Disability and special educational needs


On children with disability and special educational needs

Q. Our nursery has a child starting with cerebral palsy. Can you tell me about the condition?

One in four hundred children will have some form of cerebral palsy. Cerebral palsy is a disorder that mixes messages from the brain, causing problems with controlling muscles and movements.  It is caused by non-progressive damage to the developing brain, which may be due to birth injury, maternal infection during early pregnancy, genetic disorder or a brain trauma. Cerebral palsy may affect a child’s motor skills and speech but not necessarily their cognitive development. Children with cerebral palsy are more likely to have additional medical problems such as hearing loss and suffer from epilepsy.

There are three main types of cerebral palsy. Some children may have a combination of two or more of these types of cerebral palsy:


This is the most common type of cerebral palsy.  It can result in jerky, restricted movement, stiffness and muscle imbalance around joints. This is a result of low hypotonic (floppy) muscle tone at rest, but high hypertonic (tense) muscle tone on exertion. Because of the tightness, the limbs are pulled out of line.


This type of cerebral palsy results in uncontrollable involuntary or jerky movements. There are extremes in muscle variations from low to high. Children may also have difficulty with the fine movements of the mouth and tongue.


Children with this type of cerebral palsy are often shaky and have difficulty balancing and judging their movements as a result of low muscle tone. Fine motor skills are particularly affected.

Body parts affected

  • Hemiplegia (one side): mainly one side of the body is affected.
  • Diplegia (both legs): mainly the lower part of the trunk and both lower limbs affected. Always spastic.
  • Quadplegia (four limbs): all limbs, neck and trunk affected

The most common types of cerebral palsy are spastic hemiplegia and spastic diplegia.  When the difficulties are mild then the condition may go unnoticed until the child starts in an early years setting.

For further information on cerebral palsy visit Scope or Contact-a-Family (CAF).

CAF offers advice, information and support to parents of disabled children and as well as extensive information on medical conditions, rare disorders and details of support groups.

Q. What does the term ‘disablism’ mean?

The term disablism is the discrimination of disabled people. The term describes the negative attitudes, behaviours, practices and environmental factors which discriminate (intentionally or unintentionally) against disabled people and create barriers to their equal participation in mainstream society.

Q. How can we ensure that our setting is accessible to all disabled users?

Most importantly, make sure the attitudes of staff are positive, welcoming and embrace the ‘can do’ approach towards all disabled children and adults.

There are a number of other factors which need to be considered:

  • Views of disabled members of staff, parents, visitors (and where appropriate) children. Ask them to share what barriers they consider exist and hinder their inclusion
  • Update or instigate relevant policies and procedures to support disabled users and those with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND)
  • Carry out an access audit 
  • Ensure staff have regular training on disability awareness and alternative communication formats such as Makaton

Q. I am aware that the law recently changed on special educational needs but I am not sure how it affects our setting. Can you help me?

The law changed in 2014 with the Children and Families Act and a new SEND Code of Practice came into effect in September 2014.

Local authorities and service providers, including funded early years providers, must have regard for the new provisions when identifying, assessing and supporting disabled children and those with SEN.

Member settings can access free SEND training via EduCare and or go to our members area to download a free mini guide.

More detailed guidance and resources can be found in the Alliance highly informative publication SEND Code of Practice for the Early Years

Q. We have a three and half year old child in our nursery who constantly bites other children. He cannot speak and when we tell him not to do it he doesn’t appear to understand. Can we expel the child?

There are a number of factors to consider here. First and foremost, the child should not be expelled. This is a child who is unable to communicate and requires support and not sanctions. His biting may be the only way that he knows how to communicate. Have you spoken to his parents to find out if there are any underlying concerns?

If a child is three and half and is still not talking then you should speak to the parents about referring the child for further external assessment. In the interim period you should instigate support in the setting through a graduated approach. At this stage the key person or SENCO (special educational needs coordinator)  will need to collect all relevant observations and assessments and analyse the information to plan relevant support for the child. The child’s parent/carers should be involved at all stages of planning and the Area SENCO invited to offer support and advice. The Area SENCO is often the conduit for referring children to other services such as speech and language therapy, educational psychology, clinical psychology or behavioural therapy.

Members can download our mini guide Promoting Positive Behaviour from our members area.

For more detailed guidance on the graduated response process, see the Alliance publication SEND Code of Practice for the Early Years and Behaviour Matters. 

Q. Do staff use Makaton in early years settings?

Yes, many early years settings do use it. Makaton is a simple language programme that uses signs and symbols to help children (and adults) to communicate. Signs are used, with speech, in spoken word order. Using signs can help children and adults who have no or little speech or whose speech is unclear. Symbols can be used to support communication in many different ways. Makaton is also a fun format to use — not just with children with communication difficulties but all children. Children love using signs so learning Makaton will come easily to most because they are similar to the gestures that they are already familiar with. Staff should teach some of the key signs such as hello, drink, toilet, mum/dad and also use it at singing time.

Learn more about Makaton.