Supporting pupils with SEMH needs

Understanding and supporting pupils with SEMH needs can be a real challenge. Adele Bates shares strategies to support pupils throughout the school day

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’...

Our pupils with social, emotional and mental health (SEMH) issues have unmet needs that they communicate through behaviour.

The challenging aspect for staff who work with them is that the behaviour can often be aggressive, violent, extreme, isolating, volatile and unexpected. However, what this behaviour is attempting to communicate is often a deep upset and vulnerability – commonly with safeguarding and child protection ramifications.

Understanding SEMH

A simple way to understand this: you may know someone (or possibly it’s you!) who gets grumpy when they’re hungry.

The behaviour = I’m angry, leave me alone. In contrast, the message = please feed me.

The outward behaviour can be perceived as negative, however it is a communication of an unmet need. With pupils with SEMH the unmet needs, and therefore the behaviours, are much more extreme.

If we do not understand our pupils fully, there is a danger in schools that we react to the behaviour e.g. the pupil threw a desk, therefore the punishment is X – rather than addressing the underlying issues long term – e.g. a pupil threw a desk because they are scared, they have experienced extreme trauma, abuse or neglect, or are suffering with a form of mental illness – the support is X.

So how can we support pupils with SEMH?

Safety and positive relationships are the foundations that will positively support pupils with SEMH. Of course, we are attempting to do this for all our students, however for ones with SEMH, if they do not feel that these are in place then little else is likely to happen.

Do not take it for granted that all your students have experienced a positive home life or positive relationships in their lives so far – for more information have a look at my blogs Safety first (learning second) and Teaching students with emotional, behavioural and mental health difficulties

What does this look like day-to-day?

Start of the day

Have regular members of staff ready to great the pupils on their entrance, preferably at the gate (whether this is at the start of the school day, at a later scheduled time or when they manage to rock up). Depending on the school size, choose two to three people.

Do not rely on one adult only – the day they are ill will be very difficult for the pupil when it’s not someone they know. They are likely to experience this as personal rejection. Have a couple of staff and rotate.

If parents/carers drop pupils off, it is also an opportunity to catch up with any significant issues. Often when a pupil with SEMH has a particularly difficult day, something has triggered it – a sibling has become ill and is in hospital, their care placement has changed, they fell out with a parent etc. The sooner school staff know this, the easier it is to accommodate their emotional needs.

In the classroom

Ask what feels safe for the pupil. Listen, believe, adapt.

For some pupils the hoodie on their shoulders, or sitting next to the door, may be what makes them feel safe. Whilst you may also have school rules to adhere to you can be flexible e.g. the hoodie can stay on for the register, as long as it is off for the rest of the lesson. Make the SLT aware of this if needs be and evidence their SEMH needs.

Safety and positive relationships are the foundations that will positively support pupils with SEMH

I work in educational settings with students who have experienced the kind of trauma that’s difficult to talk about, sometimes at a very early age. The fear they have around being in a room alone with an adult, being in a room with a closed door, being part of a large crowd, being requested to do something by an adult they don’t know – these situations can trigger devastating memories that they don’t have the capacity to understand (neither might we) and your attempt to just ‘get them to learn one quote’ will fall on deaf ears.


A tricky aspect of SEMH is that the child or young person's actual ability to learn is intertwined with their mental health and emotional wellbeing. This means that one pupil with SEMH may have high capabilities in learning, however because they experience triggers, lack of safety or mental health issues, the work they ‘produce’ for you will be far below their capabilities.

With one pupil I worked with I knew there was a history of sexual abuse by family members. The week that they were to meet some of that family was not the week to push them on their work and tell them off for laziness. In fact, that week I read them stories – the safe nurture during that time was paramount to practising capital letters.

I could only differentiate in this way because I knew the student well and had formed a positive relationship with them. Pushing them to work would be detrimental in the moment – the work wouldn’t get done and would be detrimental to our longer term working relationship.

SEMH pupils need constant reassurance that they are valued and worthy

Many SEMH pupils miss a lot of education (due to care issues, exclusions, suspensions, school refusal etc.) so again, it may not be a learning difficulty as such, but if you missed the lessons where you should have learnt subtraction, then you will appear to have difficulties in maths. Gaps in learning for SEMH pupils is common, and the strategies they develop to hide the most basic holes (for example being able to read) can be quite ingenious.

As a teacher ask yourself, how can you build on these self-taught strategic strengths to help them with other work?

Another SEMH pupil may well have learning difficulties in addition to their SEMH. As such, you will need to apply appropriate learning support for these needs as well as the SEMH needs.

Which subjects should you concentrate on?

Many SEMH pupils are playing catch up in relation to their peers. To differentiate successfully for this, strike a balance.

  • Check the fundamental basics – reading, writing, arithmetic. However, do mix this with engaging, practical, creative subjects – pupils with SEMH often have short attention spans, and will become unhappy and wound up easily if they are not offered.
  • The ideal is to teach all subjects in creative and engaging ways so that the pupils can access the learning. Remember, you may be battling years of them feeling like (or worse being told) they are a ‘failure’ in your subject.
  • Pupils with SEMH tend to be vulnerable to gangs and exploitation. Do not take them out of PSHE and RSE, or at least make sure they catch up on missed lessons. They may well be the pupils who need it the most. My article on RSE for SEND explains more.


Find out what the pupil needs to feel safe. As in the classroom, some may need quiet, indoor spaces, whilst others need to run and exert their energy. Offer a range for all your pupils with different needs, with adults present.

End of the day

As the start, have the same adults take the pupils to the gate or meet with the parents/carers. Highlight verbally successes of the day – you made it all the way through physics!  whilst giving a small idea of what they could be working on next – next physics lesson, let’s see you complete the first task.

Relay any significant incidents to home, whether in person or with a phone call.

Any other strategies?

  • Relationships, relationships, relationships – once you know your pupils well it’s easier to tailor for the individual.
  • Short bursts, sensory breaks – it’s easier to accommodate agreed time out than punish for pupils running off halfway through your lesson.
  • Key workers – a specific member of staff who meets regularly and advocates for an SEMH pupil.
  • Become attachment aware – attachment disorder may be an underlining reason for SEMH pupils’ challenging behaviour.
  • Praise, praise, praise – SEMH pupils need constant reassurance that they are valued and worthy. You can give them this.


Last Updated: 
16 Jan 2020