An Overview of the Most Common Special Educational Needs (SEN) – Symptoms & Strategies

In the context of educational provision, the term ‘Special Educational Needs’ (SEN) refers to children who find it more difficult to learn or access education than most children of the same age – because of a learning difficulty or disability.


In the UK for example, The Children and Families Act (DfE, 2014a) indicate that a child or young person’s needs may fall into at least one of four broad categories:


1. communication and interaction, e.g. speech difficulties or autism.

2. cognition and learning, e.g. one or more specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia (reading and spelling), dyscalculia (maths), dyspraxia (coordination) or dysgraphia (writing).

3. social, mental and emotional health, e.g. attention deficit disorder (ADD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or autism.

4. sensory and/or physical needs, e.g. visual impairment (VI), hearing impairment (HI), multi-sensory impairment (MSI) or physical disability.

In 1978, the Warnock Report, which was published to address the issue of SEN in England and Wales, estimated that as many as 20 per cent of children, during their time at school, might experience a SEN that would necessitate additional educational provision to be made.  Several decades later and we see that this estimate – while somewhat overestimated – is not significantly off the mark.  Since the report was published, across all schools, year on year the number of children with special educational needs has averaged around 15 per cent.  Statistics aside, the fact remains that SEN is common in schools around the world.  As educational professionals committed to inclusive education, in which all students are given the same opportunities to learn, it is obviously important that we can identify and accommodate the needs of our students.

I therefore list here some of the most common types of special educational needs (SEN), their symptoms and targeted teaching strategies to deal with them:


Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a group of behaviours that include inattention (not being able to keep focus), hyperactivity (excess movement that is not fitting for the setting) and impulsivity (acting hastily in the moment without thinking).  In short, this affects a student’s ability to concentrate and sit still. Typically, ADHD comes in one of three forms:

  • – Inattentive ADHD (or simply known as ADD)
  • – Hyperactive/Impulsive ADHD
  • – A combination of both

Symptoms of Inattentive ADHD/ADD:

  • – Self-focused behaviour, not paying close attention to details, listening to others or making careless mistakes.
  • – Finds it difficult to stay focused on tasks or activities.
  • – Does not follow through on instructions or complete classwork on time.
  • – Has problems organising tasks and work.
  • – Avoids or dislikes tasks that require extended mental effort.
  • – Often loses things needed for tasks or daily life, such as school equipment, books, glasses, etc.
  • – Is easily distracted and often appears to be daydreaming during lessons.
  • – Forgets daily tasks, such as doing chores or routine errands.

Symptoms of Hyperactive/Impulsive ADHD:

  • – Fidgetiness.  For example, fidgets with or taps hands or feet, or squirms in seat.
  • – Not able to stay seated in classroom for even short periods without walking around.
  • – Unable to play or do leisure activities quietly.
  • – Talks too much.
  • – Blurts out answers before the teacher has finished asking a question.
  • – Finds it difficult to wait his or her turn.
  • – Interrupts or intrudes on others (for instance, cuts into conversations, games or activities, or starts using other students’ things without permission).

Key strategies for helping students with ADHD:

  1. – Post classroom rules for student with and without ADHD. …
  2. – Establish classroom routines. …
  3. – Give appropriate supervision to ADHD students. …
  4. – Reduce potential distractions. …
  5. – Use positive peer models. …
  6. – Prepare for transitions. …
  7. – Allow for movement. …
  8. – Let the children play.
  9. – Establish a positive relationship with students who have ADHD.
  10. – Provide frequent, positive feedback.
  11. – Ask questions rather than reprimand.
  12. – Encourage hands-on learning.


2. Anxiety

Anxiety is the most common negative emotion that students experience. Although it can be completely normal and is generally considered as a mental health problem, anxiety can be a special educational need when it blocks students’ ability to think clearly and engage in normal day-to-day learning activities.

In the classroom context, anxiety can be easy to identify – for example, when a student feels nervous before a test.  On other occasions, anxiety in the classroom can look like something completely different – an upset stomach, the need to go to the school nurse, ADHD, disruptive behaviour or some other learning disorder.

Usually, when a student is suffering from extreme anxiety, it is obvious to their parents. Unfortunately, students suffering from anxiety often do not receive the support that they need, and this can be made significantly worse by unhelpful teaching strategies.

Among its many symptoms, anxiety can cause:

  • – Obsessive-compulsive disorder: When children’s minds are filled with unwanted and stressful thoughts, they have a tendency to perform compulsive rituals like counting or washing their hands.
  • – Selective mutism: When children have a hard time speaking in some settings, like around the teacher.
  • – Difficulties sleeping

Key strategies for helping students with anxiety:

As a teacher, the best strategies for dealing with student anxiety are based on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which aim to help students think about situations in a different way so they are able to better manage their anxiety.  You do not need to be an expert in CBT, you only need to remember that how you respond to their emotions serves as a model for your students.

Whilst their anxiety may seem completely irrational, students’ worries and fears can be very real. Demanding they simply ‘stop worrying’ will usually do little to reduce anxiety or other challenging emotions.  Instead, recognising and sincerely accepting what another is feeling can be the most effective response we can give.  Research has shown that validating and accepting another’s emotions can have a soothing effect for that person. Validation and acceptance of another’s feelings is done by identifying, naming and sincerely accepting their feelings.  For instance, “I can see that you’re very anxious about this assignment.”  By accepting and validating students’ feelings, as well as the naming of their emotion, this can help them gain some control over their feelings, to help calm them. Your empathy may also increase the likelihood that the students will accept your guidance and be more open with you in the future.


3. Asperger’s Syndrome

Asperger’s syndrome, which is an Autistic Spectrum Condition, is often referred to as a difficulty with social skills. That is because people with Asperger’s syndrome will typically have difficulties with social communication and interaction.

Among the main characteristics of individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome, Williams (1995) identified the following:

  • – Insistence on things remaining the same and can become easily overwhelmed by minimal changes in routines, showing a preference for rituals.
  • – Unable to understand the “rules” of interaction, with deficiencies in abstract meaning, poor comprehension of jokes and metaphor.
  • – Preoccupation with singular topics such as train schedules or maps.
  • – Inattention, easily distracted and poor organisational skills.
  • – Poor motor coordination: for example, unsuccessful in games involving motor skills.
  • – Emotional vulnerability: easily overwhelmed, poor coping with stressors, self-critical.

Williams, K. (1995). Understanding the student with Asperger Syndrome: Guidelines for teachers. Focus on Autistic Behavior, 10, 9-16.

Key strategies for helping students with Aspergers:

1. Keep routines in the classroom clear and consistent, giving these students as much notice as possible when you are aware of a change or disruption in their schedule.

2. Remember that students with AS often have an easier time concentrating when they are not making eye contact, and forcing them to look at you may actually break their concentration.

3. As students with AS find organisation difficult, develop a schedule with them to keep track of homework and other assignments.

4. Many students with AS have trouble taking the perspectives of others, so you need to be explicit and direct when explaining your own thoughts and feelings. It helps a lot to be specific with your directives (e.g.“leave your work on my desk when you have completed this task” instead of “hand in your work when you’re done”). Analogies, idioms, metaphors, and sarcasm should also be avoided.

5. Remember that students with AS are often more advanced in language production than comprehension.  This means that although the student may be speaking very intelligibly about a subject, s/he might not understand the meaning of what they are saying.

6. Remember that students with AS usually cannot view a situation from anyone else’s perspective other than their own. Reading, and working through, published joke books can assist students in practicing this “shift of perspective.” Comic strips can also be useful as practice in this aspect.


4. Dyscalculia

Dyscalculia is a learning difficulty that causes a student to have problems developing mathematical skills and understanding.  Children with dyscalculia have a delay in counting and problems memorising arithmetic facts and rules.

Key strategies for helping students with dyscalculia:

1. Write out or draw the problem

Talking through a problem or writing down a problem can help with seeing relationships between the elements. Simply restating word problems in a new way can also help with understanding the problem better. Likewise, drawing the problem can also help visual learners to see relationships and understand concepts.  

2. Break down tasks into subsets

Separating a problem into its different parts and working through them one at a time can help students focus, see connections and avoid becoming overwhelmed.

3. Use physical objects

Relating maths to the context of real life can help dyscalculic students make sense of mathematical concepts.  Items like measuring cups, scales and countable objects help ensure concepts are less abstract and more easily manipulated.


5. Dysgraphia

Dysgraphia refers to the difficulty associated with the acquisition, and recollection, of the ability to write letters and numbers.  Affecting the ability to learn the sequence of fine motor skills required to able to write, dysgraphia can also cause a person to have difficulties with the ordering or sequencing of words and numbers.  This can mean that words, letters and numbers are written out of order, or even backwards.

Symptoms can include:

  • – Difficulty organising thoughts and putting them down on paper
  • – Slow and laboured writing
  • – Odd spacing
  • – Poor spelling and grammar
  • – Lack of sentence and paragraph structure

Key strategies for helping students with dysgraphia:

  1. – Before asking a student to begin an activity such as typing or handwriting, it helps to get them to shake their hands out, rotate their wrists, wiggle their fingers and perhaps even squeeze a stress ball. This helps to get the blood flowing and prepare the muscles.

  2. – Encourage the student to learn touch-typing.  Computers are recommended for people with dysgraphia because they reduce the number of variables that have to be controlled including letter formation, letter and word spacing as well as, of course, writing text left to right along a straight line.  Moreover, they allow for ease of correction without the stigma of erasure marks and they provide access to spell-checkers.
  3. Provide different colour paper and pens.  This is because it sometimes can make a difference to write by hand on paper that has, for example, thick or raised lines.  Fine motor skills also impacts the way an individual grips a pen or pencil, so it makes sense to give the a dysgraphic student a thicker pen or a pencil with a rubber grip.

  4. – Provide audio-recordings.  Writing is a cognitively demanding activity for individuals that is made even more challenging when they have to both receive information during a lesson and write it down.  It can also be useful to simply provide key notes for the dysgraphic student, which can then be annotated.

It is relevant to note that dysgraphia usually cooccurs with, yet is distinct from, dyslexia and dyspraxia. In the case of dyspraxia, this refers to an issue that affects fine and gross motor skills.  Dyspraxia typically causes poor coordination and handwriting, but can benefit from the same strategies as those for dealing with dysgraphia.


6. Dyslexia

Dyslexia is a specific learning difficulty that makes it difficult to understand words and language.

Common symptoms of Dyslexia are:

  • – Confusing letters like b and d, either in reading or writing
  • – Missing letters out when trying to spell a word
  • – Reading very slowly and hesitantly and lacking fluency.
  • – Leaving out whole sections of text when reading, or re-reading the same section.
  • – Putting letters and figures the wrong way round;
  • – Poor organisation skills and time management skills;
  • – Poor memory and concentration

The impact of Dyslexia can vary significantly, meaning that it is important to properly assess the need and establish what special educational provision is necessary.

Key strategies for helping students with dyslexia:

  • – Use bullet points, which are more readable than blocks of text for dyslexic students.
  • – If possible, use a pastel shade for hand-outs, since many dyslexic students have particular challenges decoding text that is printed on black and white.
  • – Provide a word bank with a list of keywords and their meaning to facilitate reading.
  • – As with dysgraphic students, touch-typing can be a useful skill to encourage dyslexic students to learn.  This is because touch-typing enables students to work faster, and cope with more information.
  • Aside from computers, there are a range of other assistive technologies and peripherals, which can be useful such as pocket spell checkers, line readers (to magnify and highlight the portion of text over which it is placed) and coloured keyboards.


7. Hearing impairment

A hearing impairment results from a deterioration in the sound signal reaching the brain, rather than how the brain interprets that signal.  If not accommodated for, it can have significant impact on a student’s ability to access learning.

Key strategies for helping students with a hearing impairment:

  • – Ensure that students with hearing loss are seated toward the front of the class where they will hear you best and have an unobstructed line of vision.
  • – As far as possible, minimise any background noise is minimised.
  • – Repeat clearly any questions or answers asked by other students in the class before giving a response.
  • – Do not speak when facing away from the students, for example when facing the whiteboard.  Be aware that students who lip-read cannot function in darkened rooms, so you may need to adjust the lighting in your teaching environment.
  • – Provide written materials to supplement all lessons.
  • – Flexible delivery of teaching materials via electronic media is particularly helpful for students with a hearing loss, as they can catch up at home anything that was missed during the lesson.


8. Oppositional defiant disorder

Oppositional defiant disorder is a a psychiatric disorder, which causes a students to have problems with their conduct and can have a serious impact on their ability to learn.  Typically, a student with Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) will display aggressiveness and persistent disobedience, particular in terms of opposing authority figures, such as teachers while tending to respect other basic social rules and behaviours.

The behaviour must feature at least five of the following:

  • – Frequent loss of temper
  • – Frequently arguing with adults and/ or actively defying rules and requests from authority figures.
  • – Deliberately seeking to irritate others
  • – Blaming others
  • – Being overly sensitive
  • – Heightened anger or resentment towards others
  • – Spiteful or vindictive conduct
  • – Swearing frequently

Key strategies for helping students with ODD:

1. Remain calm. Avoid, for example, raising your voice or exhibiting any emotion. Do not get into an argument, simply state and restate what happens when a rule is broken.  Be as clear, immediate and as consistent as possible when the student misbehaves.

2. Discover what the student truly enjoys doing and identify any skills or positive attributes that you can reinforce.

3. Give praise one-to-one for these students, e.g. to say “This is outstanding.” In doing so, you will build a better rapport and moe trust.

4. From the outset, meet privately with the student and establish that you will be respectful toward each other.  Once this done, you can be calm and frank as you explain specific concerns about the student’s actions.  Decide together on a behaviour contract that can be shared with the student and their parents.

5. Where necessary, meet with the parents and the student, so that everyone can present a united front.  After stating the problem, brainstorm ideas on ways to assist the student in improving his/her behaviour.  Agree on a behaviour contract for the behaviours necessary for the student to be successful in school.


9. Visual impairment

A visual impairment can have significant varied impact on a student’s ability to access learning.  It results from a deterioration in the light signal reaching the brain, rather than how the brain interprets that signal.  As such, it is distinct from visual processing disorder.

Key strategies for helping students with a visual impairment:

1. Explain any visuals. When you are teaching a visually impaired or blind student, it is important to clearly explain all visual materials. For example, if you are showing a picture to illustrate a point, you should describe the image.  You could say something like “I have put a picture of Henry VIII on the board to illustrate the way he was depicted. He is wearing a large gown with a lot of detailed embroidery. This demonstrates his wealth and power.”

2. Replace visual cues with audio cues.  For example, you could have students clap twice if they want to ask a question.  This is because it is traditional for students to raise their hand if they want to speak during a lesson.  However, visually impaired or blind students may not notice when their peers raise their hands.

3.  Incorporate as many tactile learning experiences as possible. For example, instead of talking about plants and showing images of different types of plants, you could actually have physical plants available in the classroom for the students to touch and handle.

4. Write with dark colours on the whiteboard.  It is best to write using a black marker on a whiteboard and to always write using large images and letters to help assist with reading.  This is because students who are visually impaired will need written material to be presented in high contrast in order for them to read. Colour should only be used sparingly, such as titles.

For students who are blind, assistive technologies such as dictaphones / smartphone apps (to record lessons), braille textbooks / handouts and electronic readers (to convert text into speech) should be used.


Concluding thoughts…

More and more teachers around the world face the challenge of how to integrate students with special educational needs in their mainstream class. This is partly the outcome of a general trend towards accommodating students with SEN in mainstream schools rather than in more specialised school settings.

The most important thing to remember is that as educators, we have a responsibility to ensure that all students, regardless of a possible SEN, receive a broad, balanced and suitable education.  Where appropriate and relevant to do so, you should communicate with parents and outside professionals to support with this educational provision.  Generally speaking, whatever a student’s special educational need might be, it is also important to be adaptable and flexible, while providing these students with extra time to complete their assignments and tests.

Will Fastiggi
Will Fastiggi

Originally from England, Will is an Upper Primary Coordinator now living in Brazil. He is passionate about making the most of technology to enrich the education of students.

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