• {{searchSuggestions.title}}

Special Educational Needs

Special Educational Needs

A comprehensive guide to SEN: the acronym that groups together all the students who, for various reasons, need special help from their teachers.


SEN: Special Educational Needs. Recently, the Italian equivalent – BES, for Bisogni Educativi Speciali – has become the most used acronym in Italian schools. It groups together all those students who, for a wide variety of different reasons, find themselves having difficulty and in need of specific help from their teachers. Like Marta, disabled since birth. Or Gherzi, who has just arrived in Italy and still doesn't understand Italian very well. Giacomo, who's going through the trauma of his parents' separation. And Giulia, who's dyslexic and dysgraphic.

Definition and background

Historically, the notion of Special Educational Needs appeared for the first time in the UK in 1978, in the Warnock Report. This document suggested that there was a need to integrate students considered “different” through the adoption of an inclusive approach, based on the identification of common educational goals for all students, regardless of their abilities or disabilities. 

The World Health Organization has included the concept of special educational needs in its International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health, described as follows:
“Any permanent or temporary developmental functioning difficulty related to education or learning, resulting from the interaction of various health factors and which requires special individualized education.”

The need to prevent all forms of discrimination and to facilitate the full participation of everyone in school life also forms the basis of the Italian Ministerial Directive of December 27, 2012, entitled "Strumenti d’intervento per alunni con Bisogni Educativi Speciali e organizzazione territoriale per l’inclusione scolastica" (lit. "Intervention mechanisms for students with Special Educational Needs and local organization for school inclusion"). 

It is the most advanced frontier of a long journey that began in 1977 with Italian Law 517, which brought disabled children into the classroom and abolished the special schools to which they'd been relegated until then. 

Italy, the first country to do so in Europe, enshrined their right to receive the same education as everyone else, albeit tailored to their needs, and established the figure of the special needs support teacher

Since then, we have continued to make significant strides in the process of inclusion, culminating in a system so advanced that it is unique in our continent.

The different SEN categories

The 2012 Ministerial Directive identifies different SEN categories, including all those children and young people who have difficulties, even temporary, that prevent normal learning and require individualized support:

  1. Students with disabilities as defined by Law 104/1992: “Those with a physical, mental or sensory impairment, whether stabilized or progressive, which is the cause of difficulties relating to learning, relationships or work integration and is such that it leads to the person becoming socially disadvantaged or marginalized”;

  2. Students with specific developmental disorders, i.e. learning disabilities, language disorders or motor coordination deficiencies, as set forth by Italian Law 170/2010. Of these, SLDs (Specific Learning Disorders) are problems of neurobiological origin that are not related to any cognitive deficits; therefore, for them to be diagnosed, it is necessary for the child to have an average or above average IQ. Yet SLDs make learning extremely complex and difficult. The best-known example is dyslexia: children with dyslexia struggle to recognize letters, combine syllables, and understand which words they form. And in this effort to interpret what they see, students are often unable to capture the meaning of the text they're reading. Other disorders include dysgraphia (difficulty in writing), dyscalculia (difficulty in performing calculations, counting, arranging numbers in columns and in sequence) and dysorthography (severe difficulty in following spelling rules);

  3. Students that are socioeconomically, linguistically or culturally disadvantaged, as the directive explains: “Any student, whether it be on a continuous basis or just for certain periods, can exhibit Special Educational Needs for physical, biological or physiological reasons or even for psychological or social reasons, for which it is necessary that schools offer an appropriate and personalized solution.” A bereavement, a prolonged illness, a situation of material or educational poverty, non-certifiable learning difficulties, parental separation, an emotional crisis, or moving to another country, can all potentially lead to the manifestation of SEN.

How many students have SEN in Italy?

According to data from the Ministry of Education for the 2020-2021 school year, there were 268,000 students with a disability out of a total of 7.5 million students. There were 152,000 special needs support teachers. That's a better ratio than is required by law (2 to 1), but the real problem is actually something else. 

According to analysis carried out by Istat (the Italian National Institute of Statistics) on data from the previous school year, in 37% of cases, the special needs support teachers are selected from a list of standard curriculum teachers, none of whom have the training required to support students with a disability. 

In contrast, in the 2019-2020 school year, students with Special Educational Needs other than those relating to disabilities numbered approximately 685,000 (11% of students in middle school and 6.5% of those in primary school). Over half of these (53%) are students with Specific Learning Disorders. By contrast, 35% have difficulties arising from being socioeconomically, linguistically, or culturally disadvantaged.

The road to making the dream of "Italian-style" inclusion a reality is still a long one, particularly if we consider that (according to the Istat report cited above) only one school in three has eliminated all architectural barriers and only 2% of schools have all the necessary orientation aids needed to assist the blind or visually impaired.
And during the long period of remote education forced upon students by the pandemic, almost 23% of those with disabilities were unable to attend their lessons.

Legislation and certifications

In the Ministerial Circular 8/2013, which followed the 2012 directive, the Ministry clarifies that in primary schools it must be the class councils or teachers' groups that identify the cases where it is considered appropriate and necessary to adopt personalized teaching

Disabled students need to present a medical certification attesting to their condition. 

Specific Learning Disorders can also only be certified with a diagnosis from a psychologist, a neuropsychiatrist and, in some regions, even a speech therapist. 

Other SEN cases, however, are not identified via a clinical diagnosis. These are purely pedagogical difficulties, which is why the legislation provides for teachers to be able to identify such cases and address them with a Personal Education Plan (PEP), also known as an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP).

Action strategies: the Personal Education Plan

The PEP is formulated by the class council or teachers' group and signed by the head teacher, the teachers and the family. It includes all the modifications to the standard teaching methods that it is felt need to be implemented to help the student in question. The goal is to support the children and build on their strengths. 

One example is the use of so-called compensatory measures and accommodations: the use of support tools such as a recording device, calculator, smart-pen (which can help with taking notes using software) or the use of apps that allow on-screen text reading and dictation. 

Analog tools can also prove useful: tables, forms, and concept maps to help navigate more complex texts. 

If necessary, extra time may be allowed to complete tests or the amount of homework assigned may be reduced. Oral assessments can replace written tests.

All these measures serve to make teaching more inclusive – in other words, getting the teacher's message across to all students with the same strength and clarity. 

By no means is it about a less in-depth or simplified education. In this regard, we at Enel Cuore have also contributed in recent years to improving the inclusion of SEN students in schools, by funding numerous projects proposed by NGOs and non-profit organizations in partnership with schools.


Special Educational Needs and inclusion

Over the years, the words used to refer to disabilities and to education have changed. We've gone from the term insertion to integration and finally to inclusion. They are by no means synonymous.

  • Insertion suggests a process of addition: a student is added to a group and must adapt to how it works.

  • Integration, on the other hand, refers to an exchange between the integrated student and the class that integrates them. In recent years, however, the emphasis has been on inclusion. Nobody is inserted or integrated, because there is no standard to which someone "different" must conform. 

What is required, therefore, is a teaching process that adapts to individuals: all of whom are different from each other, have their own learning styles and, together, make up a real class. 

Some teaching methodologies are considered to be more "inclusive" than others: for example, those based on cooperation and peer learning, laboratory activities, experiential and outdoor learning, problem-solving and real-life tasks. 

The use of technology is always inclusive, as is the use of multiple channels of perception: auditory, visual, tactile, kinesthetic (learning through movement). After all, the most recent neuroscience studies have shown that there are as many learning styles as there are people. 

Diversity is a value, and teaching strategies should aim to ensure everyone's educational success.