The tip of the iceberg: SEND, masking and multiple needs

Written by: Sara Alston | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Children can often mask their special and other educational needs. At the same time, schools can struggle to support those with multiple needs and vulnerabilities, often focusing only on the ‘visible’ tip of the iceberg. Sara Alston discusses

There are significant variations in the numbers and proportion of children with SEND in different schools. There are many reasons for this, but a key issue relates to the accuracy and effectiveness of schools’ identification of SEND.

The headline lesson from the recent report Identifying pupils with SEND, published by the Education Policy Institute (Hutchinson, 2021), was that a child’s primary school made the greatest difference to the chances of them being identified with SEND or not.

The report goes on to identify a wide range of factors that both negatively and positively affect the chances of children receiving SEND support.

The EPI report is clear that attending an academy reduces a child’s chances of being recognised as having SEND, as does attending a school in a local authority with a high level of disadvantage.

Summer-borns, boys and those from a Gypsy/Roma Traveller or Black Caribbean background are more likely to be identified as SEND. This leaves questions about how children are identified as having SEND and what support they do or do not receive in response to this.

All too often other issues “mask” and obscure children’s needs so they either do not receive the support they need or receive inappropriate support.


In my SEND work, I have regular discussions about children “masking” their difficulties. Most commonly we are discussing children, particularly girls, with an autism diagnosis or traits who behave differently at home and at school.

At school, they “mask” their differences and anxieties to try and fit in with those around them. Often, they work hard, attain well and appear to have friends. The school sees no issues. Therefore, they are not able to provide SEND support because from their point of view there is nothing to support. The child’s needs in school, as they display them, are being met.

However, once they get home, their behaviour changes. They have “meltdowns”, display obsessive behaviours, a high level of anxiety and even self-harming. Some may engage in emotionally based school avoidance.

A discrepancy in behaviour at home and at school is common and very difficult to manage. It can often lead to conflict with and frustration for parents who cannot understand why the school is not able to offer them more support. At the same time, schools can end up questioning the parents’ narrative and parenting skills.

Conversely, there are many children in need, including those subject to a child protection plan, where the focus of the school and other services on ensuring the child’s safety and wellbeing can mean that they miss their SEND needs.

There can be an assumption that any lack of educational achievement is a feature of their safeguarding needs and as such it is not further investigated. One set of needs masks another, so they are not supported.

The masking of children’s needs regularly happens even where a child has been identified as having SEND. Where the focus is on the physical needs or difficulties a child has with sharing and expressing their learning, we too often miss their academic ability.

There is an assumption that a child is low-ability because they struggle to express and demonstrate their learning either in writing, verbally or both. Many children with poor literacy skills, including those with dyslexia, are placed in lower sets regardless of their other abilities. Their difficulties with expressing learning are viewed as evidence that learning is not happening and can “mask” a child’s true ability and understanding. The support then is focused on a perceived rather than actual need.

Equally, a focus on children’s behaviour often leads us to miss their difficulties with learning or their abilities. Up to 60 per cent of the prison population have learning difficulties of some form – we must ask ourselves: how much of the response throughout their school careers was to their behaviour and not to their learning needs?

Their behaviour could have been a communication of their learning needs and difficulties with accessing learning. Yet the school response was to focus solely on their behaviour needs, not the cause of them.

At the heart of the complexity of understanding these children’s behaviour is a difficulty in seeing the whole child.

Diagnosis over need

Too often a diagnosis is seen as a “flag” to place a child on the SEND register, but the focus and provision then becomes concentrated on the diagnosis, often obscuring the child’s needs.

For example, many with dyslexia are supported using phonic strategies and this becomes the standard response in many schools, but this does not work for all children with dyslexia. We need to ensure that provision matches the needs, and that the diagnosis does not “mask” them.

Further assumptions can be made because of beliefs about the needs of those with a particular diagnosis, so that those who do not fit the expected stereotype of need are left without appropriate support.

For example, in many areas there are few, if any, school placements for academically able children with autism. This means that those with high academic ability and high levels of anxiety are left to struggle with inappropriate support as the focus on autism provision is for children who show a low academic ability and the focus of programmes for the academically able are designed around neurotypical children.

Equally, there are cohorts of children – e.g. EAL (English as an additional language) and summer-borns – who are over-identified as having SEND. These are children who for different reasons can struggle to demonstrate their learning, but they still end up on the SEND register.

It can be difficult to make the distinction between needs. Often, these children are receiving support and provision that is “additional to or different from” that made for their peers which is the definition of SEND support, yet often the reason that they need this support is not related to SEND.

At the same time, we need to be aware of the risk of assuming that these other issues are the root of a child’s difficulties and missing their SEND needs. This is a constant dilemma – to ensure that we are not missing children’s needs and are meeting them successfully.

A complicated challenge

The issues of identification of SEND needs are immensely complicated. The lack of access to educational psychologists, paediatricians, CAMHS, EAL services and other outside agencies means that these decisions are often being made by SENCOs and school staff who do not have and cannot be expected to have the expertise to do so accurately. This further impacts the accuracy and effectiveness of SEND identification in schools.

Without a secure understanding of children’s needs, meeting them is difficult. However, what we can do is to ensure that we consider the whole child and their needs. Schools tend to focus on one presenting need at a time – often the need that is causing the most difficulties and disruption in school. This is often exacerbated when schools’ provision is provided in different departments or through different routes, e.g. SEND, pastoral support, mental health support and safeguarding.

There is often insufficient communication and overlap between these areas, so that children receive support on a particular pathway which effectively excludes them from other support or identification of need.

Schools are often good at providing support for that need, but it means that we lose sight of the other needs. When you hear staff talk about the child with autism, the Traveller in year 8 or the Afghani in year 5, it becomes clear that they are focusing on and identifying a child by a single characteristic. This means that they are both losing sight of the child’s strengths and motivations, but also their wider needs. Neither the Traveller or Afghani have SEND due to their origins, but we need to ensure that their ethnic group or the fact that they don’t speak English at home does not blind us to the fact that they may also have special needs or lead us to assume that they do.


Schools often struggle to support children with multiple needs and vulnerabilities. It is a constant struggle to keep the needs of the whole child in sight. Naturally, in schools we tend to focus on the most obvious and clearest elements of a child’s story and their needs. However, by focusing on this visible tip of the iceberg, we can miss what is really going on for children.

We need to be aware that just because a child has poor attendance or has experienced multiple school moves that does not make them SEND, but equally we must not allow those experiences to obscure any special needs they may have and exclude them from the support they need.

It is vital that we remain curious about the children in our care and ask questions, so that we focus our support and provision to meet all their needs. Only by working collaboratively and communicating both within school and with outside agencies can we ensure that children’s needs in one area do not “mask” their needs in another.

  • Sara Alston is an experienced SENCO and safeguarding lead who also works as a SEND, inclusion and safeguarding consultant and trainer. Visit Read her previous articles for Headteacher Update via

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