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How do you differentiate for pupils with Social, Emotional and Mental Health issues or Emotional Behaviour Difficulties?

Statistically, many of these pupils will also have other learning difficulties that need to be accounted for and differentiated in the same way as you would with other SEN pupils.

The challenge with these pupils, is that for many, if they are unable to access the work they will communicate that through negative behaviour.


Is the learning space conducive for these pupils to feel safe and calm in order to learn? I have written a blog specifically on this issue: Safety First (Learning Second).

Will sitting by the window help them feel calmer? Or will sitting by the door let them know they can always escape if they need to? (Doors can be a particularly triggering issue for pupils who have experienced trauma or abuse).

If you’re not sure – ask (and believe).

Have the conversations – is there somewhere in the classroom where you’d feel more comfortable?


In general, pupils with SEMH/EBD/ADHD can struggle with long tasks – give them the option to break it down even more than you might for the whole class.

I once taught an SEMH pupil in a mainstream class who needed this scaffolding. I moved them to a desk very near to the front; once I’d set the class their task I went straight to this pupil and, using a visual prop – a timer, broke the task down further, for example – Read the first question and write one sentence answering it by the time the timer runs through. The pupil was then able to do these bitesize chunks and get that feeling of accomplishment that was needed for them to continue with motivation. If needed, do this type of work on the quiet – the whole class doesn’t need to know.

Sitting at a desk for a long task may also be difficult for these pupils. You can add in breaks, whether it’s for the whole class (love a quick yoga stretch – recommend Adriene, who has free videos including Yoga for the Classroom!) Or you can build in a subtle break, for example ‘remembering’ that a library book needs taking back to the library half way through the lesson/a note needs to be taken to another member of staff – and give the task to the pupil who will benefit from a change of environment. They will have left your classroom – in an agreed way that suits both of you, and they haven’t got in trouble for it.


Pupils with distressing behaviour can be very challenging: aggressive, abusive and frustrating for staff to deal with – and this may need some differentiation in our own minds and approaches.

I have a great bucket full of a trick that works really well for this:


As I talk about in my Two Free Video Series on Behaviour it is vital for us to remember to see the child, not the behaviour – which helps us to not take the flying chairs and colourful language quite so personally… for more information on how to do this check out my blog Teaching Pupils with Emotional, Behavioural and Mental Health Difficulties. Or for leaders who wish to support their staff check out take a look at my blog Staff Morale and Behaviour Issues.


From a schoolwide perspective, how do we account for these students who are getting the most detentions and being thrown out of classes the most?

One idea, mirroring the key worker model is to have one member of staff who an SEMH/vulnerable pupil can check in with each day. They are not their teacher, but someone who can either support them in any ways that they need as well as advocating for the pupil with other staff (reminding them, that when it’s unplanned group work it might unsettle the pupil and they are unlikely to participate).

I once worked with a pupil who was displaying difficult behaviour in my class. Luckily, someone had already checked in with them previously – it turned out that the night before they had had an argument with their Dad, and ran away from home. They had not spent the night at home, and home didn’t know where they were. Rather than a severe punishment, we had a safeguarding issue to deal with.

As always – get to know your individual pupils, find out what works for them and adapt – it’s the best approach to differentiation whatever the pupils’ needs.

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