Explaining special needs to children

Mum talking to her child
Amy Schofield speaks to SEN expert Vicki Dawson to find out how to approach the subject with your child.

Children with special educational needs may need extra help at school because of a range of issues, including emotional and behavioural difficulties such as ADHD and ADD, difficulties with speech and language, problems with how they relate to and behave with other people, or sensory impairments. These needs are a normal part of classroom life, and according to an Ofsted report which was published last year, around 1.7 million schoolchildren in England are regarded as having some form of special need.

However, it can be confusing for children if they see one of their peers being treated differently, and explaining that some children have needs different to their own that must be met can be tricky. So if your child asks you why another child in their class is getting extra attention for their behaviour, or why a classmate needs special equipment and extra adult support at school, what do you say?

Differences are a positive part of life

SEN consultant, trainer and author of SEN: A Parent’s Guide, Vicki Dawson, says that it is very important that parents teach their children that differences are a positive part of life. “If children ask questions about why other children are different it is important to acknowledge that we are all different,” explains Vicki. “Parents have an important role to play in teaching their children that differences can be a positive.”

Emphasise to your child that we all have different talents, and that some children may have trouble learning some things, but that they may be very good at other things. 

If children are being treated differently in the classroom Vicki Dawson advises that a parent should explain that the teacher is in control and is doing their best for every child. “Reiterate that the teacher is very clever and knows how to handle all the children in that class differently to teach them to behave nicely,” says Vicki.

Also, Vicki says that answering children’s questions, no matter how difficult they may be, is essential to promoting acceptance of their peers.

Set good examples

Parents of a child with special educational needs may also find that they are the subject of questions from their child’s classmates. Forum member and mum JacquiL explains her son’s ‘differences’ by saying that his brain works in a unique way. “I always tell children that his brain is 'wired' differently to theirs, so that while they can learn things like reading, his brain won't let him do that as it would rather he climbed a tree!”