How do I choose childcare for my child with special educational needs and/or a disability?

Here’s some (hopefully!) useful tips on how to choose the right childcare for your child with special needs:

Where do I start?

There are a number of options when choosing childcare or early years education for a child with special needs:

1. Day nursery

2. Childminder

3. Preschool

4. Daycare facility

5. Specialist setting

6. Children’s Centre

7. Home carer

They all have different qualities and each will naturally suit some children better than others.

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First of all you should think about whether you want your child to be cared for at home, in a group setting or in another person’s home.

Minimum standards

All childcare providers should be registered with the government body Ofsted, showing that they have met minimum requirements for care and education. They are also given a grade based on how well they meet children’s needs. You can find details of the Ofsted grading for all registered childcare by visiting Ofsted.

Mainstream or specialist?

Depending on your child’s needs and your own preferences, you can choose whether to send your child to mainstream or specialist provision.

Specialist childcare is where the service cares only for children with special educational needs and disabilities. Staff will be very well trained in caring for children with complex needs, and the environment, equipment, resources and toys will all be appropriate for the children attending. Some providers will be attached to a special school or a school for hearing or visually impaired children and others will be managed by the council, such as enhanced children’s centres, or may be run by a charity.

For specialist early years services, such as nurseries or enhanced children’s centres, your child would usually need to be referred by a social worker or healthcare professional. Alternatively, the setting may be named in your child’s Education, Health and Care (EHC) Plan (see section 06 – EHC assessments and plans). If you have identified a suitable provider, and your child is being assessed for their EHC Plan, you can request that this provider is named in your child’s plan. However, places at good specialist early years settings are limited and they may have a long waiting list. Some families prefer to use a combination of mainstream and specialist care in the early years, depending on the availability of services and the child’s needs. 

If the service is Ofsted registered, you may be able to get help to pay for this through the childcare element of Working Tax Credit, Universal Credit, Tax Free Childcare or employer childcare vouchers. If the setting is named in your child’s EHC plan, you may be able to use direct payments or part of a personal budget for this care.

Speak to your local Family Information Service to find out about specialist provision in your area or look for details on your council’s Local Offer.

Where do I find details of childcare providers?

Your County Council will have details of registered childcare near you. They may have a specialist worker called an area Special Educational Needs Coordinator (Area SENCo) who can support you.

Norfolk County Council has a Family Information Service providing free, confidential and impartial advice and guidance on funded early education, childcare, home learning and related services:

Family Information Services

It also includes an online search facility called the Norfolk Community Directory: 

Norfolk Community Directory

It’s important that you explain that your child has a disability or special educational need, so that they can advise you about specialist services, local support and any additional funding for childcare that you might be eligible for.

Some Family Information Services can also offer brokerage. This is when it acts on your behalf to help you secure a childcare place. If you are having difficulty finding a childcare place, you should ask about how the brokerage service might be able to help you. The Family Information Service may offer to ring round nurseries or childminders that you like, come with you to meetings or support you in other ways to help you arrange childcare.

Other parents may be able to recommend childcare providers who are skilled and experienced in working with disabled children. They can also provide much needed support. It is important to remember though, that what might be right for one family is not necessarily right for another.

Group Settings:

Day nurseries, Preschools, Daycare facilities, Specialist settings and Children’s Centres

all offer a similar type of care and may be run by the council or by private or voluntary organisations. Your child will have the opportunity to learn and play alongside lots of other children and take part in games and activities that will help them develop and understand the world around them.

All childcare settings that offer free places to two, three and four year olds, must follow the SEND Code of Practice and if they are a group setting, they should have a named Special Educational Needs Coordinator (SENCo) who will liaise with you over how best to support your child. All registered childcare settings caring for children up to the age of five, must deliver the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS).

When your child starts at a group childcare setting, they will be appointed a Key Person who is responsible for planning their activities. This Key Person will keep a daily record of your child’s progress and they will share it with you on a regular basis with you.


A childminder can offer your child a homely environment. And this may suit some children better than a larger, noisier nursery. Childminders can care for children from birth, through to their teens and they will often be able to drop off and pick up from local schools.

Many childminders have had training that enables them to work with disabled children or those with special educational needs. They will offer the same opportunities as other childcare, but with the added benefit of providing care at their home, with fewer additional children.

Depending on your child’s disability or additional needs, caring for them may mean that the childminder looks after fewer other children. This could make their care more expensive, so you should speak to the local council’s SENCO to see what financial help they can offer you to pay for this. Local councils should have money allocated for disabled children to attend suitable childcare, to help cover additional fees as well as training or adapting a childminder’s home.

Home carers:

Home carers suit many families, particularly those with disabled children, larger families or those who work unsociable hours. A home carer may be a nanny, a personal assistant or, in some cases, a relative. A home carer offers you flexibility in your childcare, as you determine their working times and duties. Your child is in their own home, which may be necessary or preferable for some disabled children. Home carers have sometimes had training to use equipment set up at home and can give any medication or therapy that your child requires.

Generally, if you have a home carer, you become their employer. This means you are responsible for: recruiting an appropriate person; carrying out a Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) check; ensuring they are trained; agreeing terms and conditions; and taking care of their pay including Income Tax and National Insurance Contributions.

You could choose to use someone from an agency (including nanny agencies and personal assistant agencies), in which case most of the administration would be done for you, such as checks and payroll. If you use an agency carer, you may have less control over them and what their duties include.

In order to get help towards your childcare costs, your home carer cannot be a relative and they need to register with Ofsted on the voluntary part of the Childcare Register.

What do I do next?

When you have a shortlist of childcare providers that you like, it is worth visiting or interviewing as many as possible. Many nurseries hold ‘open days’ and ‘family fun days’ which can be a good chance to talk to staff as well as parents already using the setting. Most have virtual tours of their settings on their websites. Always have a list of questions ready, as it is easy to forget to ask certain questions and some subjects can be tricky to approach. When you get there, keep these questions in mind:

  • Do you get a warm welcome when you arrive?
  • Is the setting child friendly?
  • Is there access to outdoor space?
  • Do the children there seem happy and content?
  • Are you able to meet other staff?
  • Are they willing to show you around?
  • Do the staff interact with your child?
  • Are they comfortable around your child’s disability?
  • What adaptations would they need to make for your child?

You will also need to consider how well the childcare setting can accommodate any additional needs your child has. Try to speak to the manager or appointed Special Educational Needs Coordinator (SENCO) to find out:

  • What experience do they have of working with disabled children or children with similar needs?
  • What relevant training do they have?
  • Would they need more training?
  • What support do they offer children with disabilities and SEN?
  • How would they ensure that your child has the same play and learning opportunities as other children?
  • How would they approach your child’s disability with other children/parents if they have questions?
  • How will they communicate with you about your child’s progress and needs?

How do I know if the childcare setting is right for my child?

Wherever possible, always choose recommended childcare that has a ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ Ofsted rating and where you feel confident leaving your child. You will need to allow for a settling-in period and you can negotiate this with the childcare provider. Many parents build up the number of hours that they leave their child for, increasing them gradually. This allows for everyone to get used to the new routine and for the Key Person at the childcare setting to get to know your child, as well as undertake any necessary training.

In the majority of situations, with the right care and support, children adapt to new surroundings in their own time and are very excited about the new opportunities childcare can offer them. As a parent, you will know whether your child is happy and with regular feedback, you will find out how they are progressing. You should discuss any concerns as soon as possible with your child’s Key Person or speak to the manager.

What if I cannot find any suitable childcare?

Many local councils offer brokerage. Brokerage is when someone advises and negotiates on someone’s behalf. Family Information Services usually provide brokerage, which should include the following:

  • Support in securing an appropriate childcare place – this may not be your first choice and they may help you to widen your search for childcare (you need to keep in mind that good settings usually have long waiting lists for all children)
  • Guidance on local providers who have experienced staff
  • Assistance in contacting childcare providers, including telephone calls, arranging visits and discussing any adaptations or training they might need

Find your Family Information Service’s contact details here.

Despite the law saying that your child should not be discriminated against because of their disability, the reality is that many parents find they cannot find suitable childcare or that they are charged more for the care of their children. Your council should have funding available to support your child in childcare but parents often report that this is unavailable or does not meet their needs.

If your child is refused a place at a nursery because of their disability or special educational needs, and you have not secured a place through brokerage, you should seek advice from the local Information, Advice and Support Service (IASS) in your area. They offer independent, impartial advice on issues relating to disability and SEN.

To find your local IASS, visit

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