A Unique Child

Tips on supporting young children with SEND

  • Tips on supporting young children with SEND

Stephen Kilgour suggests ways to boost the confidence of early years practitioners caring for children with special educational needs…

Until recently, I was early years lead and deputy head at Cherry Garden School, Southwark, a special school which caters for children aged two to 11 years who have complex learning needs.

In this role, I was regularly asked by early years practitioners across the borough, about how best to support their learners with additional needs.

Sometimes, even very experienced practitioners would be apprehensive about what they should be doing with a child with significant additional needs.

This was generally because this was their first experience of a child with a particular need or needs.

Settling in children with additional needs

Observation and assessment is vital when a child first starts in nursery.

My initial advice to practitioners is to treat a child with SEND in the same way they would any child starting and ask: ‘What do they like?’ ‘What do they respond well to?’ ‘What don’t they like?’.

It may take considerably longer to answer these questions with a child who has additional needs. However, it is the key to engaging with them and enabling high-quality teaching and learning.

In the first few weeks after a child with SEND has joined, practitioners need to be ready to adapt the environment. For some children with additional needs, the often noisy and frenetic atmosphere of a happy setting can be overwhelming.

So consider the following:

  • Are there certain resources that need to be held back initially for health and safety reasons?
  • Is there a quiet space that can be used to encourage communication, interactions and play?
  • Might the child need a slightly different timetable to their peers?
  • Might they need some additional support to help them understand what is happening next, for instance photos or symbols?
  • Is an alternative communication system required? If so, how will staff training needs be addressed?

Once a thorough baseline assessment has been undertaken, it is important to consider what is most important for the child over the coming weeks and months.

At this stage, I always encourage early years practitioners to involve parents, carers and wider family members in discussing and agreeing next steps.

They can support the baseline assessment process, and may also have goals in mind for their child. What’s critical is that next steps are developmentally appropriate, rather than simply age appropriate.

Getting assessment right for children with SEND

Assessment is another area where I’ve frequently been asked for advice. One of the challenges is that when using Development Matters as a tool for measuring progress, a child with significant needs may remain at say ‘8–20 Developing’ for the whole academic year, despite having made excellent developmental progress.

It is my opinion that a sound knowledge of typical development in very young children is hugely important when working with children with additional needs.

In terms of guidance around typical development, I think the old Birth to Three Matters document can still be very useful.

Another option is the free to download Cherry Garden Branch Maps (you’ll find them at the bottom of the page) which we developed whilst I was at Cherry Garden School and are now hosted by Tapestry.

These organise the milestones you would expect to find in a child from birth to five years across six different curriculum areas.

They provide a much more granular approach to capturing the development of children with SEND and allow small developments to be recorded, and most importantly to be celebrated!

Practitioner expertise

I also like to remind practitioners that they already have lots of knowledge from their own personal experience of being parents, grandparents, aunties, uncles, cousins, siblings, etc.

When I remind them of this, I feel that the penny often drops and they stop thinking about the age of a child and start to think about their learning level.

Once practitioners have a better understanding of a child’s current learning level they are able to reflect on what is appropriate for them. This makes it much easier to talk about the progress they have made and what’s needed next to support their development.

Early years practitioners have so much expertise to bring to supporting children with SEND.

Reflecting on what they already know about child development, and about what resources are already available within their setting, will encourage them to have confidence in their own practice as they teach and learn with children who have additional needs.


Stephen Kilgour worked at Cherry Garden School for 11 years and was deputy head for seven years. He is now SEND advisor and outreach teacher for Tapestry and the Foundation Stage Forum.

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