Navigating the system: part 1

special ed

If you suspect your child might have a developmental delay or learning difficulty, where do you go for help? In Part 1 of our two-part article, Paula Galey explains where to begin to seek assistance.

As a parent, it can be worrying when you begin to notice a disparity between your child’s development and those of children of a similar age. While every child learns at different rates and in different manners, parents are acutely aware of that niggling feeling when their child’s behaviour, learning, or development seems to be vastly different to their peers. It is therefore reassuring to know that there is a wealth of expertise and support available for families and children experiencing challenges in a particular area. However, it can be a daunting process to negotiate the myriad organisations available to assist in addressing these issues.

Inclusive education

New Zealand schools adhere to an inclusive education philosophy. This decrees that ALL children are welcomed into a regular class in their local school, and are supported to learn and participate in all aspects of school life alongside their peers. The principles behind inclusive education advocate that human diversity is respected, and that children’s abilities and strengths are recognised while their learning needs are addressed and responded to. It promotes an education system that is responsive to the uniqueness of each student rather than expecting children to fit into a one-size-fits-all model of teaching and learning. The Ministry of Education provides Special Education services which are available to support children experiencing challenges to access the curriculum by providing the extra help or specialised equipment and materials needed to adapt learning programmes and environments.


If you are concerned about your preschool-aged child’s development and they are attending an early childhood learning centre or kohanga reo, your first port of call should be to discuss your concerns with the teacher. These educators are familiar with children of this age group, and will be able to confirm whether your concerns are justified or if your child falls within the range of typical development. They are also the best people to refer your child to services that can access support for your child and put in place interventions in these early years. If your child is not enrolled in a preschool educational setting, you will need to contact the Ministry of Education’s Special Education team directly and talk to someone in the Early Intervention Team. You can also discuss your concerns with your GP or Plunket nurse, who will make the relevant referrals for you if they deem it necessary. If you are referred to the Early Intervention Team, an advisor will meet with your family and develop a plan to assist your child. This may involve getting support from other services such as audiologists, physiotherapists, dietitians, or occupational or speech therapists.

School kids

If you or your child’s teacher are concerned about your child’s development, learning, behaviour, or communication skills, the Special Educational Needs Coordinator (SENCO) of the school will be able to access help for you. A SENCO is responsible for implementing the school’s education policy and coordinates the services that students need. Each school is provided a Special Education Grant (SEG) that can be used to help them meet the needs of their students. The school community has ownership of
how the funding is used to improve children’s learning and behavioural outcomes. Schools are encouraged to use this funding to improve the learning and behaviour of children who do not qualify for funding under other special education initiatives. The use of these funds should align with each school’s individual special education policy.

The process

Once your concerns have been discussed and the SENCO or your child’s educational provider is sure that no current school-based programmes can assist your child, they will make a referral to the most relevant Special Education team. They will assess your child’s learning needs and then work collaboratively
with you and the school to identify whether your child needs extra support and the type of support required. This will be discussed with your family and your child’s education provider, and then an Individual Education Plan (IEP) will be written.

What is an IEP?

An IEP is a written plan formulated during a meeting between parents, teachers, specialists, and support staff such as Teacher Aides. It outlines how your child’s educational needs will be met and includes goals, programmes, or strategies to be implemented, and the resources and support needed to meet those goals. It also details who is responsible for each aspect of the plan and includes a date on which another meeting will be held to review your child’s progress towards those goals.

What about gifted students?

Your child’s education provider is also required to identify and cater for children who have special talents or abilities. Unfortunately, though, these children often do not get the attention they deserve. The New Zealand Association for Gifted Children ( has regional branches which can offer support, advice, and guidance if you feel your child may be considered to be gifted.

For more help

Plunketline: 0800 933 922
Education helpline: 0800 622 222
Special Ministry of Education:

Scroll to Top