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What do we know about military children with Special Education Needs and Disabilities (SEND)?

As highlighted in a recent workshop hosted by the Royal British Legion, the needs of military children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) is emerging as an important area for understanding potential challenges and needs for support in the form of enhanced policies and service provision for military families. This news feature therefore provides a brief summary of what is currently known about military children with SEND and offers an introductory context to these terms, current policy and provision, and suggests future directions for research.

Understanding SEND rates and experiences in military families is complicated. The way in which the health and educational needs of children and young people (CYP) are described and categorised varies amongst the devolved nations; whereas in England and Northern Ireland the terms special educational needs (SEN) and SEND are used (Box 1, [1] [2]), in Wales, the term ‘additional learning needs’ (ALN) is used, and in Scotland ‘additional support needs’ (ASN) is used [3]. Although how these additional support needs are defined differs across the UK, the consequences are the same; CYP with SEND/SEN/ASN/ALN are more likely to experience poorer outcomes relating to increased mental health difficulties, lower educational attainment, and behaviour and relationship challenges [4].

Despite this, internationally, there is a lack of research investigating SEND in military families [5], and even more scarcity in research that specifically explores military children with SEND, with recent advances in understanding of this topic in the UK largely attributed to grey literature. As such, this News Feature seeks to highlight what we do currently understand about military children with SEND in the UK, how their experiences may be nuanced to non-military children, as well as considering and providing suggestions and implications for research, policy, and practice.

What is different for military children with SEND?

The prevalence of SEND amongst children in military families in the United Kingdom (UK) is currently unknown. Current estimates of SEND in the general population of CYP varies across the devolved nations: in England, an estimated 17.3% of school age children have SEND [6], 13.4% in Wales [7], 36.7% in Scotland [8] and just under 20% in Northern Ireland [9].

Assuming that the rate of SEND is similarly prevalent in military children as it is in non-military children (circa 20%), approximately 36,000 military children in the UK may require additional health and educational support and be at risk of associated poorer outcomes. However, simply assuming that SEND rates are equivalent in civilian and military populations might be problematic, as is assuming that military children with SEND have similar experiences to non-military children: coupled with the challenges that accompany SEND, children in military families may face additional, unique obstacles as a result of the nature of military life.

One of these added barriers is increased mobility. It is not uncommon for military families to have to relocate frequently due to deployments or postings. Whilst mobility related issues are not just experienced by children with SEND [10], recent UK reports have demonstrated that military children with SEND may be particularly vulnerable to the issues arising from frequent relocation. Examples of this include:

  • Exacerbated psychological distress: Although all military children might struggle with the transient nature of Service life, some children with SEND may be particularly sensitive to it. For example, children with certain types of neurodiversity, such as Autism, often struggle with change and find it challenging to adapt to unfamiliar surroundings, routines, and social settings [11]. The Forces Additional Needs and Disability Forum’s ‘Families Fighting On’ report [12] provides evidence from caregivers of military children with SEND and demonstrated how a ‘lack of routine’ and ‘constant changing of plans’ often resulted in aggressive reactions from their children. As SEND can also impact relationship forming behaviours [13], building relationships with, for example, new teachers and classmates, may also be a struggle and result in disproportionate levels of loneliness and isolation. The lack of stability and repeated nature of dealing with change as a result of frequent moves can exacerbate these difficulties, making it harder for SEND children to cope with the changes imposed by military life.
  • Lack of continuity of care and education: Previous research demonstrates that mobility affects the education of military children with many already at a risk of missing and repeating certain parts of the curriculum [14]. Yet, for children with SEND, this risk is likely exacerbated given the additional support needs required to support progressive education. In some instances, relocating has even been a contributing factor in children missing months of school as local authorities were unable to find a school with suitable infrastructure and support to meet the needs for those with SEND [12]. Again, whilst this example may also be apparent for non-military families, the frequency and often unparalleled brevity of notice of mobility in military life complexifies this matter and can result in military children lacking support that their non-military peers may have been receiving “for many years” [15]. Examples in the literature show how military families may move with notice as little as one month, and that these families do not always have a clear idea of what their future address will be at the time of moving – or are yet to receive military accommodation [12]. The literature suggests that this contributes to and creates a vicious cycle: not having an address limits the ability to register a child at a school, and thus adds further delay to finding a suitable school place [16].
  • Difficulty when moving between local authorities: As a result of the difference in the way that the devolved nations define and describe additional support needs, the ‘formal action plans’ that are in place to support a child’s needs also varies. For families who are posted to bases in different counties, and indeed even countries within the devolved nations, disruption to their child’s care plans may be intensified. For example, in some instances, local authorities do not accept care plans from those outside their constituency. One anecdote from a military parent shared that due to having moved seven times in the first seven years of their child’s life, their child had to go through multiple assessments to confirm their diagnosis because different local authorities required different paperwork and assessments [16]. As previously mentioned, these experiences are not just limited to military children, yet the frequency of relocation that is often required for military families puts these individuals at a higher risk of not having the appropriate care plan in place. For families who move outside of the UK, this process changes again. For more information about this, you can visit this government website or visit Service specific websites, such as this page on the Army Families Federation website.

The wider impact of not supporting military children with SEND

Research suggests that not only do these challenges impact the Service child, but their family too. In a recent UK report, 48% of responding military families felt that the additional needs and disabilities of their child(ren) inhibited them from living a ‘normal’ family life [12]. The same report demonstrated that this issue manifested itself through parental careers including a lack of promotion and inability to carry out day-to-day job roles, as well as an increased burden of caring responsibilities – notably, this was not limited to parents and included the siblings of military children with SEND having to undertake caring responsibilities. Research suggests that young carers have poorer outcomes relating to their education, physical and mental health, wellbeing, and social lives than their non-caring counterparts [17] [18]. Parental wellbeing is also impacted by SEND needs of their children, and this may be especially challenging, both emotionally and practically, during times of deployment [15]. Thus, by addressing the support needs of military families with SEND, the health, wellbeing, and opportunities for other members of the military family are also likely to benefit.

However, as emphasised by Taylor-Beirne and Fear (2021) [5], familial ‘dysfunction’ is not always a result of having a dependent with SEND and not all military families experience SEND negatively. The Families Fighting on report [12] shares an anecdote of how the flexibility and support in workplace, namely from their Chain of Command, has allowed them to do their job better. In addition to workplace support, research from the United States also demonstrates that ensuring access to appropriate care services is a facilitator of parental wellbeing for military personnel with children with SEND [19].

Another significant issue faced by military families with SEND children is the lack of information and awareness about SEND within the military community and schools. Schools located near military bases may not always be adequately equipped to support children with diverse needs, which in itself, can lead to gaps in understanding and provision of appropriate services. In some areas, such as North Yorkshire, Wiltshire and Hampshire, there are a higher concentration of military children in schools [16] [12]. Identifying these hubs and exploring where there may be an additional need for problems including dealing with increased competition for an already limited number of spaces at appropriate schools should also be a priority. The Service Children in State Schools (SCISS) “Voice of Schools Survey” (2021) highlighted that “special schools” (those schools who cater for individual’s needs that cannot be supported with the provision and support of mainstream schools) were more likely than mainstream primary or secondary schools to identify SEND needs as their biggest challenge and highlights an additional burden in these ‘hotspot’ areas [15]

Additionally, it appears that ensuring staff in these schools are adequately trained to support children with SEND is key to promoting positive outcomes. Research has shown that educational professionals often feel ill-equipped to support Service children due to a lack of understanding about military life and the unique experiences of childhood to adulthood [20] [10]. If educational staff also lack training in identifying and addressing the needs of SEND children, the educational experiences of military children with SEND could be detrimentally impacted further. In some of these ‘hotspot areas’, specific community roles are in place to support this facilitation. A good example of this can be seen in York, in which a ‘Service Families Liaison Officer’ has funding to operate until 2025. This individual is dedicated to working with and promoting positive educational experiences for military families. Another example is the “Neurodiversity Navigator” role at the Royal Navy & Royal Marines Charity (RNRMC). This role provides a dedicated point of contact, primarily for Serving families, and acts as a signposting service to the neurodiversity support available. This is one of the only roles in the sector that helps families navigate support pathways that are available to them. This is funded by the Armed Forces Covenant Fund Trust, who have also funded a number of programmes aimed at “addressing the needs of Service pupils with additional needs.

Suggestions for future research

There is an estimated number of 121,600 children of Service personnel in the UK [21]. However, this number does not account for the children of ex-Service personnel. Often, military-related support needs exist beyond the duration of Service and thus it Is possible that children of ex-Service personnel may also have unique needs. Furthermore, the 121,600 estimate does not include CYP over the age of eighteen, who may still require additional support as a result of SEND. Increasing the age bracket to include CYP between the ages of 16 and 24 would increase this number significantly. Understanding the prevalence of SEND, and the support needs of children with SEND, in both current and former Service personnel, should be a priority for future research to help promote the creation of supportive policies and practices. Future research activities should also consider what is working well. Much of the research focuses on the barriers and difficulties of SEND in military children. Whilst a vital area to understand to ensure that military children with SEND are supported and not disadvantaged, research should also consider what enables and facilitates positive experiences for military families, such as the aforementioned role of the Service Family Liaison Officer. Exploring this would allow policymakers and those giving support to understand and implement processes and actions to best support military children with SEND.

Seemingly missing in its entirety is research that concerns the lived experiences of military children with SEND. Whilst the research landscape is growing and starting to consider SEND within military families, UK research is focused on perspectives of parents, those working with children with SEND, such as teachers, and a child’s educational outcomes. There is a lack of research explicitly exploring the emotional and wellbeing needs of military children with SEND. Understanding the specific experiences of this population, who seemingly face a double disadvantage, should be a focus of future research. Within this context, future research should consider the whole family effect and the impact on other family members including siblings and parents.

Although gaining traction, there is still much to be done to advance the understanding of experiences of military children with SEND. The current literature suggests that it is essential to improve coordination and communication between military families and health and educational institutions, as well as establishing ways for sharing information about SEND requirements and best practices for those supporting military children with SEND to help bridge the gap in knowledge and resources. Additionally, providing targeted training and resources for teachers and school personnel on understanding and accommodating how Service life may complicate the already additional support a child with SEND may require could contribute to more positive experiences for military children with SEND and their families.


If you, or someone you know, is a member of a military family and need advice, support, or guidance to support your/their child with or without SEND, there are a number of resources you may wish to consult:

  • Additional Needs and Disability: A Guide for Service Families – a guide designed to signpost some of the services and resources available, to help find the appropriate support and make life easier for families facing challenging issues.
  • Support services for military and defence personnel and their families – a list of, and links to, dedicated support services.
  • Education Advisory Team – The Education Advisory Team (EAT) is part of the MoD. They provide advice and support on the educational wellbeing of Service children, including special and additional educational needs and disability. There is a UK based team, UK-EAT, who provide guidance on statutory rights within the UK, as well as an Overseas Education and Supportability Team (OEST) which provides expertise for those overseas.


Many thanks to Lucy Vasiliou (Policy Officer (Housing and Education), The Royal British Legion) for providing a thoughtful review of this news feature.



[1] Special educational needs and disability (Send) (n.d.) NHS England.

[2] What does SEN and SEND mean? (n.d.). Bright Heart Education.

[3] ASN (Scotland) (n.d.). Mentally Healthy Schools.

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[4] Disability and additional learning needs (2020). State of Child Health.

[5] Taylor-Beirne, S., & Fear, N. T. (2021). UK military families with a dependent who has Special Education Needs and/or Disability (Send): A forgotten sub-population? BMJ Military Health, 167(6), 375–377.

[6] Special educational needs in England, Academic Year 2022/23 (2023).

[7] Schools’ census results: January 2023. (2023).

[8] Pupil census supplementary statistics (2024.). Scottish Government.

[9] Special Educational Needs (SEN) (2024). NICCY.

[10] Hall, M., McCullouch, J., & Lawrence, K. (2022). Service children in education: A review of the literature from five countries. Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning, 24(1), 53–85.

[11] Autism spectrum disorder (ASD). (n.d.). NHS Inform.

[12]  Forces Additional Needs and Disability Forum (2020). Families Fighting On….

[13] Disability and additional learning needs (2020). State of Child Health.

[14] Noret, N., Mayor, H., Al-Afaleg, H., Lingard, S. and Mair, E. (2017). The educational attainment of army children.

[15] Rose, C. and Rose, P. (2021). Supporting Service Children: The Voice of Schools.

[16] Walker J., Selous, A. and Misca, G. (2020). Living In Our Shoes: Understanding the needs of UK Armed Forces families.


[17] Joseph, S., Sempik, J., Leu, A., & Becker, S. (2020). Young carers research, practice and policy: An overview and critical perspective on possible future directions. Adolescent Research Review, 5(1), 77–89.

[18] Lacey, R. E., Xue, B., & McMunn, A. (2022). The mental and physical health of young carers: A systematic review. The Lancet Public Health, 7(9), e787-e796.

[19] Christi, R. A., Roy, D., Heung, R. and Flake, E. (2022). Impact of Respite Care Services Availability on Stress, Anxiety and Depression in Military Parents who have a Child on the Autism Spectrum. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 53:4336-4530.

[20] Atherton, G. and Satchell, L. (2023). Under the Radar, Service children and Higher Education in England.


[21] Ministry of Defence (2022). UK Armed Forces Families Strategy.


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