What is special education?

Many young people experience learning difficulties at some point. This is pretty normal and for most the difficulties are situational and temporary.

We would say a student has SEN if they have a learning challenge or disability that makes it more difficult for them to learn than most children their age. There could be problems with schoolwork, communication or behaviour.

In this section:

Helping special education students in your class

Tracking the progress of students in special education

The role of technology in special education

What kinds of differences are covered by SEN?


Students may experience difficulties in thinking, understanding and processing. They could find all learning activities difficult, or have particular difficulties with some learning activities such as reading and writing.

Emotional and behavioural

Students who have emotional and behavioural differences may have low self-esteem and lack confidence. They may find it difficult to follow rules or settle down and concentrate properly in school.

Speech, language, and communication

Young people who have difficulties with speech and language may struggle to express themselves or understand what others are saying. They may find it hard to make friends or relate to others. They may find it difficult to make sense of the world around them or to organise themselves.

Physical or sensory difficulties

These students may have a disability or a medical condition that impacts their learning. They may have a visual or hearing impairment.

How can you help SEN students in your classroom?

Teaching SEN students can present with some unique challenges. These students demand more of our time and may require specialised instructional strategies, as well as a structured environment that supports and enhances their learning potential. It’s important to remember that SEN students aren’t incapacitated or unable to learn; they simply learn in a different way to their peers. They need differentiated instruction tailored to their individual learning abilities. Here are some easy-to-apply classroom strategies which can offer immediate help.

Try not to structure lessons around reading

Provide oral instruction for students who struggle with reading. Present tests and reading materials in an oral format so the assessment is based on their knowledge and understanding, not their reading ability.

Check in often

Offer frequent progress checks. Let them know how well they are progressing toward an individual or class goal.

Make feedback the norm

Give immediate feedback to your SEN students. Shortening the feedback loop means students and teachers can see the relationship between what was taught and what was learned. Students, and not just those with additional needs, require detailed and personalised feedback. Instead of saying, “You did well,” or “I like your work,” provide specific comments that link the activity directly with the recognition; for example, “I was particularly pleased by how you listened to others in the group and took your turn to speak."

Create activities to suit all abilities

Make activities short and easy to understand. Long, complex projects are particularly frustrating for students with special educational needs.

Offer instructions multiple times

Plan to repeat instructions or offer information in both written and verbal formats. It’s vital that students with additional needs are given the opportunity to engage and understand the content of our lessons in ways that suit them.

Working together

Encourage cooperative learning activities when possible. Invite students of varying abilities to work together on a specific project or toward a common goal.

How to track the progress of SEN students

Measuring student progress is important when choosing and implementing instructional strategies for SEN students. Progression is also a great way to evaluate the support being provided by learning tools and other interventions. Here are three easy ways to track the progress of SEN students.

Student observation

Classroom observations can provide accurate and detailed information on students’ strengths and weaknesses.

They can include observations on defined behaviours, and any interactions or characteristics that seem significant. For SEN students, observations are particularly important as they help us to understand how the learning environment can be adapted to suit individual needs.

Recording and monitoring interventions

Observing SEN students often leads to recommendations for interventions to be put in place.

It’s important to record and regularly monitor interventions to ensure they’re right for students, and that they’re helping them to make the expected progress. Not every intervention put in place will have tangible outcomes but it’s important that they’re recorded and tracked. Simple data points for these might be student attendance or readiness to get involved in classroom activities.

Achievement testing

Standardised tests assess reading, writing, maths and topic areas.

The outcome of these provides information about a student’s abilities in these areas. For SEN students it’s important not to get hung up on their scores in line with national norms, but to ensure that they’re making progress based on previous test scores. Focus on whether or not interventions and tools provided are helping the student to improve and achieve their goals.

Redefining inclusion beyond exams

The Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) recommends that access arrangements for exams are part of a student's "normal way of working". But what does this mean and what does this look like in a busy classroom environment?

In this episode, we're putting these questions and more to Simon Tanner from Bohunt Education Trust. Simon shares his experience as Director of SEND in supporting students to produce their best work and have the right opportunities come exam time.

The role of technology in special education

According to Gov.uk, the number of students on EHC plans in all schools in England is around the 294,758 mark, and those receiving SEN support is 1,079,000. that's around 2% of all students with EHC plans and 11% of all students receiving SEN support.

Properly designed technology in education is helping millions of students to work more independently alongside their peers. It offers freedom from the constant need for direct teacher involvement.

Choosing the right tools for each individual student is crucial to the progression and achievement of the student. You can learn more about how to choose the right educational technology for your students in our dedicated guide.

Keep reading

Selecting the right tools for students in special education

Understand what special education is, and discover ways we can help our SEN students.

Helping students with dyslexia in our classrooms

Pick up helpful tips, tools, and classroom strategies on supporting students in our classrooms with dyslexia.

Closing the achievement gap

Learn the difference between equity and equality in education, as well as how edtech can help us to both identify learning gaps, and close the gap.