Support in the early years

8 mins read

This advice applies in England only. Read information for families in Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales.

Early years education settings in England have a duty to support children with special educational needs (SEN). On this page, we explain what that support should look like.

In this article


What are the early years?

The term “early years” covers the early years of a child’s development, from birth to five years old.

What are early years settings?

Early years settings can include childminders, day nurseries, pre-schools, holiday playschemes and childcare in your own home.

Your local authority has a duty to make sure there are enough early years options for all families in the area who need it. They must help you to find one that is right for your family.

This page is about what support in the early years looks like. Elsewhere on our site, you can find more information about finding early years options.

Paying for early years education

In England, all three- and four-year-olds are entitled to 15 hours of free early education/childcare for 38 weeks of the year. Some two-year-olds are also eligible.

Working families of three- and four-year-olds are entitled to an extra 15 hours of free childcare on top of the 15 hours of free early education.

For more information, see our paying for childcare webpage. You can also find out more about paying for childcare from Childcare Choices.

Support from birth to two

Some children with special educational needs (SEN) may be diagnosed with a medical condition. But a child does not need a diagnosis to have SEN.

If health professionals think your child has SEN, they may refer them to specialists for support. This might include educational psychologists or speech and language therapists.

In some areas, you may be able to access a home-visiting education service called Portage.

Support in early years settings

At the age of three, most children start to attend some kind of early years setting.

Early years settings must take steps to include and support children with SEN and medical conditions. Local authorities must make sure that settings that provide free early education receive additional funding to do this. This includes additional top-up funding for individual children who need a higher level of support. It also includes funding for specialist equipment.

All government-funded settings must support children with SEN from their core funding.

Identifying children and SEN

All early years providers must follow the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) framework. This includes having arrangements in place to identify and support disabled children and children who have, or may have, additional needs or medical conditions.

Early years settings will use this framework to continually observe and review how your child is developing. Parents’ insights are an important part of this. The framework includes two formal reviews:

Key people

Your child should also have a named keyworker. This is the person responsible for your child on a daily basis. This is also the person to speak to first if you have any worries or just want to talk about how your child is doing.

Early years settings that receive government funding must have a Special Educational Needs Coordinator (SENCO). This is a teacher responsible for making sure all the children with SEN have the support they need.

The SENCO should consider involving appropriate specialists, such as educational psychologists or specialist teachers, if the setting feels it needs more specialist input to support the child.

What support can I expect my child to receive?

The SEND Code of Practice (paragraph 5.32) outlines four broad areas of need and support:

Most children with SEN get extra help through a system called SEN Support. This involves a graduated approach to support, with four stages:


The early years setting, together with the SENCO and parents, should work to explore the cause of any learning difficulty or delay.


Staff should talk to you about your child and the extra help you think they need and seek more information if needed.

For example, they may ask an educational psychologist to visit and advise them how to help your child.

There should be a written plan setting out this support.


This is the practical support your child will receive.

Depending on their needs, your child may get extra help from an adult or help in a small group, for example to learn language skills.

Sometimes a specialist may work with your child directly or set up a programme and train staff to follow it.

Other examples of support your child may receive at this level are:


The setting should agree with you when your child’s progress will be reviewed. The review is a chance to look at your child’s progress, whether the support is working and whether your child needs more or a different kind of help.

If your child needs more help than the early years setting can normally provide, they may need an Education Health and Care (EHC) needs assessment. This in turn may lead to an Education Health and Care plan.

Communicating with the setting

It is essential that your child’s setting shares information with you fully.

The EYFS framework requires early years settings to keep a record of all children under their care. These records must be available to parents. They must include how the setting provides support for children with SEN and disabilities.

Communication diaries are a useful way you and the setting can share information about your child’s day with each other. They can include updates on daily activities, eating and sleeping practices, peer interactions, toileting, as well as any other matters relating to your child’s SEN or disability.

If you think your child needs more support, it’s a good idea to ask for a meeting with their keyworker and the SENCO. If your child has had recent assessments or a diagnosis, it is important to share this information with the SENCO. This will help the setting better understand how to support your child.

Refusals and exclusions

We hear from families who’ve been refused access to any early years setting because of their child’s disability or SEN. Or their child has been excluded because their setting says they can’t provide support.

Early years settings cannot refuse to take your child because they are disabled or have SEN. In some cases, excluding a child for behaviour resulting from their disability could be discriminatory.

We have information on our website about what you can do to challenge refusal decisions; exclusions; and disability discrimination.

Moving onto school

Children in England usually start school in the September after their fourth birthday.

Your local authority will send you information about how to apply for a primary school reception place, along with details of all the local mainstream primary schools, the year before. You can also find this information in the education section of your local authority website.

Moving to primary school is a big step for all children, and all schools will have arrangements to help new children settle in. Talk to the school SENCO about your child’s needs and what help the school can give them.

Your child doesn’t have to be in education until they reach compulsory school age, which is at the start of the term after their 5th birthday. You could ask for your child to go to school part-time until then if you do not feel they are ready to be in school full-time yet. Alternatively, you can also ask the school if your child can delay their start until later in the school year.

Mainstream schools provide extra help for pupils with SEN through the SEN support system, similarly to early years settings. Find out about support in a mainstream school. Find out more about applying for a school place and choosing the right school.

If you have any other questions about starting school, contact our freephone helpline for advice.

In Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales

Find out about the system of support for children with special educational needs in Northern Ireland on the NI Education Authority website or Senac (special educational needs advice centre).

In Scotland, the system of support for children with additional support needs is called additional support for learning. You can read more about it on the Enquire website.

Read our information about education in Wales.

Related information

The EYSEND Partnership

Contact is a member of the Early Years SEND (EYSEND) Partnership, funded by the Department for Education.

The EYSEND Partnership is a national programme supporting practitioners and professionals and parents with training, resources, and an approach to sharing learning. The aim is to increase access and inclusion in early years for children with SEN and disabilities. Our workshops with parents and practitioners, including strategic leads, services and settings, follow the Genuine Partnership’s Four Cornerstones Model.

Other partners include Dingley’s Promise, who support children with SEN in the early years, and Speech and Language UK.