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How well does your setting support children with SEMH needs?

Are practitioners trained in SEMH issues and are you confident they react in an appropriate manner?

As focus in education shifts from academic outcomes to personal well-being, it’s time to look at how early years settings can help with SEMH

What Is SEMH?

SEMH stands for Social, Emotional and Mental Health, referring to a broad variety of special educational needs that children can have around regulating their emotions and behaviour, both alone and in social situations. These children often struggle to build and maintain relationships with peers/adults and have high rates of disengagement in school and other social situations. This is usually due to fear or anxiety and because of this, children with SEMH issues often need additional help and specific interventions and strategies to support them.

SEMH problems often manifest in diverse ways which can be difficult for others to recognise or understand and children may behave in ways that are extremely challenging. They can be aggressive, disruptive or uncooperative, or simply shut down and retreat into their own world, leaving practitioners at a loss as to how to help. But not addressing these issues can seriously affect the child’s future life, both inside and outside of education, which is why it is so important to be aware, and set plans in place to help early on.

Prevalence Of SEMH

According to a 2023 study on mental health in children and young people:

Approximately 1 in 5 children and young people (aged 8 – 25) had a probable mental disorder

Among 8- to 16-year-olds, rates of probable mental disorder were similar for boys and girls, while for 17- to 25-year-olds, rates were twice as high for young women than young men

Anxiety and stress can occur even in the youngest children and babies

SEMH Behaviours

Children with SEMH can show signs of:

  • Disruptive or antisocial behaviour (often a symptom of distress)
  • Withdrawn behaviour - including selective mutism
  • Anxiety and self-harm
  • Anger and aggression
  • Depression

The Government published a webpage to help early years practitioners with children’s mental health. It states:

“One common misconception about SEMH behaviours is the notion that such actions are deliberate or simply a result of "bad manners". It's critical to understand that these often represent a child's way of communicating distress or managing challenging emotions.”

This is the first thing to understand when dealing with children with SEMH. Behaviour is communication and the children are not being ‘naughty’. They are trying to tell you that they are in some kind of distress.

How To Help

Children need to learn to regulate their emotions and this ability is linked to many factors both in the womb and after birth. These skills are developed over time and are most successfully realised when the child is supported in a loving, sensitive and caring way by their main caregivers. Research shows, that when these things are not there or are inconsistent, the child is much more at risk of developing SEMH problems.

Research has also shown five key areas where children need help, especially in the early years. These include:

  • Social and emotional skills, attitudes and values
  • Social interaction and a sense of belonging
  • Self-esteem, independence, self-regulated learning and identity
  • Support to regulate emotions
  • Promote positive/alternative behaviours and reduce negative behaviours

Settings could also consider how they can address the above things at an organisational level by looking at:

  • The involvement of parents/carers and their families
  • Support for staff
  • Record keeping and monitoring

Importance Of The Key Person

The importance of the relationship between the child and their key person cannot be underestimated when it comes to children with SEMH needs. By responding to children in a calm, warm and understanding way, all practitioners (but especially their key person) can encourage emotional co-regulation, and help the children learn how to manage their own emotions and responses. This is vital if the child comes from a disadvantaged background where supportive or caring relationships may be inconsistent or lacking altogether.

Practical Solutions

When dealing with SEMH, consider:

  • Staff training – all staff need to be trained to recognise and respond to cues given by children
  • Safeguarding all safeguarding concerns should be passed on to your DSL and/or the relevant authorities as soon as possible
  • A non-judgmental/understanding approach – this is crucial so that children who are genuinely suffering from anxiety, insecurity or trauma are not labelled as ‘naughty’ or ‘trouble-makers’ which will only increase their sense of isolation, distrust and poor self-esteem. Remember that even if children are removed from traumatising circumstances to live in nurturing homes, they can continue to have problems well into their adult life through no fault of their own
  • Family context – the emotional well-being of young children is directly related to the functioning of their caregivers, families and communities and this needs to be considered when offering support
  • Adapting and personalising provision – many children with SEMH will need adaptations to the general provision in your setting. It maybe they need additional time or space, a visual timetable, or a safe space to retreat too if things get too much
  • Using praise – effective praise can help raise children’s self-esteem, but it must be genuine otherwise children will see through your efforts quickly. Some children with SEMH have such low self-esteem that they cannot tolerate praise, so try praising their effort rather than the outcomes – e.g. “you tried really hard there, that’s great” rather than “your picture is amazing”
  • Social stories – these can be used to help children learn about emotions through reading stories or drama
  • Emotional check-ins/learning about emotions – tools like the Leuven scale and the ‘zones of emotional regulation’ can help assess and monitor children’s emotional state
  • Modelling – if you want children to master their emotions, then it is vital that staff master their emotions too and remain calm and collected at all times, de-escalating situations rather than escalating them. Sometimes, ignoring poor behaviour and then praising the behaviours you want, works well – keep the big reactions for the good things!
  • Referral to specialist services – if needed, there are specialist services which can be employed to help with children’s mental health including CAMHS and diagnostic services for things such as ADHD and autism.

    Help for early years providers: Mental health for early years children (education.gov.uk) 

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