Disability and illness

Children with significant mental health problems may fall within the definition of disability. In addition, children who have other disabilities have a much greater chance of developing mental health problems.

All children with a disability are protected by the Equality Act 2010; statutory guidance for schools on meeting the needs of children with a disability can be found in the SEND (special educational needs and disability) code of practice.

Having a disability might also place limits on learning and restrict what children can do and how much they can join in activities. Sometimes, children with disabilities are seen as different by their classmates and this can increase feelings of isolation and lead to exclusion from play groups and friendships.

The Equality Act 2010 defines disability as ‘…a physical or mental impairment which has a long-term and substantial adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities’. 

In this definition, ‘long term’ is defined as ‘a year or more’ and ‘substantial’ is defined as ‘more than minor or trivial’. Disability incorporates a wide range of conditions, including mental health problems, learning disabilities, sensory conditions, physical disabilities such as hearing and visual difficulties, and long-term illnesses.

Children with learning disabilities

Learning disabilities affect a child’s ability to learn, understand and do things compared to other children. Like any other child, children with learning disabilities can make progress – but they may need adjustments to help them achieve their potential and they may learn more slowly.

Children with a learning disability are also highly likely to meet the criteria for SEND (special educational needs and disability)

It is important to note that having a learning disability is not the same as having a mental health problem. Mencap explains the difference well. However, children with learning disabilities have a much higher chance of also developing mental health difficulties. They are:

  • Eight times more likely to have attention deficit and hyperactivity condition.
  • Six times more likely to have a conduct disorder.
  • Four times more likely to have a diagnosable emotional mental health problem.
  • Three times more likely to have psychosis as they move into adolescence/early adult years.
  • Nearly twice as likely to have depression.

Despite this, mental health issues are often not identified and supported in children with a learning disability, as symptoms are frequently mistaken for being part of their learning disability. 

Children with physical disabilities

Under the Equality Act, disability includes children who have physical disabilities such as sensory impairments (e.g. affecting sight or hearing) and long-term health conditions such as asthma, diabetes, epilepsy and cancer.

Children and young people with such conditions do not necessarily have SEND (special educational needs and disability), but there is a significant overlap between these children with disabilities and those with SEND.

Find out more about learning and physical disabilities

MindEd is a free educational e-learning resource for professionals on children and young people’s mental health. Resources can be used for individual professional training as well as prompting wider staff discussion. These sessions aim to help staff better understand learning disabilities:

What schools can do

  • Schools have a number of legal responsibilities towards disabled They have a responsibility to:
    • Advance equality and foster good relations between disabled children and their peers.
    • Adapt their teaching to respond to the strengths and needs of all pupils.
    • Not directly or indirectly discriminate against, harass or victimise children with disabilities through school practice.
    • Make reasonable adjustments (e.g. extra support, aids and services) to make sure children with disabilities are not at a substantial disadvantage compared with their peers.

Supporting children with disabilities

Supporting children with disabilities should involve: 

  • A whole-school respectful, inclusive and supportive environment – where all children feel included and that they belong; staff and pupils seeing the whole child, not just the disability or illness.
  • Ongoing assessment of the strengths and needs of each child; assessing, planning, adjusting, reviewing and re-adjusting activity and plans.
  • Class teachers being at the heart of this ongoing review supported by the advice of the SEND lead where necessary.
  • Good engagement and liaison with parents, carers and the child exploring and reviewing strengths and needs.
  • Considering a wide range of learning approaches (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, etc.) when designing lessons. 
  • Having the highest expectations and aspiration for all children – driven by leadership, clear planning and a shared vision.
  • Paying attention to children with disabilities’ social and emotional skills, such as self-esteem, confidence, resilience, as well as their overall mental health; being alert for early signs of deterioration and mobilising protective factors.
  • Considering the use of classroom inclusive activities, circle time and buddying.
  • Supporting children, where needed, with strategies for engaging in play with peers.
  • Understanding that some children will need a little extra help through support, focused learning groups, one-to-one support, specialist equipment, pastoral care/school counselling, school nurses or through referral to community-based support.

Other useful information on children with disabilities

If you know of other good quality primary school resources for long-term conditions and disabilities, please mhs@annafreud.org

Resources

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KidsMatter - Disability and children's mental health

KidsMatter - Disability and children's mental health

Information and advice on supporting children with disabilities.

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Family Lives helpline

Family Lives helpline

Confidential and free helpline offering advice, guidance and support on any aspect of parenting and...

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No child with cancer left out report

No child with cancer left out report

A report that helps schools understand the impact of cancer on children in primary schools.

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  • CLIC Sargent

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MindEd: chronic disability and child carers

MindEd is a free educational resource on children and young people's mental health for all adults.

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Childline helpline

Childline helpline

Free online messaging, counselling and helpline service for children.

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Childline toolbox

Childline toolbox

Toolbox of games and activities (e.g. a wall of expression) which help children articulate how they...

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Talking to primary school children about cancer

Talking to primary school children about cancer

A factsheet with information and advice on how to talk to children about their classmate having...

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  • CLIC Sargent/ Essex Local Offer

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Returning to school: Primary school children with cancer

Returning to school: Primary school children with cancer

A factsheet with information and advice on what to do if a child in a class has cancer.

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  • CLIC Sargent/ Essex Local Offer

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