Karen Childs Smith on safeguarding when working with children and young people with additional needs.

Children and young people who have special educational needs and disabilities or additional needs are at an increased risk of being abused compared with their non-disabled peers. So, understanding best practice in safeguarding is vitally important. By increasing your awareness of how to better protect children and young people who have SEND you can directly help prevent abuse and neglect.

Why are children and young people with SEND more vulnerable to abuse?
Communication barriers, isolation, dependency on others and a lack of adequate support are all contributing factors. In addition, these children and young people are less likely to receive the protection and support they need when they have been abused.

The children and young people also may not understand that they are being abused, be able to express their worries or experiences, be believed if they do speak up, or know where to go for help.

To compound all this, families of children and young people with additional needs may be isolated and under additional stress, which can result in adults/professionals feeling reluctant to challenge families and carers if they have concerns about a child.

Safeguarding means being curious
It’s not always easy to spot the signs of abuse. In some cases, adults may mistake the indicators of abuse as signs of a child’s disability, which can sometimes be referred to as ‘diagnostic overshadowing’. 

Reasons that signs of abuse might wrongly be dismissed or overlooked include: wrongly attributing injuries, such as bruising, to disability equipment, mobility problems or self-harm; overly focusing on the child or young person’s diagnosis, disability or condition and overlooking the possibility of abuse; wrongly attributing signs of abuse, such as being withdrawn or reluctant to form relationships, and/or repetitive and/or behaviours that are perceived as challenging, such as inappropriate sexual behaviour, to the child or young person’s disability or condition. 

You can avoid overlooking these signs by being curious and staying alert.

Using communication for protection 
Some children and young people with SEND have communication barriers, which can make them more vulnerable to abuse. It is especially important to acknowledge these barriers, so that you can be more aware if a child or young person is trying to communicate that something is wrong. 

To communicate effectively, you need to use all the resources and tools available to you. It’s really important for adults to mirror children and young people, rather than impose our communication methods on them. So, if a child communicates through their eyes, through their face, through their body language we need to do the same and to hear what they’re saying through that. If a child has very simple language, we need to communicate in a similar way and simplify our language. Other children will communicate through going to the physical place they want to be, such as a play area or their desk and you should go with that action, and show they’re being heard. If they feel heard in simple choices like where they would like to sit while having a conversation, they may feel more confident that they’ll be heard if they talk about more major issues. It is vital that children and young people with SEND have the confidence to express their views, opinions, wants and needs. Other ways that we can communicate with children and young people—and us with them—include: signing; symbols; photographs; objects of reference; communication books and systems; drawing; role play, scenarios and props; sensory and social stories. This list is not exhaustive.

Safeguarding online
The online world provides opportunities for children and young people with SEND to explore, learn, interact and socialise in ways that can be more accessible to them than their offline world. 

But the online world can pose risks and cause harm. For example, although children and young people might be chronologically old enough to have social media accounts, they may not be at the appropriate developmental stage. 

When discussing online safety, you need to be more creative in how you explain issues to children and young people with SEND. For example, you may need to be more visual, reinforce messages more often or use more examples.

Safety messages must be accessible to all children and young people. Using specially adapted software for Deaf or visually impaired pupils is vital for safety and you also need to ensure children and young people know how to report any concerns or worries they have when online.

Working with parents and carers
If you’re a professional working with children and young people with SEND, building relationships with parents and carers is vital. However, you should not speak to parents or carers if you think this might put the child at additional risk. If you work in a school or academy, or you volunteer with SEND children and young people, you should talk to the nominated child protection lead if you think parents or carers need additional support to provide safe and loving care for their child. 

You might not see some parents or carers every day, so be creative in your communication and maintain regular contact via emails, phone calls, home diaries and inviting them into school/club etc when possible. Tell parents and carers what strategies you use, so they can continue to use them at home. Share any concerns you have with them and give them the opportunity to share their concerns with you.

You can help to empower parents and carers by sharing information about what works, letting them know what support they might be eligible for, helping with a referral process and giving them an informed choice.

Creating a safe culture
Everyone who educates, cares for, or works with children and young people with additional needs is responsible for ensuring a safe culture, in which all children have a voice and feel that they can speak to trusted adults if they are worried about something. Children and young people who have special educational needs and disabilities, may have additional vulnerabilities and barriers to speaking out, so we all need to be even more vigilant and proactive. Together we can make the UK a safer place for all children and young people.

Karen Childs Smith
+ posts

Karen Childs Smith is Head of Knowledge and Information at the NSPCC. She manages the NSPCC’s knowledge and information services, which includes the UK’s specialist library on child protection.

Website: Children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) | NSPCC Learning
Twitter: @NSPCCLearning



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here