Child Assessment

Identifying Special Educational Needs In The Early Years

How do we know whether normal individual variation and differing speeds of maturation are masking a special need? Sal McKeown reports on an important new study

Research shows educational gaps between children with SEND and children without SEND are already very wide by the time children start school. Too often less obvious needs go unrecognised in early years,

A study by nasen, the special needs charity, (Identifying Special Educational Needs In The Early Years) suggest however that if staff are trained and know what signs to look for, then they could identify potential issues and put suitable support in place at an earlier age.

The aims of the research were to explore:

  • The process of identifying SEN in early years settings, with a specific focus on the SENCO role and their working relationships with children, parents, staff and other relevant individuals
  • From the SENCOs’ perspective, the key issues regarding the identification of SEN within their early years settings, including how they understand the difference between what may be considered ‘typical development’ and a possible special educational need
  • The key enablers and barriers in relation to identifying SEN, as perceived by the SENCO in their settings
  • The support and resources SENCOs are able to access during the process of identifying whether a child may have an additional need
  • The research was undertaken between November 2019 – March 2020

Evidence from Phase One

The first phase was an online survey open to early years was shared through local authority networks, social media and SEN and networks and completed November – December 2019. 216 people responded to the online survey, with 214 giving their consent for their data to be reported within this document. Of the 214 respondents who consented to their data being reported, 202 stated that they worked as a SENCO in an early years’ setting.

Size of setting % of respondents Number of respondents
n/a I am a childminder 3% n=7
Less than 35 places 34% n=69
36-65 places 28% n=57
More than 66 places 34% n=69

Identifying SEN

When asked about the primary source of evidence a SENCO could refer to when considering whether a child has additional needs, 67% of SENCOs  stated observations by staff, with 90% of SENCOs stating that this evidence was either extremely useful or very useful. Only 1%   of SENCOs stated that the views of the parents were the primary source of evidence.

Table 1
table 2
Table 2

In addition to experience, a number of SENCOs reported on the importance of training. 58% of all SENCOs (stated that they had received training specifically in relation to identifying SEN in the early years.

Again experience, or lack of, permeated the responses with concerns voiced that less experienced members of staff had not received training in this area. SENCOs felt that their relationship with staff was important, noting the importance of staff being able to approach them with concerns, as well as their role in providing ongoing training and support for staff:

SENCOs reported on the importance of having robust systems, which staff engaged with, as a factor which enables the timely identification of SEN in their settings. Within this, regular meetings, formal or otherwise, were cited as key.

However, 3 of the 7 childminders highlighted a lack of resources as their biggest barrier for identifying SEN in their settings.

‘There are not the facilities to refer to! Early intervention is all well and good… but the teams such as SALT and HV etc are so stretched that unless the need is extreme then you have NO CHANCE of a referral… children with mild to moderate difficulties are overlooked… the ATS in my area emailed in September to say they have no more capacity for any referrals… it’s disgraceful.’

Evidence from Phase 2

Between January 2020 and March 2020 semi-structured interviews were undertaken with early years SENCOs and local authority early years Area SENCOs (or equivalent). Sixteen early years SENCOs and three early years Area SENCOs took part. The SENCOs were from varying settings, including pre-schools (6), nurseries (6) and maintained nursery schools (3). One participant was a childminder. under four over-arching themes:

Many agreed that identifying needs should be a holistic process involving discussions with the parents starting with the child’s birth: ‘You investigate everything. You’re putting the child in the middle and you’re investigating their worlds, so it’s not just… it’s about their family, their relatives, who they’ve got, who they interact with, where they live, their environment, what friends they have, what their parents lives are like, what their parents jobs are like, how that impacts on the parents and how it impacts on the family.’

Five of the sixteen participants referred to having a ‘gut feeling’ about a child, which would often prompt the process while others spoke of work in the setting collecting data on a regular basis to see whether progress was being made, and in what areas, but also to consider whether the gap between the individual and their peers was widening. Some felt it was important to give a child time and space to develop, particularly when they were adjusting to a new setting. One nursery SENCO described this process as ‘watchful waiting’;

The role of families

Home visits were cited as an important factor when developing a holistic picture of the child. Some use welcome packs, introductory stay and play sessions and evening parent sessions instead.

Often early years’ settings were a parents’ first experience of an educational setting for their child, and therefore this meant that it could take time to develop trusting relationships. All felt it was vital to develop a relationship with the parents, before broaching any concerns regarding their child’s development. In early years staff often raised concerns related to speech and language and/ or social communication, with one SENCO noting that it was more challenging for parents to hear that their child is experiencing difficulties in these areas, as opposed to cognition and learning which may be raised in a primary setting.

Uniqueness of early years

Early years SENCOs could be working with three and four year olds, or from birth to five years.  There are many different attendance patterns so a child may be at nursery part time or attend multiple settings.

SENCOs pointed out that this could create a delay in identifying SEN within the setting and/ or a delay in accessing support from multi-agencies: ‘But you’ve only had them for a year and by the time you [ have] waited to let them settle in… then you have your concerns, then you need a couple of reviews to say, actually what we’re putting in place isn’t working, time has gone and they are moving on [to school].’

On the other hand, they felt that early years settings were flexible and met children’s needs without further interventions.  Some felt that some children’s needs became more apparent in a more formal school setting, where there were different expectations, different staffing levels and potentially less flexibility with provision.

Some SENCOs experienced ‘professional frustration’ where they felt their in-depth knowledge of the child and family, and evidenced views were not often given sufficient ‘weight’ in comparison to the view of a multi-agency professional

Working with multi-agency professionals

This varied and finance was a constraint. ‘We also have really good links with [the] speech and language therapist. They are great. They come and see the children in the setting and then work with practitioners supporting them on strategies and things,’ said one but another cited ‘long waiting lists and access to support ‘did not appear joined up’, with another SENCO remarking that due to the waiting times a child could be ‘well on their way to school’ before an assessment is made and before they get any additional support.’

Some had regular visits and were supported through assessments and observations; others took part in multi-agency meetings where decisions were taken for immediate implementation. Some SENCOs cited a tension between the moral obligation to provide the correct support for a child whilst settings were under financial pressure.


  • There should be more targeted guidance relevant to the different early years’ settings
  • There should be fair representation of all early years’ settings in local and national policy reviews to ensure that issues, and good practice, can be identified and taken into account for all future policy making decisions
  • There should be guidance on the time allocated to the early years SENCO role in different settings
  • There should be a job description, specific for the early years SENCO role
  • There should be more work undertaken to develop understanding of the early years SENCO role across the education, health and care sectors
  • The sector needs to share good practice developed by early years SENCOs, particularly in relation to developing family relationships
  • The sector needs to share good practice demonstrated by early years SENCOs, in relation to developing inclusive environments
  • Agencies should share information from the progress check at aged two between the child’s providers as standard practice

The report has come at a time when many nurseries are struggling.

According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies,  a quarter of the nation’s nurseries were running at a deficit during lockdown: ‘The pandemic has hit demand for childcare hard: during the lockdown, when only vulnerable children and those with key worker parents were able to access childcare, fewer than 250,000 children 0 to 4 were attending childcare on a given day, compared to around 1.4 million before the pandemic. Since June, the sector has been allowed to serve all children in England, but even before the summer holidays, take-up peaked at 420,000 children.’

A Nursery Workforce Survey and Report | 2019 ( showed that even then private and voluntary nursery employers are struggling to recruit Level 3 staff nurseries were struggling to recruit Level 3 staff, the backbone of the service

Those that survive will need to provide an even more inclusive service than before and there is evidence aplenty in this useful report to set them on the right track.

Identifying Special Educational Needs In The Early Years, nasen, 2020

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NDNA Workforce Survey for England 2019 results

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