SEMH: lockdown, transition and return

For pupils with SEMH, the return to ‘normal’ school life could be challenging. Adele Bates considers what staff can expect and how to prepare

Author details

Adele Bates is a teacher, speaker, writer and educator for students with emotional and behavioural difficulties. She is a TEDx Speaker 2020 and forthcoming author of Miss, I don’t give a sh*t with Sage publishing. With over 17 years’...

Since lockdown I have continued to work with pupils with social, emotional, mental health needs – it has been a completely mixed bag of fun! Some have loved all the one-to-one attention and thrived academically, some have enjoyed the online aspects of teaching, some have revelled in the power of being able to put the phone down on me, some have metamorphosed into nocturnal beings and some have, worryingly, not been seen or heard.

The very nature of SEMH needs means that these pupils need supporting with their mental health, behaviour and emotions in the best of times (see my previous piece on supporting pupils with SEMH needs). Add a pandemic and lockdown – often in home lives that are less than ideal, and we have a whole other set of safeguarding, child protection and health concerns.

Transitioning back into school

So what can you expect and how can you prepare for those pupils who are making the transition back into the school building?

Some of your SEMH pupils may be classed as the government’s ‘vulnerable’ and may have already been in schools in some way. I have heard of many who have enjoyed the higher teacher-pupil ratio, space, calm and less rigid learning styles that schools have been able to provide in these settings. When other pupils return, those who have been in school may well feel upset, over stimulated or frustrated as well as over excited and rebellious.

Make time and space to deal with change. Safety and wellbeing first, learning second

For pupils who haven’t been in the school building at all there will be a mixture of school and pupil expectations to manage. Some pupils may very much need everything to go back, as far as possible, to ‘normal.’ For some pupils, school is the safer, preferred space and so if there is too much change that will be challenging to handle.

All of this will have to be balanced with health restrictions and guidelines from the government. Remember that they are only guidelines, not law, and may not suit your setting or pupils.

We don’t know how it will work, and so there’s only one sensible approach: make time and space to deal with change. Safety and wellbeing first, learning second.

If we attempt to rush everything back to how it was before, and don’t take account of SEMH pupils’ needs, then there will be a reaction. None of us know how a pandemic will affect our society or mental health in the long term.

Practical steps to help prepare

  • Ensure all staff have access to mental health and wellbeing support – including SLT and headteachers – to help themselves and to help them support pupils.
  • Communicate, communicate and listen – we are all learning with this.
  • Have explicit learning about stress, mental health and self-care.
  • Discuss expectations.
  • Capture the positives from remote learning.
  • Ensure all staff have up-to-date training on safeguarding – there may be disclosures about challenging experiences experienced during lockdown.
  • Keep in regular contact with parents and carers.
  • Be human.

What will we need to do in the first weeks or month of return?

Firstly, welcome pupils back.

It is important that pupils know they belong. They (as well as some staff) may have felt isolated during lockdown, and unconfident now about being in social situations. A friendly, open welcome is the best place to start.

Account for this time in your planning, whether it’s assemblies, extra circle time, daily mood monitors – this will be the check in of all check ins. SEMH pupils often display challenging behaviour on return from holiday periods. The change of routine and expectations can be difficult for them to navigate; in addition they have been dealing with uncertainty.

Be understanding.

Discuss expectations.

Some pupils may need reminders of expectations in school, and they may need telling more than once. This doesn’t need to be in a punitive style – it is important they know that they haven’t done anything wrong by being in lockdown. It can be open, age appropriate conversations about change.

A useful resource of knowledge will also be parents and carers. Many of us working with SEMH pupils have found ourselves speaking with adults a lot more during lockdown and have formed strong connections that ultimately help the pupil. Find a way in your school to continue (or create) these links. Finding out that the pupil’s cousin passed away due to coronavirus might explain why they are struggling at school now, and are unable to articulate upset themselves.

How should we prepare for the next 3-6 months?

As we plan for the next academic year, the question will be regarding how we re-introduce an academic focus, especially for those Year 11 students whose two year focus on exams came to an abrupt, and in some cases unfair, result.

Remote teaching has given us some new ways of approaching learning. I have seen many colleagues easily navigate more individualised timetables for SEMH pupils, and in general it is these pupils who have thrived.

How could you capture the positives from remote learning for your SEMH pupils?

Find out how pupils have been learning during lockdown – do they have new skills? Can they now cook a three-course meal independently? Tie their shoelaces or mend a car? Use any new skills as a foundation from which to build the more formal academic learning focus.

We have seen many benefits of children and young people spending more time at home with parents and carers

For other pupils, who have not been able to follow any form of recognisable learning (past playing an Xbox for a record number of hours), consider additional support in helping them transition. Their concentration spans may have decreased, or their ability to communicate their needs or socialise with others.

We have a precious opportunity here to question the very nature of education. What is it for? How does it work best and for whom?

After spending time being forced to do things differently, now we can ask what we would like to do differently. This should be at a systemic level. For example, do all staff have to be in school at all times? We have seen many benefits of children and young people spending more time at home with parents and carers; how could this be integrated into more formal school learning? What is actually helpful to our wellbeing and focus?

The schools that dare to ask these questions and experiment with answers will be the ones that can thrive other unknown changes we may have in the future.

What about the other pupils?

As well at the pupils you have identified as having SEMH, behaviour needs or being particularly vulnerable, it is important that we remember that every single pupil will have been through something unknown and uncertain. We don’t know how this may play out. What we do know, is that when humans go through unforeseen change without control, there is usually a fall out in behaviour in some way.

So, expect the unexpected from all pupils (and staff), and make space and room for adaptation.

Most importantly, be kind.

Last Updated: 
03 Aug 2020