Children and young people with special educational needs can learn and do make progress. Teaching staff working with these children need to be highly skilled in observational assessment in order to identify the different stages of development and small steps of progress. It’s important that the teaching team have high aspirations for the children – and set realistically challenging targets.

The building blocks of effective learning are relevant across all ages and stages from birth to adulthood. The key elements are:
  • Engagement
  • Motivation
  • Creativity and critical thinking

A child with complex needs may spend many years working on engagement, learning to interact with people and objects in different ways. Another child may need support to access a range of activities, with the focus on motivation. Other students may need support to demonstrate and express their creativity and critical thinking.

Teaching staff in the Early Years Foundation Stage are required by law to report on a child’s learning and development across each of the three characteristics of effective learning. Some schools are choosing to continue reporting on these key elements to demonstrate competence and progression across all phases and abilities.

At this early stage the focus is on three prime subject areas of learning – communication and language, personal and emotional development and physical development.

Once these building blocks are well established, the child or young person is ready and able to focus on the specific subject areas of learning – knowledge and understanding of the world, literacy, mathematics and expressive arts and design.

Close observation and detailed assessment of needs will ensure that each stage in learning is broken down into small steps.

SMART learning means setting learning targets that are:


Specialist teaching staff are experts in breaking down a child’s learning into these small steps, so a visit to a local special school is highly recommended if you want to identify the building blocks of learning.