SEMH: how to support pupils with challenging behaviour

When social, emotional and mental health difficulties affect pupils' behaviour, we must act accordingly, says Adele Bates

mental health problems

“They’re the naughty ones.”

“Mental health didn’t exist when I was younger – they need more discipline.”

“I blame the parents.”

These and other non-helpful thoughts can sometimes be voiced about our pupils with social, emotional and mental health (SEMH) issues.


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So what could we be doing to better support these young people? 

They often have unmet needs, which they communicate through behaviour that does not seem appropriate for the situation. 

They usually have trouble, for a whole host of reasons, in managing their own emotions and behaviour. 

For example, a child is worried about the upcoming school holiday. In past holidays, they have experienced neglect, isolation, hunger and abuse. It may or may not happen this time, but the experiential trigger is in place.

In the last week of term, rather than making a what-I-will-do-in-my-holidays art piece, they throw equipment around the room, turn desks over and push another pupil up against the wall. They get excluded for a couple of days and banned from participating in art activities. 

This behaviour stems from unmet needs – the pupil may not be able to understand this or communicate it appropriately. The communication is often extreme, aggressive, violent and abusive, which is why it can be so challenging for staff. 

Behaviour as a symptom

If we do not understand the pupil and their needs, there is a danger that we will react only to the behaviour, often increasing the underlying problems.

It is important to teach pupils that there are consequences to their actions. However, only treating the behaviour is like only treating the symptom. 

Alongside a school’s behaviour policy, we also need to think how we support pupils with SEMH difficulties in the long term.

A healthier approach

A key adult meets with the pupil. They discover why they acted out and reassure them that it is OK to be nervous and/or angry but not OK to hurt others and destroy things.

They explain the consequences of the behaviour (in this instance, being sent home may not be the best or safest type of punishment) and learn more about the pupil and their circumstances.

The adult shares this information with colleagues and supports them to differentiate for the pupil.

We must not take it for granted that all our pupils have learned how to behave appropriately. In extreme circumstances, some pupils may have had to use violence/stealing/threats in order to physically survive a situation. To unlearn that and learn what is acceptable behaviour in a school may feel unsafe.

How can we support pupils across the school?

Becoming an attachment-aware and/or trauma-informed school is a good place to start, along with implementing a restorative justice system and assigning key adults for pupils with SEMH difficulties.

We should also adapt learning environments according to needs. This will look different for every pupil: sitting by an open door, not being left one-to-one with an unknown adult, communicating with a writing/symbol-pointing system, or having time-out sensory breaks, for example.

We should ask, listen, believe and adapt, praising pupils for positive behaviours (that they may not even recognise). 

Above all, we need to see the child, not the behaviour.

The person in front of you is a minor – even if they are a foot taller than you. They are still learning. Anxiety levels, mental health and past experiences may not be easily seen, but they can all affect the person you are trying to teach.

Help them to be safe, learn positive behaviours and build positive relationships, and ensure they know that they belong in your classroom.

Some useful links:

Safety First (Learning Second) 

Attachment Awareness in Schools

Restorative Justice in Schools

Adele Bates is a teacher, speaker, writer and advocator for students with emotional and behavioural difficulties. She tweets @AdeleBatesZ

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