Supporting the wellbeing of pupils with SEND

The busyness and unpredictable nature of school life can increase stress and anxiety, particularly for children with special educational needs. Nicola Harvey shares strategies to support the wellbeing of children in a special school

Author details

Nicola Harvey is a former senior teacher, author and now a digital mental health manager for a national youth charity. Her book, ...

Due to their diagnosis, environment and many other factors, those with SEN are more susceptible to mental health conditions. For instance, around 10-15% of the population experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their life (Kessler et al., 2012), whilst around 40% of autistic children and young people are thought to have at least one and often more anxiety disorders (van Steensel et al., 2011).

Whilst initiatives like Place2Be’s Children’s Mental Health Week help raise awareness nationally, and Anna Freud’s CARE Principle provides supportive guidance to school staff on ways to approach children experiencing a mental health condition, there needs to be more inclusive projects to support the diverse range of children with special educational needs.

Mindfulness in special schools

Similar to those in mainstream environments, in order to thrive in special schools, children need to feel safe, understood and engaged with familiar adults around them in structured environments. Using clear language, maintaining a consistent approach in accordance to their learning styles and creating a calm space in is key.

Research shows mindfulness to be an effective coping strategy for anxiety, reducing common behavioural, psychological and physical problems often linked with children with special educational needs (Hwang & Kearney, 2015) (Weisbaum, 2016).

Mindfulness can be used in special schools to help children learn how to self-regulate, improve focus and build resilience

Mindfulness is the evidence-based process of paying attention and being in the present moment without passing judgement. This may be through meditation or simply focussing on the breath.

A simple and effective way to introduce children in special schools to mindfulness is through the S.T.A.R. model from the book Mindful Little Yogis, as explained in my article on teacher wellbeing in a special school.

Breathing activities

Breathing is the core of mindfulness. When a child feels calm, their mind becomes clear and breathing is steady and relaxed. When a child experiences stress and overwhelm, their breathing may become shallow or be at a faster pace, potentially with a busy mind.

Deep mindful breathing sends messages between the brain and the parasympathetic nervous system for children to slow down and enhances a more balanced state of calm in the mind and body.

Mindful Little Yogis book features over 50 simple and themed guided breathing activities for children with SEN, detailing the therapeutic benefits and developmental skills gained for practising each breathing activity.

One of the activities within the book is five finger breathing – a great way for children to trace around their hands in sync with their breathing.

Image taken from The Calming Corner

For more guidance on this breathing activity, take a look at Dr Pooky Knightsmith's video.

The sensory system

Children with special needs often benefit from using a range of practical and calming tools to stimulate and soothe the sensory system.

The following table shows a range of mindful activities which can also be practised in both a sensory room and the classroom.

Sensory system Mindfulness activity
Visual Notice what you see when you blow bubbles, play with kaleidoscopes, look in the mirror and explore the room to choose objects that are your favourite colour.
Tactile Touch shaving foam, soapy water, playdough, theraputty and other items to notice the different textures.
Auditory Mindfully listen to meditations, music, experiment with sounds and notice what you can hear.
Smell Breathe mindfully through the nose (see activity above), notice different scents and if appropriate, try aromatherapy oils.
Taste Eat slowly, mindfully swallow food and drink and notice the taste and texture.
Proprioceptive (body awareness) Jump on a trampoline, play body awareness games e.g. ‘Simon says’, practise wall push ups and carrying heavy objects.
Vestibular (sense of balance) Do special yoga, go for a mindful walk barefoot, climb a climbing frame and swing on a sensory swing.

Emotional regulation

Mindfulness enables children to develop self-awareness in the present moment. As they become more grounded, children may notice or experience their emotions and feelings more meaningfully, which can at times be difficult for them to process and regulate.

Emotional literacy and awareness are essential to help children build resilience and provide a foundation for emotional regulation.

The Zones of Regulation

The Zones of Regulation, developed by Leah M. Kuyper (2011) uses colour-coded resources to help children visually represent and label their emotions.

The main message of the Zones is that ‘it’s okay to be in the different zones e.g. feeling blue (tired) or red (angry), but what can you do to get back (regulate) into the green zone when you’re ready? (e.g. go for a mindful walk, drink some water).

With regular use of the Zones, children become more aware of their emotions and impulses. In turn they can manage their sensory needs and this gradually improves their ability to solve conflicts. 

One breath at a time

Mindfulness can be used in special schools to help children learn how to self-regulate, improve focus and build resilience.

With regular practise, children (and the adults around them) will begin to notice that when they start to breathe mindfully, they have everything inside of them to be in the present moment, which will help them navigate their way through life’s ups and downs.

Useful apps

  • Smiling Mind app - body scan meditations to help children develop the awareness of what’s happening in their bodies. Learning about what’s happening in your body is one of the first steps of an authentic mindfulness practice.
  • Headspace (for kids) - this app teaches parents and children together about meditation for different age levels. They focus on calm, kindness, and bedtime.
  • Insight Timer - this app is free with meditations for parents and children. They focus on relaxation, managing stress, concentration and sleep.

Websites

  • Special Needs Jungle - parent-led information, resources and informed opinion about children and young people with special educational needs.
  • Mindfulness in Schools - mindfulness training for schools and practitioners.
  • Mind Space - mindfulness resources, meditation scripts and app to bring mindfulness and meditation into children’s lives.
  • Cosmic Kids - yoga and mindfulness videos, training and meditations.
  • nasen - resources, training, advice and information to enable staff to meet the needs of pupils with learning differences.
  • Schools in Mind - sharing practical, academic and clinical expertise regarding the wellbeing and mental health issues that affect schools. 
  • ELSA - wellbeing training to support children with their emotional literacy, create social stories and building therapeutic strengths.
Last Updated: 
25 Feb 2020