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How to support children with special education needs and disability (SEND)

No two people's needs are the same. An understanding of the different models of disability, and of how people experience disability and special educational needs, will prepare you to support every child with the care and support they deserve.

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Understanding different models of disability can open up your own thinking about special educational needs and disability. They help you to understand the complexity of people’s experience and open up more meaningful conversations on disability. And insight into the discrimination that your students may encounter helps you to become a self-reflective practitioner. But before we dive into the models, remember that they are just tools for thinking about a topic. They are simplistic and can’t wrap in all the nuances of real life experience.

A boy with a disability paints with support from his teacher

Dr Jonathan Harvey, Senior Lecturer in Special Educational Needs and Disability at Plymouth Marjon University, puts it like this: “There is no simple answer, but the one bit of advice I would always give is to come into this knowing everyone's an individual and to treat them on that basis. No two people's needs are the same so it's a lot more complex than saying ‘this is how you teach an autistic pupil’ or ‘this how you teach someone who has ADHD’. If you have the ways of thinking and the tools, you can apply them to different situations and understand each individual's needs a lot better”.

The social model of disability

The social model of disability is a way of viewing the world that can empower disabled individuals. It makes a distinction between an individual's impairment and their disability. It emphasises the barriers in society that disable people with impairments, not the impairment or difference itself. Barriers can be both physical things, like buildings or information not being accessible, or they can be caused by people’s attitudes to difference and assumptions about what disabled people can and can’t do. The model says it's society that disables people by not making these environments equally accessible to everyone.

The social model of disability recognises that attitudes and negative stereotypes can reinforce discrimination and misunderstanding around disabled people. For example, these attitudes might include feeling pity for disabled people, thinking disabled people can’t live and work independently, thinking disabled people can’t have children or assuming that disabled people are courageous and citing them as inspiration for facing up to adversity.

The social model helps us recognise and remove these barriers, promoting equality, independence, and control for disabled people. The social model of disability was designed by and for disabled people and reframed disability as a civil rights and equality issue. It has been important in driving social and political change. But not everyone agrees with it, for example some feel it is overly simplistic or that having been around for 30 years it needs re-invigorating to reflect changes in society.

It is argued that with these societal changes, a more sophisticated view of disability has developed. For example, feminist disability studies reimagine what it means to be disabled, and the discussion has expanded around trans, gay and people from minority ethnic backgrounds who are also disabled and a growing dialogue around identity is emerging. Increasingly there is a challenge to the notion that disability is a deficiency, but more of that later.

Back to Dr Jonathan Harvey to explain further: “The social model of disability transfers focus away from the individual person to environmental things like easy access doors, hearing loops or lifts. There are many ways we can make environments accessible for all people. As a result classrooms have changed massively over time to become more inclusive, they are now accessible to more children. We need to couple these accessible environments with an increasing focus on understanding individual talents. For example, say you’ve got a dyslexic child who struggles with spelling, then easy access to a computer with spell check rapidly transforms their experience of spelling. It becomes less of a struggle and that is good for their overall confidence. Our job is to spot that child and help them play to their strengths, and technology can be a big enabler here”.

The medical model of disability

In contrast to the social model, the medical model of disability emphasises that people are disabled by their impairments. It focuses on what is ‘wrong’ with the person and looks to medical care to fix the person or provide special services from them. Many people believe this is disempowering and leads to a lack of control for disabled people.

Let’s look at some examples to demonstrate the difference between the two models:

  • In the medical model, specialist transport is provided for people who cannot access mainstream transport. In the social model, mainstream transport is made accessible.
  • In the medical model, children receive specialist provision in special schools. In the social model, disabled children are educated in accessible mainstream schools alongside non-disabled children.
  • In the medical model, if someone is unable to access information online they are given magnifiers or screen readers or must ask someone to read the information. In the social model, the information is available in a range of formats (for example the font can be changed, or spoken word is accompanied by a written transcript).


It's important to understand where the stigma around disability is coming from. It has to do with self-identification; this is especially important in schools. As children grow and develop, they learn to identify themselves. Part of that process of determining what you are is to identify what you are not. 

As an educator working with disabled children, it's crucial that you understand how they identify themselves. By learning about their view of themselves, you’ll better understand their actions. For example, a child with autism may be stigmatised by the rest of their class. Understanding the social effects of disability and challenging the stigma around it is vital for you to listen and seek to understand disability identity and culture. How do you do this?

  • Respect the child’s choice to downplay or highlight their disability in given situations.
  • Don’t use negative words to describe disabilities e.g. Joe is not suffering from autism, Joe simply has autism; Jess is not confined to a wheelchair, Jess uses a wheelchair.
  • Don’t fall into imagining how you would personally feel about having the disability and project that onto the child. Disability is a complex experience so listen to how the child and their family talk about it.

Visible versus non-visible disability

Not all disabilities are visible. Some disabilities do not present themselves in a physical form. 

Unfortunately, people often judge another person based on what they can see; this is equally disempowering for people who appear unable but are capable and those who appear able but are not. 

Invisible disabilities, according to the Invisible Disability Association, include symptoms such as debilitating pain, fatigue, dizziness, cognitive dysfunctions, brain injuries, learning differences and mental health disorders, as well as hearing and vision impairments.

It's important to know that not all disabilities are visible. Assuming a person isn't disabled just because they don't appear to be can reinforce prejudice; it's essential to listen and treat everyone as an individual.

    There is advice and support out there to help us to better understand invisible disabilities:

  • But You Look Good - a book that gives a voice and a toolkit to those living with invisible chronic pain and illness.
  • The Hidden Disabilities Sunflower for people with hidden disabilities is a card people can carry in public spaces to indicate to others that they may have additional needs.
  • The Invisible Disabilities Project is a cultural movement and an online educational media project dedicated to widening the conversation around invisible disability.

We're starting to understand that some so-called disabilities are arguably better thought of as an unusual pattern of strengths and weaknesses, and that with the right support people can thrive.


“I found out I had ADHD/ADD in my third year at university, whilst I was in the middle of trying to write my dissertation. I had always had trouble paying attention. Most of my school reports through both primary and secondary feature words to the effect of: ‘Good pupil, but gets distracted easily, and distracts others.’ 

"If I had a quid for every time I lost my train of thought, I’d be absolutely minted. There’s this thing called Hyperfocus, which sits at the other end of the scale of attention deficit. Just like losing attention or becoming distracted is a common symptom of ADHD/ADD, Hyperfocus means I focus in on something so much that I tune everything else out. 

"People have had whole conversations with me, and I’ll be zoned in (or out, depending on which way you see it) so much that I don’t hear a word. My other half throws cushions at me, that tends to work. So, time management and attention span can sometimes be extremely challenging for me. But once I get into a rhythm and focus, I can get loads done in a short timeframe. Perks. Sometimes, I feel like I’ve got superpowers. 

"It’s safe to say that none of this had come as a shock to me or anyone in my family. I’d always known I didn’t learn the same way as everyone else but couldn’t quite put my finger on how or why. I wonder how differently my life in education might have been if I’d found out earlier. 

"I actually consider myself to be really lucky. The Disability Inclusion & Advice Service (DIAS) at Marjon were brilliant in helping me, and giving me the right support. So, with all my new-found ways of working, I finished my dissertation, handed in all of my other work, got more work experience. I graduated with a first-class honour’s degree in Journalism, and I’m about to start work as a Reporter. I’ve learned a lot about myself during my time here.”

Alex, Journalism graduate


"You might think of dyslexia as being all about problems with reading and writing. For sure those are challenging for most people with dyslexia, but that’s far from being all there is to it. Dyslexia is about how you decode and process any information including written words, spoken words and even the ideas in your own head. It is often framed as a disability, even the word itself tells us this, with dys meaning poor and lexis meaning language. But I’m dyslexic and I don’t think it’s a disadvantage. In fact, sometimes it can be quite the opposite.

"Dyslexia is an alternate wiring of the brain. It is a different way of thinking that comes with challenges but also certain strengths.

"It generally takes the dyslexic mind a while longer to process new information. This applies to any type of information, it is as true for conversations as it is for textbooks.

"The best thing for me about being dyslexic is the eureka moments. Dyslexic minds are good at making interconnections. It might take my brain a while to get from A to B, but that’s fine. I know that for me learning isn’t linear, that there will be a eureka moment. I suddenly get from A to B. Only I don’t stop at B because I’m already at C and maybe I even see D on the horizon; D is an outlier but I see a connection. It is exhilarating to think like that, ideas popping into your head, it feels like everything lights up. And this interconnected thinking makes you good at problem-solving too because you can always find another angle from which to look at things.

"Dyslexic individuals are good at making big picture connections. If I’m working on a big question then I’ll easily engage with it. I can relax into it because I know that I’ll get creative and connect some thoughts up, sooner or later. But sometimes my brain feels too jumpy. I get distracted by my own thoughts when I really want to listen to other people.

"Slow processing speed means that it can be hard in the moment to process what you’re thinking, let alone to communicate it effectively to someone else. Add to that an unreliable short-term memory and it can look to others like you aren’t trying your best sometimes, even though you are. It feels frustrating. But then dyslexic individuals often develop good interpersonal skills to compensate for their weaknesses. They understand what it is like for things not to come easily, and develop empathy, patience and resilience. In this way dyslexia affects not only how you think, but who you are.”

Laura, Marketing Manager

Career pathways

There are many opportunities to work with children with disabilities and special educational needs in schools. You don't need a degree to work with people with disabilities and special educational needs; however, they will open doors for you and equip you with a toolbox of skills that you can apply to many different situations and settings. For example, BA (Hons) Special Educational Needs & Disability Studies dives deep into the issues explored in this article as well, ensuring you gain real-world experience through work placements. While PGCE Primary Education with Special Educational Needs and Disability qualifies you as a primary school teacher and enables you to specialise in supporting students with additional learning requirements.

Special educational needs and disabilities coordinator (SENDCO)

A SENDCO (sometimes also known as a SENCO) is responsible for supporting pupils with special educational needs and disability (SEND). They are aware of the policy, liaise with the headteacher and other colleagues, secure funding, design and deliver interventions for students, and may well have classroom teaching responsibilities. It's an exciting role that advocates for pupils with SEND and makes a difference to individuals and the nature of the school environment.  

You need to be a qualified teacher to work as SENDCO. In England, Wales and Northern Island, you will need an additional qualification called National Award for Special Educational Needs Coordination that typically can be obtained alongside working your job. You will be required to get this within three years of taking your first SENDCO role. Another qualification you may need is the Early Years SENCO award, which is customised towards the needs of Early Years settings. It's possible to work as an Assistant SENDCO without being a qualified teacher.


What's it like being a SENDCO?

"I wouldn't have become an Assistant SENDCO without completing my degree. It's given me a much better understanding of special educational needs and disabilities. I've understood the fundamental principles and ethics behind working with people with SEND and the policies and politics of education. 

"After getting an Assistant SENDCO job, I and the lead SENDCO successfully applied for £5000 funding to improve the school's facilities for young people with autism.

"As an Assistant SENDCO every day is different, I might be supporting students getting to their lessons if they are feeling too anxious, liaising with parents and teachers, putting in referrals to targeted services, running the 'time out space' for students who are struggling to regulate, or I might be putting in sensory breaks for students - it's a really varied and rewarding role. Seeing students achieve things that they are proud of is the best part of my job.

"I involve the students with their decisions surrounding their targets. I think that's essential. It's not just the parents and the teachers deciding these targets; the students need to have ownership to know what they are working towards."

Chantelle McCarthy, Assistant SENDCO at Eggbuckland Community College

Shifting attitudes

Happily, the conversation around disability, whether it's visible or not, is changing. Many charities and organisations shift people's views, raise awareness, and seek to end the stigma.

Working with people with disabilities and special educational needs is recognised as a rewarding, varied and meaningful career path. It is also a growing one. 3.7% of pupils now have an Education, Care and Health (EHC) plan, which sets out the child’s need and the extra help they should receive. This figure, reported by the Department for Education, is up from 3.3% in 2020, continuing a trend of increases since 2017.

Getting a grounding in the field of special educational needs and disability, through reading, training and real experience, is vital to being able to listen and respond to the needs of disabled people. The more insight and tools you have, the better equipped you will be to provide real support to your students.


Looking for a course? Plymouth Marjon University offers the following courses about special educational needs and disability (SEND):


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