Teaching students with Emotional, Behavioural and Mental Health Difficulties

by | Feb 25, 2019 | Behaviour, Classroom Practice, Homeschooling/Parents & Carers, Inclusion, Leadership, SEMH, Teenagers | 3 comments

I often get asked ‘How’ I work with young people who display such extreme and challenging behaviour – even by fellow teachers in mainstream. There is, of course, no one stop ‘How’ but in this blog I share some best practices for working with such students both in specialist schools and within the mainstream classroom.

Firstly, some clarification:

EBD = Emotional, Behavioural Disorder/Difficulties

SEMH = Social, Emotional and Mental Health Difficulties

SEBD = Social, Emotional Behavioural Difficulties

SEND = Special Educational Needs and Disabilities

All are commonly used in mainstream and specialist schools, often intermingled and confused. The main definition I would like to make here is that students with SEND need support with their learning in some way, for example students with dyslexia – the pupil may have no behavioural needs. However, there are many students who have behavioural needs and learning difficulties, SEND. The students I will focus on here on primarily students with behavioural, emotional and mental health issues, but of course it can be an overlapping map.[1] For short hand, I will refer to them as students with SEMH.

The first three points I want to share in this blog apply to all students in my opinion and experience, however with students with SEMH the points can be so much more important – which many a teacher has discovered when they haven’t considered these points.

1.Create a Safe Learning Environment

It is important to remember that what feels safe to you might not necessarily be for the pupil. Pupils who have experienced trauma, neglect and abuse may have certain environments and situations that trigger them and put them into flight or fight mode – which may be portrayed to you in a negative behaviour that makes learning impossible.

You cannot guess every pupils’ needs. Communicate – ask, listen and believe.

Asking if they want you to sit next to them or opposite them whilst they’re reading can make them feel safe – in control of themselves. Listening whilst they explain why sitting under the table is a good idea for doing a particular piece of work, or why their bag needs to be on their knee. With SEMH students doors can be poignant – open is a place to run, closed stops others getting in – each student may have different needs. If you are working in a group setting it might mean honouring one student’s need for knowing their escape route by letting them always sit closest to the door and be the first to leave, whilst others who need to feel enclosed can sit in the corner.

2. Build Relationships

This is one of the Teaching Standards, and again is an expectation for all pupils. With SEMH pupils you need to actually do it and keep doing it, otherwise again you risk creating difficult situations. With SEMH pupils I have learnt (the hard way) that you really can’t take relationships for granted. Just because you got on fantastically one lesson that is in no way an indication of how the next lesson will be. These vulnerable students are more likely to be involved in gangs and crime. For their bad morning may not be that their brother finished off the cocopops and they had to have cornflakes, but that an older gang member threatened them with a knife if they didn’t sell the bit of cannabis they gave them last week. So as they walk into your classroom your great lesson on equations from last week that you are thinking about is far, far away from their mind. Begin every lesson with checking in on the student here and now. Adapt your lesson, or at least their work, accordingly.

Once I worked with a student who had been doing well in my lessons. Unfortunately, that day there had been an accident and the student was very angry about it. There was no way I could pick up where we left off. Instead we went for a walk outside. I talked to them about what had happened, how they were feeling about it and shared any points of advice I could. Interspliced in this I was able to do some basic revision of the topic we had been studying. I don’t think the student particularly even noticed I was doing it, just dropping into conversation ‘oh, what was that thing we looked at last week, do you remember?’ They were happy to take part in this disguised revision tactic.

The learning was still happening whilst I was fostering the relationship, ensuring the student felt safe and caring for them as an individual. In fact the learning happened because of these things. The student would have not let me do that otherwise and would have displayed negative, deflecting behaviour.

In a mainstream setting it might be about letting the student do a seemingly unrelated non-work task (sharpen the pencils, an errand to another place) initially, to allow them to calm down and not feel the pressure of extra demands – whilst you set up the rest of the class and this pupil is engaged in a task and therefore not distracting others. As soon as you can have a conversation with the student and negotiate a bitesize chunk of the work that you had planned. If things are severe give them the option of speaking to a pastoral member of staff.

3. See the child not the behaviour

It can be a tricky one to remember in the heat of the moment, but it is vital. Often it is incredible to remember that the student who has just broken a window next to your head/pulled the door off the minibus/smashed their own skateboard into pieces whilst hurling manipulative verbal abuse to anyone in the vicinity is in fact only 11 years old. They are a child, even the older ones are still classed as minors – for a reason.

A teacher’s expectation of a student can deeply affect firstly their own behaviour, and secondly how that student behaves. Specialist teacher and therapist Louise Bombèr observes:

“I’ve noted time and time again how troubled pupils seem to become further deregulated and agitated when the teacher is impatient, irritated, angry or even raging in relation to a pupil.”[2]

If you find you are unable to maintain this get support. There are certain pupils (and in fact humans) that trigger us in ways others don’t and yet the next teacher won’t feel that at all. Another useful exercise is to take the time to read their histories. My dad who used to work in a Children’s Home for teenage boys with behavioural problems, used to tell me that after a particularly difficult/violent incident he would spend time reading the boy’s file, he reflected that if he had experienced half of what some of these boys had experienced then he would most likely be angry too.

4. Don’t take it personally

This is absolutely easier said than done. One morning in an SEMH school I had said good morning to 6 students, each one of whom had either ignored me or sworn at me – and this was all before 9am. I had 5mins until my first lesson so I took a small moment to free write on it (See my blog Free Writing for All). I laughed, I had been getting offended, but in that small moment of reflection was able to quickly see that those responses weren’t at me.

In Buddhist meditation there is a practice of keeping a distance between a situation and the mind’s reaction to it. Never have I used the practice more than I am working in these settings – I totally recommend the meditation on it as preparation/self-care![3]

5. Be part of a team

 All of the above are nearby impossible if you are the type of teacher who goes straight home, rarely visits the staffroom and has no mentors/supervision. In fact, often staff who isolate themselves as a coping strategy end up on long term sickness and/or suffering mental health issues themselves.

The team is vital.

The first time I was intentionally hit by a pupil I was in shock. Of course, it was the first time. I had thoughts around my inadequacy as a teacher, questions around what I was doing and if I should be there at all…

More experienced staff – mostly the Teaching Assistants – quickly picked up on this and supported me. They shared their own experiences that enabled them to be good at what they do and carry on – enabling them to return everyday and put these vulnerable young people first.


  1. Dr. Jennifer Hawkins

    I found this article useful because it clearly and honestly evidences problems pupils and teachers have to deal with. It shows how a thoughtful teacher can develop strategies and also the kind of support that is needed for both themselves and their students.

    • Adele Bates

      Thanks Dr Jennifer 🙂

  2. Dr. Jennifer Hawkins

    I found this article useful because it clearly and honestly evidences problems pupils and teachers have to deal with. It shows how a thoughtful teacher can develop strategies and also the kind of support that is needed for both themselves and their students.


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