need shows a gap between where they should be in their learning / social development and the reality of where they actually are in terms of their attainment. This is called the ‘Attainment Gap’.

Usually, a student will complete an assessment to identify his or her cognitive capabilities (IQ). If the student does better in this than in their school studies, this indicates there is indeed an Attainment Gap to be closed.

What areas does SEN relate to?

  • SEN can cover a broad spectrum of difficulties and challenges. A student may have wide-ranging or specific problems. Eg, a child might have difficulty with one area of learning, such as letters or numbers or they might have a wider issue due to a problem with language acquisition. (Please take a look at our ‘What is’ series that takes a closer look at many of the conditions that come under the banner of SEN.)
  • In some cases, a student’s difficulty may not be with their academics but with relating to other children, or to adults. This links to the theory of neurodiversity. (Please see my blog on this topic (PUT LINK HERE))

By ‘not making progress’ we mean the student:

  • Is at a significantly slower rate than that of their peers starting from the same academic baseline.
  • Fails to match or better their own previous academic progress
  • Is not managing to narrow their attainment gap

July 2018- The percentage of children with special educational needs in England was 14.6% (1)

In the USA in 2017-18 it was 14% (2)

Unfortunately there are no worldwide figures available due to a variety of differences between countries such as what classifies as SEN and how developed that nation is. UNESCO has stated that there is a ‘lack of concrete data on this issue’. (3)

Having English as a second language is not considered to be a SEN, a special need.

Points to Remember about SEN

  • In everyday terms, ‘SEN’ is used when a child is not doing as well in school as expected.
  • A student’s progress should be measured in terms of how well they are moving forward in their learning, compared to their peers. Any lack of progress should not be based on simple observations, but on robust assessments by teachers that give evidence of the student not keeping pace with age-expected progress.

My advice for parents who are concerned that their child might come under the banner of SEN:

Ask yourself or the school the following questions:

  • Is my child’s progress lagging behind their peers? Where are they positioned in terms of their class?
  • Are there any skill areas or specific subjects that my child is not making progress in?
  • Are there any common behaviors that are being regularly flagged by the school?
  • Am I seeing similar behaviors or having any concerns at home with my child?

If you answer yes to any of the above your child MAY have a barrier to their learning i.e a special educational need (SEN)

Please seek professional help from your child’s school where they should be able to put you in touch with a specialist such as a SEN teacher or manager or an educational psychologist who can do further investigation into what your child requires to be successful in school.

Early identification is always advisable. The quicker a need is identified, the quicker the attainment gap is closed.




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Parent Checklist for SEN

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