What is a SEN support worker? (Including duties and skills)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 11 November 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

A special educational needs (SEN) support worker supports students with additional needs, such as learning difficulties, physical disabilities, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and mental health conditions. Supporting the health and well-being of children with difficulties in a learning environment is the main priority for SEN specialists. If you're interested in working with young people but don't want to be a teacher, becoming a SEN specialist might be an ideal career path. In this article, we look at what a SEN support worker is and provide tips on how to become one.

What is a SEN support worker?

A SEN support worker is a trained professional who supports children with special educational needs (SEN). They work with teachers, parents and other professionals to help children with disabilities access education. They may work in mainstream schools or special schools specifically designed to accommodate these sorts of students. They support the child at home by liaising with parents and conducting assessments. In some areas, they also support young people as they transition from school into further education or employment.

Related: How to write a support worker CV (with tips)

What does a SEN specialist do?

Alongside providing support and care to children and young people with special educational needs (SEN) and disabilities, SEN specialists also help with the children's social, emotional and behavioural development. The main duties of SEN specialists include:

  • identifying any learning difficulties a child may have so they receive the right support in class

  • helping children cope with everyday tasks, such as dressing themselves or eating independently

  • observing students' strengths and weaknesses

  • providing strategies to help and support each child

  • developing Individual Education Plans (IEPs)

  • tracking progress and achievements

  • reporting to teachers and parents on their child's progress

  • helping to plan lessons

  • ensuring every child's needs are being met

What is an IEP?

An IEP is an individual education plan that helps to outline the additional help and support certain children require. The role of the SEN specialist is to address the requirements in this plan and discuss them with the child's parents and other staff members. Parents may also work with the support worker to formulate the plan so they may choose what the school provides for them.

Related: How to become a support worker: a step-by-step guide

What skills do SEN specialists have?

Some of the most important skills and attributes to becoming a support worker include:

Communication

SEN specialists communicate with the children in their care and the parents of those children, which means they require good communication skills. Sometimes, sensitive topics may arise, so knowing how to answer difficult questions and provide support helps keep everyone calm. The child, both in and out of class, also benefits from clear and open communication. As they commonly work alongside teachers and teaching assistants in classrooms, it's important that SEN specialists are team players.

Organisation

Organisational skills are necessary for support workers because of the wide range of tasks they complete every day. Planning strategies for a child in advance helps to keep classrooms running smoothly without disrupting other students and the teacher. Some SEN specialists may have more than one child under their care, so they require the ability to juggle the individual needs of each child at the same time.

Problem-solving

A SEN specialist's responsibility is to ensure children receive the care and support they require at any given time. Managing several children at once requires good problem-solving and multi-tasking skills. If a child is struggling with a particular behavioural issue, problem-solving allows the support worker to work through it with them, minimising the disruption to their learning.

Interpersonal skills

Interpersonal skills allow support workers to get along well with others and ensure they feel comfortable around teachers when working together on tasks such as assessments or group activities. Empathy is also an important trait to have when working with children in difficult situations. Actively listening to the child's needs ensures they get the right support.

Computer literacy

Computer literacy is another important skill for people working in this field. Since many schools now use computers instead of paper files, it's necessary for employees who use these systems every day to know how to access files such as student records. Most records are now kept in digital files and require frequent access for each child worked with. Computer literacy is also useful for any research on certain topics.

Related: What is computer literacy and how to improve it in 6 steps

Legal knowledge

Knowledge about relevant legislation, such as special education needs acts, is also beneficial, ensuring SEN specialists understand their legal obligations when providing care services within schools or colleges. Safeguarding training is also a necessity, and any legal knowledge helps them see what the next steps are if a child's in danger. They then share this knowledge with other staff members to find a solution.

Sensitivity

Linking to interpersonal skills, a certain amount of sensitivity helps more vulnerable young people adjust to an educational setting. A key part of a SEN specialist's role is to understand why children act or behave in certain ways. Knowing the signs of disruptive behaviour and being sensitive to the child's needs often helps to diffuse a situation and find a suitable resolution for everyone involved.

Knowledge of educational settings

Understanding how schools operate is a skill that's often overlooked. Staying up to date with the curriculum of each educational setting you work at, plus any specific rules and procedures they have, ensures you communicate this clearly to children, so they understand what's expected of them. With this knowledge, you may also be able to advise teachers on how to adjust their lessons to meet a child's particular needs.

Related: Top support worker skills

How to become an SEN specialist

There are many different routes that potential SEN specialists take to become qualified and work with children in SEN settings. These include:

1. Pursue qualifications

Students may either do a degree in SEN support work or complete a postgraduate course in SEN if they did an unrelated bachelor's degree. There are also other routes available, such as becoming a teaching assistant first and undergoing training to take on additional SEN responsibilities. Many colleges provide diplomas in different types of childcare too.

Qualifications for SEN specialist roles vary depending on the role, employer and job description and aren't always required. Some examples of relevant qualifications include:

  • Level 2 and 3 Certificate in Supporting Teaching and Learning in Schools

  • Level 3 Diploma in Childcare and Education Early Years Educator

  • T Level in Education and Childcare

Related: A guide to diploma vs. degree (with potential career paths)

2. Volunteer

Another good option is to volunteer in local schools or with a community organisation that specialises in helping children with special needs or learning difficulties. This may also provide further opportunities to take on a paid role, such as a special support worker or teaching assistant. Some schools may even offer volunteers an apprenticeship place when one becomes available.

3. Develop the necessary skills and knowledge

Before working as a SEN specialist, consider preparing and developing specialist skills for the role. Various organisations produce guides and run training courses and events that may assist aspiring support workers. Depending on the educational setting you plan to go into, a particular useful qualification might be British Sign Language. Other skills to consider developing include:

  • an understanding of the meaning of SEN

  • knowledge about different disabilities and learning difficulties

  • practical skills of how to work and manage children

  • knowledge of how to help children develop

4. Apply for jobs

Applying for jobs in the local area shows you're keen to work with local families and the community. To find these opportunities, look online or check with local agencies that support people with disabilities or learning difficulties. These roles are very rewarding and allow you to build your interpersonal and problem-solving skills. Another good starting point is to look for regular care work. Most of the time, this involves working with the elderly who want someone to provide basic care and help around their homes.

Apply for jobs that match your qualifications, interests and skills. Some people prefer to work with older children, while others specialise in assisting younger students. Working with vulnerable children and young people is a demanding role that requires a lot of dedication and commitment, so only pursue this field if you're genuinely interested in a career supporting vulnerable people.

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