Supporting children and young people
with special educational needs

A fifteen year-old boy was the youngest ever garden designer at this year’s Hampton Court flower show. James Callicott has severe dyslexia and reading had been a terrible struggle. ‘I could not read - however much I tried, the words just didn’t make sense.’ Then he was given a copy of Gardeners’ World. He was so keen to find out how the featured gardens were created that he pored over it for hours. Gradually his reading picked up. ‘Now I get huge satisfaction from reading the long plant names, and learning them off by heart.’1

An inspirational story, and wonderful to see the difference that appropriate reading material can make.

Definitions of special educational needs and the implications for libraries

Some twenty percent of children and young people have special educational needs (SEN),2 or additional support needs as they are termed in Scotland. Large numbers of them, like James, experience immense problems with reading and accessing information. Many face major barriers to learning. Many are vulnerable and marginalised.3 What are the implications for school and public libraries and library staff? What role should they play?

Under the terms of the Disability Discrimination Act libraries must not discriminate against disabled people.4 The Act applies to learning needs as much as to physical ones. A child is defined as having a learning difficulty if she or he has a significantly greater difficulty in learning than the majority of children of the same age.5

My focus here is on learning needs, but it is important to recognise that many children with learning difficulties experience other special educational needs too, for instance problems with communication and interaction, or behavioural and emotional difficulties.

For libraries, learning difficulties that impact on reading are particularly significant. Ten percent of the British population are dyslexic, four percent severely so.6 Lots of children and young people with speech and language problems, dyspraxia, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Down’s syndrome, autism and Asperger’s syndrome also have difficulties with reading. As a result many library resources are inaccessible to large numbers of young people without additional support. The organisational systems that underpin library operations can themselves be a barrier to information retrieval. For many children with dyslexia and other learning difficulties Dewey Decimal Classification is a nightmare. Specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia are unrelated to intelligence. Even a genius can struggle with reading and with library systems.

Effective provision

Digital, mobile and assistive technologies are of fundamental importance in supporting SEN children in libraries, and a subsequent article will detail what is currently available. It is useful to know that the screen (PC, laptop, portable device, smartphone etc) is much easier to read than the printed page for some SEN children, and can make the difference between inaccessibility and comprehension. Different technologies are needed by different children. Simple software that enables a child to change background screen colour, and low-tech devices such as keyboards with enlarged letters and symbols can be of enormous benefit. E-books are likely to be especially valuable to some SEN children (though beware third party e-book reading platforms which do not work with assistive technologies7). Some find audio-books a boon. Every child should be able to acquire material in a format that makes it accessible to him or her, and to borrow it, where appropriate, at no cost.8

In terms of printed texts, there are now many publishers who produce books in formats that aid readability. The range and quality of provision have improved markedly in recent years. Cluttered pages with little white space are difficult to find your way around if reading is a problem, as is dense text with long convoluted sentences and complicated words. No thirteen year-old wants to read a book written for a six-year-old, even if that is her or his reading age. Books with a high interest level combined with a low reading age are vital in every library, and thought is needed about how to promote and position them so that young people do not feel humiliated in their search for a good read. Like everyone else, children with special educational needs find reading easier when the subject matters to them personally, as we have seen with James Callicott. His experience also shows us that for some children and young people it will not be books but other printed materials that unlock reading.

Avoiding jargon

Making the library accessible is not just about providing suitable digital and printed resources. Good face-to-face communication is crucial. Lots of SEN children have no problems with spoken language, but this is not the case for all. Jargon gets in the way. A school librarian used the term ‘information source’ in a library lesson. ‘Is that like tomato sauce?’ came a question from one of the children. Young people with special educational needs are often very literal. Clarity is vital, while never, of course, patronising or insulting a child. Many SEN children struggle if they are given a list of tasks to do: asked in a class visit or library lesson to find a book on a subject, look up some facts and write them down, they may fail to remember even one of the steps. Introduced one at a time, retention is easier.

Library activities and events need to be geared to suit children of all abilities, as is the case with the Summer Reading Challenge . Whether a rhythm and rhyme time, a story-telling session, a class visit, a library lesson, an author visit or homework help, it will be more effective if learning needs are taken into account from the outset. Multi-sensory approaches help SEN children understand. Something as simple as a puppet in story-time can have a huge impact. Many SEN children need to be actively engaged in order to learn and enjoy.

Respecting and understanding individual needs reduces barriers. An autistic child at story-telling or in a homework club may need to sit in the same place every week. Attempt to move him or her, and enjoyment and learning may become impossible. Some SEN children are very fearful. For many a calm approach is essential, and helps prevent disruptive behaviour. Effective listening, together with appropriate and sensitive support, engender senses of trust, belonging and achievement.

The physical environment of the library is extremely important. How easy is it to find different sections within the library? Many SEN children find a cluttered library difficult to navigate. For many young people, those with ADHD or autism for example , a calm atmosphere is vital for learning - worth remembering when planning learning support activities such as homework clubs.


The best provision for children with special needs takes a holistic approach, involving carefully chosen resources, partnership with local SEN agencies and targeted promotion. Leeds Library and Information Service won the 2009 Libraries Change Lives Awards with Across the Board, an inspiring project for families with autistic children. Strong partnerships with parents and autism specialists have resulted in improved software provision, particularly Boardmaker, a signing system to aid communication, monthly sessions for parents and professionals, and changed perceptions.9 Kent Library Service has developed a system-wide dyslexia-friendly approach in collaboration with a local dyslexia group. Provision includes AbilityNet software on all public and staff computers, no charges for overdues or spoken-word books for dyslexics , dyslexia-friendly collections in each district, and homework clubs with special resources.10

Support and training for staff

Special educational needs can provoke feelings of insecurity and diffidence in library staff. Help is available. Parents and carers are a vital source of information and support regarding their children’s needs, as Across the Board has demonstrated. School librarians can usefully liaise with the special educational needs coordinator (SENCO), who can give guidance on appropriate resources, differentiation and much more. Organisations such as MENCAP, the British Dyslexia Association, and AbilityNet offer useful online information. Training is invaluable for building knowledge, understanding, skills and confidence, and it is with those in mind that CILIP has asked me to run another course for them in supporting children with special educational needs. The course will offer opportunities to explore the needs of children with learning difficulties in much greater depth than is possible in a short article, and to identify practical ways to foster their reading, learning and enjoyment in school and public library settings.11

It is a tribute to libraries and library staff that despite all the challenges they face, for many SEN children the library is a favourite spot, a safe haven. Twelve year-old Robbie sums up what libraries can do for SEN children, and what they can offer back to libraries in return: ‘I would like to be a library assistant because I am dyslexic and books all ways scared me but when I came to Cockermouth School I started to use the library and I really enjoy books now and I would like to learn more and be able to help other people enjoy them too.’

1 Education Guardian, 6 July 2010
2, accessed October 2010
3 See for example The special educational needs and disability review, Ofsted, 14 September 2010, reference 090221
4 Disability Discrimination Act 1995. Other relevant legislation includes: Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001, Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) Act 2004, Special Educational Needs and Disability (NI) Order 2005
5 Education Act, 1996. This definition applies to England and Wales. Definitions vary to some extent across the UK.
6 British Dyslexia Association,, accessed October 2010
7 See Helen Brazier’s article ‘Campaigning for improved access’, Library and Information Update, August 2010
8 A new licence gives all people with print disabilities the right to have items reproduced in accessible formats:, accessed October 2010
9, accessed October 2010
10, accessed October 2010
11 Supporting children with special educational needs, CILIP, 1 February 2011, trainer Anne Harding