When engaging with children with special educational needs, it's evident that a 'one-size-fits-all- approach doesn't apply. It's essential that you take a holistic approach, addressing the very individual needs of each child. Just because a child has dyslexia, for example, it doesn't mean that a coloured overlay will solve all their problems. A holistic approach understands this and takes into consideration all the unique complexities involved, providing more beneficial support for each child.

Special educational needs are just that – they are special and unique to the individual child and need to be tailored accordingly. A lot of settings and schools talk about promoting holistic education, but what does that actually mean, and how can you deliver this in your setting?

The term ‘holistic education’ is much more than just offering some extra-curricular trips once in a while, or a token attempt at inclusion every term, but it is often what a lot of places suggest counts as ‘holistic education’.

According to one online dictionary, holistic has two meanings:

  1. In philosophy - characterised by the belief that the parts of something are intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole.
  2. 2. In medicine (and education) - characterised by the treatment of the whole person, taking into account mental and social factors, rather than just the symptoms of a disease.

This means really understanding that there are many contributing factors that affect all of our lives, and you cannot easily separate them out if you want to improve the whole person. You need to think differently and consider how each one impacts on others.

In the SEND Code of Practice: A guide for health professionals, it states:

‘Our vision for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) is the same as for all children and young people – that they achieve well in their early years, at school and in college and make a good transition to adulthood, to lead contented and fulfilled lives. This hasn’t always been the case. The SEND reforms introduced by the Children and Families Act 2014 aim to change this, with a focus on two key themes: greater cooperation between education, health and social care and a greater focus on the outcomes which will make a real difference to how a child or young person lives their life. For too long, health has been the missing partner in the SEND system. These reforms change that – they implement a holistic approach to supporting children and young people with SEND in all aspects of their life.’

Taking a holistic approach means looking at the person as a whole and trying to balance any interventions that are offered in a way that benefits that person’s entire being and how they live their life, not just in nursery or at school, but beyond into adulthood. It means considering various other factors in conjunction with their SEN, and which may be in addition to those factors listed in the EYFS, including:

  • Social situation and family life
  • Community issues
  • Mental health
  • Confidence and self-esteem
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Physical development
  • Social confidence and friendships
  • Creativity and self-expression
  • Empathy and appreciation
  • Individuality
  • And many more – the list will be endless!

As early years practitioners, we understand that 90% of brain development occurs by age 5, so it is vital that our settings provide experiences that support the whole child, including the above bullet points, and it is why we should provide multiple areas of stimulation through enriched and diverse environments, but understand how each affects the other.

In many educational settings, children with special needs are often taken out of subjects they do well at (such as Art or Drama), in favour of studying Maths or English, but this can impact negatively on their self-esteem when they feel they are missing a subject that supports them in other ways. This is just an example, but it raises questions about whether the child’s preferences could be taken into account in a more holistic approach, that doesn’t impact negatively on their mental health to serve an academic outcome. In early years, we may fall into the trap of focusing on one small thing at the expense of a larger other.

Many children with special needs also have more than one learning difficulty - people with autism can also have sensory issues, and people with dyslexia may have dyspraxia. The challenge here is to try to try to meet all of the needs in the best way possible. This is where good planning and communication are vital.


  • Are there ways to combine interventions to get the best outcome?
  • Are you considering health issues?
  • Are you considering social issues?
  • How will your work impact on other areas of the child’s life?
  • Can you involve others to help?

Partnering with others for the best holistic view

To provide a holistic approach to SEND, it is vital you form partnerships with other people and agencies. When information is shared appropriately, instead of having just one piece of the jigsaw, everyone will begin to see the whole picture.

Parents are obviously the first port of call and will have insights that you do not, and vice versa, so setting up regular sessions to talk to the parents will help you understand what their child needs; you can also tell parents what is working well in the setting, so they can continue the practice at home.

Remember too that many parents of special needs children are under enormous stress themselves, which can impact their own mental health and wellbeing, and subsequently, that of the child. Offering help and support to parents via advice/support groups, meetings or just passing on relevant information that could be useful to them, will have an impact.

You should also develop partnerships with health and social care services, and they should be contacting you for updates, reviews and progress reports. By working together, plans such as EHCPs can be drawn up effectively to really support the whole child, but ensure they are regularly reviewed and amended to grow with the child.

Supporting your SENCo

Your SENCo will have ultimate responsibility for the outcomes and provision for children with special needs, but could you support them better by training your staff or increasing cooperation between colleagues? There are many CPD courses which raise awareness of SEND issues and there is no substitute for regular meetings with colleagues to check on a child’s progress across the board to consider holistic issues.


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