Choosing childcare for children with special needs

Finding the right childcare for your little one while you work or study can be a challenge. If your child has additional needs of any sort – whether a physical disability, chronic medical condition, learning difficulties, behavioural issues, communication problems or severe allergies – it might feel particularly daunting.

The good news is that there is plenty of support available. Local authorities in England have a duty to ensure there is suitable childcare for all families who need it. They must also have a ‘Local Offer’, available online, which explains the services available to children who have special education needs or disabilities (SEND) and their families. Childcarers are required by law to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to accommodate youngsters with additional needs.

Every local authority in England has a Special Educational Needs Coordinator (Senco), and you’ll find a Senco in every nursery and Sure Start centre too. Their role is to work with you and your child, as well as staff and outside agencies, to make sure your son or daughter gets appropriate support.

If you feel your child would be best suited to a mainstream setting, such as daycare nursery or registered childminder, the local authority Senco will be able to offer advice on how that provider might accommodate them. What’s considered a ‘reasonable adjustment’ is decided on a case-by-case basis, but examples might include new catering arrangements to support a child with food allergies, an access ramp for a child with mobility difficulties or finding space and time for a speech therapist to work one-to-one with a child with delayed speech.

If specialist childcare would be more appropriate, your local authority Senco or Family Information Service should be able to tell you about local nurseries and playschemes specifically for disabled children, as well as about specially trained registered childminders and home childcarers if your child needs care at home.

There may be financial support available to support your child too. Ask your Senco about grants or funding that might cover the costs of assistants, extra equipment, sessions with specialists or specialist training for your childcare provider. Check your entitlement to tax credits too, as the amount you receive may be higher if your child is eligible for Disability Living Allowance or is registered blind. And bear in mind that if your child has an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHC) they will be eligible for 15 hours of free early education each week from the term after they turn two.

If this seems like a high level of support, it’s because studies have shown that it’s needed. A parliamentary enquiry in 2014 found that in 72 per cent of families with a disabled child, one or both parents had cut back on or given up paid work because of childcare difficulties. And in 2016, the Family and Childcare Trust’s annual Childcare Survey revealed that only 15 per cent of councils in England had enough childcare for disabled children – a fall from 21 per cent in 2015.

Finding the right childcare for children with special needs may take extra time, effort and determination, but the benefits make it worthwhile for the whole family. The charity Contact a Family ( and the local groups that make up the National Network of Parent Carer Forums ( are valuable sources of further advice.

*Elyssa Campbell-Barr is author of Choosing Childcare, published by Cross Publishing. It is available from 28 May 2016 from all good bookshops and online for £9.99. The book aims to help you find the right kind of childcare to suit your unique family and work life. Comprehensive, independent and up-to-date, it is full of helpful tips, useful contacts and practical advice. Elyssa has been writing about childcare and education for over 15 years. She was editor of Who Minds?, the National Childminding Association magazine, from 1999 to 2006, and editor of The Teacher magazine from 2006 to 2014. She has written about childcare and early education for many organisations and publications, including Ofsted, Sure Start, Nursery World, the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (Pacey), and NetMums. As the working mother of a young daughter and son, she has very recent and relevant experience of the book’s topics.

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