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Early Identification of Special Educational Needs

The following article has been written by Jackie Harland, one of the UK's foremost Speech & Language Therapists and Director of the Riverston Group.  In the article, Jackie helps parents to identify signs that their children may have some special educational needs and highlights the importance and benefits of early identification of these needs.  You can click here to access and download a PDF copy of the article.



Special Educational Needs


How can you identify if a child has any additional needs at different stages in their life?


Mothers will usually notice when their children are struggling in areas of their development and this often happens when they see them talking, running or playing with other children in the same age bracket. However it’s important to understand that these signs may just indicate the need for some specific short term help rather than their child having severe long term special educational needs.

When the situation goes unaddressed, it may result in that child not achieving the level of their potential, it may lead them to under-perform at school or develop low self esteem and a lack of confidence. This can result in emotional or behavioral responses such as withdrawing altogether and disengaging from learning.

The specific areas in which children may need additional support can include something as minor as handwriting difficulties, poor confidence in social play, weaknesses in understanding instructions or even problems with visual tracking when reading. When it comes to motor skills, they might not be able to pick up toys to play with, they may not be able to feed themselves, write or coordinate their movements.

According to experts in the field of early childhood education, children are expected to have developed a specific set of developmental skills at different stages in their early years.  Most children’s centres offer screening services to families, nurseries and schools, where certain skills or lack thereof, can be measured and delays identified. Speech and language therapists will look at children’s listening skills, concentration and attention, their ability to understand and use language as well as their social interaction and speech clarity. Occupational therapists use their assessment tools to identify children’s special educational needs by looking at fine and gross motor skills as well as the child’s visual perception and sensory responses such as sound sensitivity. Where necessary therapists will offer direct support and set up systems to monitor the child’s progress. In some cases this can lead to a diagnosis. Occupational therapy is a problem solving based profession, with the view that if a skill cannot be achieved due to the disability, then the environment can be adapted to ensure the highest level of success in independence.

In terms of how to see the signs, parents, teachers and doctors are usually the ones who can first notice the signs and make a request for an assessment.

The main categories to pay attention to in the early years include, communication and language skills, social and emotional development and physical development, these are the prime areas of early learning. As a caregiver, you can identify some of these general developmental milestones yourself.

The earlier that parents identify that their child may be struggling with some developmental milestones, the better. High quality early intervention can change a child's developmental trajectory and improve their outcomes in school and socialisation. The brain is an organ that is designed to change according to training and experience and research has shown that the best age for this is two years old. That is why young children find it easy to learn several languages. This makes early intervention even more crucial, and parents are always encouraged to raise any concerns they might have, rather than waiting things out. 

For example, at two years of age, a child should be able to demonstrate certain capabilities when it comes to listening and paying attention, which include being able to settle and focus on an activity they enjoy often shutting out everything else around them. A child of this age would ideally be able to select named objects from a selection of three or four everyday objects when asked and be able to follow simple single instructions in everyday situations.

When it comes to speaking, a two year old can use around 50 recognizable words, copy words that are said by others and be able to ask for things in two to three word phrases. When it comes to personal, social and emotional development, a two year old child shows signs of self confidence and self awareness by defending their own possessions and shows preferences for certain toys amongst a range.

In terms of feelings, even though this isn’t easy for parents at this age, frustration and anger should be an ordinary reaction for a two year old when not getting things their own way.  At this stage children should be willing to play alongside other children and have an understanding of turn-taking. Physically, picking up tiny objects and placing them down again with increasing skills as well as throwing a ball overhead and forward without falling over, are other visible signs of timely development to take into consideration. When caring for themselves, a child of two years should be able to take off clothing such as shoes and socks, be willing to try new food textures and tastes, and communicate when they have a wet or soiled nappy.

In order for children who are struggling in areas of their development to be identified early and receive the essential support they need, it is important that information such as this on child development is readily available for nursery teachers and parents. Research has recognized that children who attend nursery settings go on to achieve better both socially and academically in school when compared to those that have not attended an early years provision, however, it is important that within this environment that teachers and parents work together to recognize when children may be struggling in an area of development and then refer them to an appropriate professional for screening and essential support. With on average one in six children showing some form of additional learning need, let’s build awareness and the importance of early intervention. 


Jackie Harland, Director of Riverston Group – June 2017