10 Strategies for Social, Emotional and Mental Health Students

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Helen Woodley

Helen Woodley is a primary trained SENDCo currently working in a large KS1-4 Pupil Referral Unit in the North East of England. She spent 3 years studying Theology in Durham; Helen has worked in a wide variety of special school settings, including all age schools....
Read more about Helen Woodley

How do you teach learners with social, emotional and mental health (SEMH) needs?

Here are my 10 top tips for working with students with social, emotional and mental health.

10. Relationships

Many of these young people have had difficulties forming relationships at home and at school.

They may have underlying attachment needs or have learnt that you get nowhere in life if you show anything remotely ‘soft’ to an adult. Go gently, take your time, but build that relationship of trust. You are going to get nowhere teaching a GCSE set text without it.

9. Boundaries

SEMH learners love boundaries! You might mistake that rebellious nature as a disregard for them, but you would be wrong.

A lot of that pushing and fighting against is to see if you mean business; a test to see if you mean what you say.

As long as your boundaries are fair and consistent, keep going.

8. Change Of Face

Knowing when to walk away and let a colleague take over is a skill. Don’t see it as backing down because you are not engaged in a battle. The learner needs you to be the emotionally stable person and you simply can’t take anything they say or do personally.

7. Holistic View

Join the dots up about the learner. If they are acting out of character, try and find out why. It could be a change of taxi driver or a new coat; it could be a larger issue like the prospect of a new sibling – either can cause dramatic reactions and these young people don’t have the skills to cope with and regulate their emotional responses. If you understand them fully then you are better placed to help them.

6. Restorative Justice

The visible behaviour that SEMH learners display mustn’t be covered over with the ‘poor bairn’ approach. This means we don’t do the young person any favours to say, ‘she’s had a really hard time, the poor kiddy’ whilst letting them repeatedly throw a pen off their friend’s head. We have to prepare SEMH learners to live as adults in the real world and we know how hard that can be even when you are emotionally stable and feel secure! Restorative justice actually supports the learner to identify their own faults and work out how to ‘put things right’.

5. Recycling

Not in terms of being green, but a recycling of strategies.

You need a deep bag of ideas and if the current successful strategy begins to fail, don’t bin it but save it to be used later.

You can often end up returning to past strategies and find that they ‘work’ again so the key thing is not to think that they have failed, they might just be failing at the moment.

4. Resilience

When an SEMH learner calls you the worst thing possible (and I have been called every name under the sun, plus some very creative phrases) don’t take it personally. For some SEMH learners it is an automatic defence and self-protection strategy; for others it’s a test to see how you cope for the expectation will be that you won’t carry on being there; for others it is simply the normal way they communicate within their home environment.  Try and empathise.

3. Fresh Start

Try and make every day a fresh start. Ensure that, where possible, any consequences happen on the day they were given and that the learner knows that tomorrow is a new day. Sounds simple but imagine the opposite where you are walking to school not knowing how you will be treated. We’ve all been there as adults, we are emotionally more developed but still find it hard, so what will the learner be feeling?

2. Keep Your Promises

If you say that they can join a certain lunch club then they must join; if you tell them that they can play football at break then you must let them. This builds trust and encourages relationships. For those SEMH learners that constantly feel let down by adults, be the one that shows them that the opposite can also be true.

1. Be Real

Many SEMH learners are relationship savvy and know when you are being authentic or when you are putting on an act.

They will have so much more respect for you if they know that it’s ‘you’ they are dealing with. However, it goes deeper as it’s also a way of saying, ‘hey, I’m not perfect either’. Let them see you make mistakes (oops, I’ve spelt that wrong!), let them know that you find things hard (I always struggled with learning tables too), so that they can begin to realise that they are actually allowed to be imperfect.

These are my top tips, but there are many others that could be in this list – what would you add?

6 thoughts on “10 Strategies for Social, Emotional and Mental Health Students

  1. Solid yet again Helen. No surprise there!

    I would develop the new start theme a little into a deeper conversation on unconditional regard – sometimes mistaken for the wooly ‘poor kid’ mistake to which you allude. Unconditional regard is not about letting the little darlings get away with misdemeanours. Nor is it ‘turning a blind eye” – a technique which is really effective in the hands of a skilled practitioner when used in conjunction with the ‘catching the little buggers being good”. It’s all about positive reinforcement, consistency and, most of all, relationships. Building the positives until they are ready to self reflect without feeling completely useless as humans. Then they can learn to self regulate effectively.

    It’s also worth bearing in mind that many of these young people have experienced severe trauma at the hands of adults so why on earth should they trust us? Our role is to break that pattern in their belief system – the one which some children apply when relationships are developing in an attempt to scupper the ‘new (respectful) theory’ by way of destructive behaviours. That is to say, ‘it always goes wrong in the end so better to end it now by destroying rather than be let down and hurt again’. It’s also where restorative approaches are so powerful in splitting thinking from feelings so as to highlight that feelings are completely normal but we do not have to be driven by them through poor thinking.

    Unconditional regard says just that. Irrespective of what you do it’s who you are and what you could become that I am interested in – and always will be …. eventually, the vast majority succumb and start their journey back to their future unbound by the shackles of their troubled emotional disturbances.

    Great series Helen. Loving it!

    1. Totally agree with this and I’d love to develop this further. It’s about being able to totally accept someone. Not easy but so many of these young people expect relationships to break down that they almost seek it so to be a self fulfilling prophecy.

      Hopefully you will keep reading!

  2. Hi. Great approaches and really useful thanks. Last year we were fortunate and worked on a dfe grant funded project across five secondary schools to build students character. One of the strands was to improve students mental health and we worked with the http://www.llttf.com team.

    Their adapted CBT model has lots of useful tools for students to learn to help themselves – even helped me as a teacher! Would recommend it to anyone looking for a structured well resoursed toolkit.

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