Early Years: how to support children with SEND

Early years children who teachers may suspect as having SEND often don’t get a diagnosis, so adaptations based on observations are essential, argues Jamel Carly

Jamel Carly

early years send

As people who work closely with children, those of us in EYFS are taught to study child development closely. To help us, we use the EYFS framework and Development Matters as our points of reference to support and acknowledge the milestones our children have reached and are yet to reach. 

The journey to meeting those goals is not always straightforward. This could be due to developmental delays, global delays or special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). There are also external environmental, cultural and economic factors that can cause learning delays.

This huge number of variables makes tracking or supporting child development challenging. SEND diagnoses are also hugely complex. As a result, what we need to focus on in our provision is adaptations based on observations and close communications within school and with parents. 

Here is an example of how this can work in practice. 


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One of my former key children was academically advanced in the specific areas of development (EYFS): the child could write their name, read and do simple equations at the age of 2. However, the child’s specific areas of development were a big contrast to his prime areas of development, especially personal, social and emotional development.  

The child struggled with social interactions, disliked sudden change, would spin in circles when listening to music, could not maintain eye contact, had a fixation on routine and visual time tables, he didn’t like it when play themes were mixed (putting cars on train tracks or trains on the road), would sometimes display behaviour linked to stimming and he chewed on his clothes.

SEND in EYFS

These behaviours were not noticed at the same time and not straight away. It took months of observations and writing up ABC charts (behaviour charts to track behaviours in context) to detect the antecedent of the child’s behaviour and their patterns. But because we were observant and because we did connect the dots, the picture became clear. 

With help from our in-house Sendco, we were able to collate the data and start the process of putting some supportive measures in place.

We also had a meeting with the child’s parents so we could find out if the same behaviours were being noticed at home, because sometimes children can act differently when they’re in their own space without distraction. 

The parents confirmed that the behaviours were happening at home, too. So with their permission, we contacted the local area occupational therapist and play therapist to observe the young boy and we put together an individual education plan (IEP) so we could give more relevant and direct support.

IEP for schools

The IEP had information about the child’s:

  1. likes and dislikes;
  2. developmental tracker/ ABC forms/ day sheets, to monitor the child’s progress;
  3. behavioural management plan;
  4. routine;
  5. strategies to support the child’s learning at home and in the setting.

With this in mind, I continued to work closely with the Sendco on site and held meetings every six weeks to review the child’s progress and make relevant amendments to the IEP when necessary.

Diagnosis difficulty

Based on our findings we had our suspicions that the child may have been highly functioning autistic, but the problem was that children cannot be confidently assessed for this before their fourth birthday – or some will say fifth. This is because learning traits could be just behavioural or a learning delay that can be supported. It was a similar story with other areas of SEND that may have been possibilities. 

So all we could do was put relevant measures in place to support their observed needs. We continued to support the child and created visual routines and interactive boards to help with transitions. We created a quiet and neutral space that he could go to when he needed to calm down and we created activities that supported his interest in reading, writing and small world. 

We gave continuous support to the child’s parents and held parent workshops with the whole class so they didn’t feel alienated and alone. 

All this meant that, though the child did not have a diagnosis, when it was time for the child to leave the setting we had so much data to give to his new school that they were able to make a referral for further educational support.

Key considerations

My key takeaways from this experience were as follows:

1. Talk to parents 

If you have any concerns about a child’s behaviour or learning development it is important to communicate with parents about their concerns and what they have observed. Often your concerns and observations may be similar. Always talk to your management, room leads and Sendco first about your concerns. Don’t forget to communicate with parents about the things that are also going well and the milestones and achievements of their child. Communication is a key part of providing care.

2. ABC charts and observations 

As an educator, I understand that paperwork can become tedious but please understand the importance of following and tracking the development and behaviours of each child. ABC charts and observations can flag up patterns like times, social groups, activities and areas of the room where behaviours may be displayed. It can highlight areas where a child may thrive and do well. Observations are our main tools for recording each child’s development.

3. Not all behaviours are destructive 

Understanding the difference between destructive behaviours, sensory seeking and schematic behaviour is important. Sometimes we class as behaviour as destructive but maybe the behaviour is due to the child seeking stimulation, problem-solving or engaging in schematic play that meets their interest or needs. If you understand this you can devise a more constructive activity or environment that meets their interest.

4. Remember our commitment to inclusion

It is important to protect, nurture and teach our pupils, neurotypical and neurodiverse regardless of their culture or colour of their skin or their class. It is essential that we promote inclusive practice that doesn’t alienate the pupil but makes them feel involved and a part of the class. Some conditions do require pupils to avoid some activities but there is always a way to adjust the task to accommodate the child’s needs. We need to remember policy and government guidelines, making sure that we not only follow policy but we understand that inclusive practice is the best means of supporting child development and learning. We must share an approach and develop an attitude that will help shape the future minds of our cosmopolitan community. Everyone has their own perception of inclusion but the common view is that inclusion is about respect, understanding, value and equality – acknowledging difference and diversity, and celebrating and embracing each individual for who they are. Facilitating learning for all is not a chore or done because an individual has challenges – it's because it’s their birthright.

Jamel Carly is an early years educator involved in learning support in SEND. He tweets @JamelCarly

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