Supporting SEND pupils in safeguarding themselves

How can we help pupils with SEND be aware of safety issues? Sara Alston explains how to build their communication skills and the importance of listening to pupils

Author details

Sara is a practising SENCO and an independent SEND and Safeguarding Consultant and Trainer with over 35 years' teaching experience. She provides support and training to schools for special needs and safeguarding. Sara writes regular articles for...

The underlying school ethos to support children with SEND to safeguard themselves needs to focus on developing children’s skills, comprehension and resilience. At the same time the school needs to build and value both adults’ abilities to listen to and children’s communications about safeguarding.

Understanding SEND and safeguarding needs

There are training needs for adults working with children to develop their understanding of both SEND (what this looks likes and how it affects communication) and safeguarding. It is key that all teachers and support staff understand both children’s special education needs and the possible safeguarding risks they may face, both on and offline.

We need constantly to ask the question about how we would regard behaviours, moods and injuries for a child with SEND, if they did not have SEND. By focusing largely on children’s SEND needs, it is all too easy to disregard possible evidence or communication of abuse.

Equally a focus on safeguarding concerns too often obscures a child’s educational needs. To avoid these pitfalls, adults need to consider and evaluate the information about children and communications from them.

Much of our safeguarding system is based on children making disclosures, either directly or communicating through their behaviours and actions. This requires children to be able to identify, understand and assess risk and abuse and then communicate about it. This is a tall order for most children and even more so for those with SEND.

At the root of good safeguarding practice needs to be robust practice to support the linked skills of identifying and communicating about risk. Children need to not only understanding the risks, but know how, when and to whom to communicate about them.

The PHSE curriculum

At the heart of this must be a clear and appropriate PHSE curriculum, starting with work in early years about what is a friend and the correct names of body parts and moving through to understanding about healthy relationships, consent and specific safeguarding issues such as domestic and so-called honour-based abuse. This needs to be supported by work across the curriculum about how to evaluate and question information, both in the real and virtual worlds.

PSHE teaching needs to be fully inclusive within a planned sequence of lessons and reinforced across the curriculum. This means PSHE and the related learning about safeguarding issues is not relegated to the specific lessons or visits from outside specialist speakers. It needs to be embedded across the curriculum, so that it is constantly revisited, such as with our choice of literature in English lessons and work on probability to assess risk in maths.

At the same time, we need to ensure that this teaching is accessible to all and adjusted to meet the needs of children with SEND. We need to ensure that SEND pupils are in the room. Too regularly special needs support and intervention groups take place in what are seen as non-academic or low value lessons, e.g., PSHE so that the most vulnerable pupils may not be present for this teaching.

Listening to children

Beyond the explicit teaching of safeguarding, it is vital that every child has and knows that they have a range of ‘safe’ people they can share their concerns with who are willing and able to listen and take action in response to them.

Underlying this must be an understanding of how the child best communicates. This may be, for example:

  • skills to operate assisted communication devices
  • allowing a child to share their writing or drawing
  • listening as they play or engage in other activities.

We cannot depend on their communication being verbal or straightforward. We need to be particularly conscious of the needs of those for whom English is not their first language or depend on adults to provide the vocabulary on their devices. If you are not given the vocabulary you need to communicate, it is harder to do so.

We also need to be aware that for children with SEND, their voices can sometimes be drowned out by their parents views and communications. Close working relationships and sympathy can make it more difficult for professionals to challenge their parents and their point of view. Equally, parents’ role as their child’s advocate can mean that professionals struggle to hear the child at all, and pupil voice is vital for robust safeguarding.

Adult actions so children’s voices can be heard

Almost as important as the ability to listen and interpret a child’s communication is the time to do so. Children may not choose the most experienced person or the most convenient time or method to communicate. If children are going to be able to safeguard themselves, they need adults to value and understand their communications regardless of when and how they share them.

Key to supporting children with SEND to support themselves is the actions, understanding and good practice of the adults around them. This means that schools need to ensure effective joint working within school looking at each child holistically.

This understanding and engagement by the adults needs to be supported by work to ensure that children can share their concerns, are listened to, and have the language to communicate them. This must be based in a robust, accessible and effective PSHE curriculum embedded across and reflected in the whole curriculum and school ethos.

Key points

  • A joint working approach that looks at each child and supports communication between school departments and leaders is pivotal.
  • Effective training is needed so all staff understand the additional safeguarding vulnerabilities of children with SEND.
  • Reflective practice that regularly considers the risk of SEND needs obscuring safeguarding risks and vice versa. We need to think how we would regard behaviours, moods and injuries for a child with SEND, if they did not have SEND.
  • Have an effective and accessible PSHE curriculum that is extended across the curriculum and is reflective of the wider school culture.


Last Updated: 
19 Jan 2023