A Unique Child

SEN in Early Years – Key recommendations for settings

  • SEN in Early Years – Key recommendations for settings

For too many children in our education system, they have already fallen significantly behind their peers by the time we identify SEN.

It is clear that if we identify needs earlier, then we can put in place effective provision sooner. In 2020, SEN association nasen commissioned research on identifying SEN in the early years to shine a light on the barriers to early identification.

Early years is the least-well funded phase of education, but arguably the most important. The early years workforce comprises a diverse range of professionals, so it can be hard to achieve a consistent approach to the identification of SEN in practice.

This study was led by Dr Helen Curran and considered the perspectives of SENCOs in relation to identifying SEN in early years settings. It also looked at the resources they used and the wider support they accessed.

The findings were based on an online survey of more than 200 early years SENCOs as well as 19 semi-structured interviews. The study made ten recommendations grouped into five broad areas.

Key findings and recommendations


  • Guidance for identifying SEN in the early years should take into account the variance between different types of early years setting.
  • The government should ensure greater representation of the early years sector, and the different types of setting, when seeking views for future policy making.

The recommendations in this area essentially acknowledged the broad range of early years settings and that the government should factor this in to strategic thinking and decision making.

The challenges and opportunities of childminders, which make up more than half of all early years providers in England, can be very different to those of maintained or PVI settings, so it is no surprise that Dr Curran’s research pushed for guidance to be more nuanced.

In 2018, the government funded four mini guides supporting effective identification of SEN in the early years. These had multiple versions to reflect the breadth of the sector.

Moving forwards this should be a routine expectation rather than the exception.

The SENCO role

  • There should be guidance to help determine the time allocated to the early years SENCO role in different settings.
  • There should be a job description, specific to the early years SENCO role.
  • Work should be undertaken to help develop understanding of the early years SENCO role across the education, health and care sectors.

The research highlights significant levels of variation in the deployment of early years SENCOs. Whilst the Department for Education has published a recommended job description for the early years SENCO role, this is not statutory guidance since it is not in the SEND Code of Practice.

As a consequence, settings do not routinely use the job description. The study suggested this should be considered in the government SEND Review to help raise the status of SENCOs in early years settings.

Dr Curran highlighted the need for early years SENCOs to have allocated time to undertake the role and for guidance on the effective deployment of SENCOs.

Such guidance at a national level is essential in setting out the expectations of the sector in identifying and meeting needs. However, it is important that this does not become a barrier in relation to settings being responsive to individual needs.

Sharing good practice

  • We need to facilitate the sharing of good practice developed by early years SENCOs, particularly in relation to developing family relationships, across the sector and later phases.
  • We should also share good practice demonstrated by early years SENCOs, in relation to developing inclusive environments, across phases.

It may seem like common sense to say that we should share good practice, but the findings in this study suggests this is not always common practice.

Strong and meaningful relationships between families and early years practitioners can be a powerful factor in driving inclusive environments. Effective relationships are the foundation for bilateral sharing of effective practice for the benefit of children with SEN.


  • We should prioritise training in relation to speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) within the early years sector.
  • Early years practitioners, particularly those new to the role, may benefit from support with how to develop family relationships.

It is not a surprise that SLCN emerged in this study as a priority as this is clearly an important aspect of early childhood development.

Early years professionals may well have ready access to training in relation to the development of speech, language and communication, but it is important that this includes a focus on children who are not making expected progress.

For a child with SEN, it may be an early years practitioner who is the first person to have a conversation with their family about their needs. This can be hard conversation for all concerned, so it is very important that sufficient training has been provided for this to be effective.

For families, this may be their first experience of the SEN system, which increases the significance of ensuring it is a positive experience.

Liaison with other settings and agencies

  • We should share information from the progress check at aged two between the child’s providers as standard practice.

This study has highlighted the fact that we don’t always share essential information from the progress check at age two, even though this may be in the interests of the child.

This may be because of genuine concerns about not wishing to label children too early or about GDPR (General Data Protection Regulations).

Regardless of the reason, Dr Curran makes the point that we should share information between providers to ensure there are no delays in children accessing the support they need.

Next Steps

Read the report in full to consider how to apply the recommendations in your particular context. If identification of SEN for children in the early years is effective, then provision is more likely to make a difference.

Top tips for working with SEN in Early Years

  • Given the significant incidence of speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) in early years, it is important to ensure that we reflect this in CPD and training for early years practitioners.
  • Consider different options for deploying your SENCO. How could they use allocated time to help them to be more effective in the role?
  • Working with families as equal, meaningful partners is a critical aspect of coproduction. This is the foundation for effective SEN provision. Settings should evaluate the impact of coproduction and produce an action plan to develop this further.
  • Early years SENCOs should review the information they have about children with SEN. How will they share this across other phases and professionals? Subject to data-sharing restrictions, there should be complete transparency to ensure a continuity in provision.

Professor Adam Boddison is chief executive of nasen, a charity that supports and champions those working with, and for, children and young people with SEND and learning differences. For further information, visit nasen.org.uk or @nasen_org.