Why can’t they just behave? – SEMH pupils

by | Apr 24, 2020 | Classroom Practice, Inclusion, Leadership, Pupils | 2 comments

What is SEMH?

How do we differentiate for them? What is it like to have EBD? – and why can’t they just follow instructions and behave?

Our pupils with Social, Emotional, Mental Health (SEMH, sometimes referred to as Emotional Behavioural Difficulties, EBD) 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 – and yet what this behaviour is attempting to communicate is often a deep upset and vulnerability – commonly with safeguarding and child protection ramifications.

A simple way to understand this: you may know someone (or possible 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, and yet 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. they threw a desk, 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.

How can we support them?

Safety and positive relationships.

These are the foundations that will positively support pupils with SEMH.

Whilst we are attempting to do this for all our students, 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 Difficulties.

We must not take it for granted that all our pupils have learnt how to behave appropriately. In extreme circumstances, some pupils may have had to use violence/stealing/threats in order to physically survive a situation. To unlearn that and learn what is acceptable behaviour in a school may feel unsafe.

How can we support SEMH pupils school-wide?

  • Become an Attachment Aware and/or Trauma informed school
  • Use Restorative Justice
  • Have Key adults for SEMH pupils
  • Adapt learning environments according to needs:
    This will look different for every pupil: sitting by an open door, not being left one-to-one with an unknown adult, communicating with a writing/a symbol pointing system, having time out sensory breaks.
  • Ask, listen, believe, adapt.
  • Praise pupils when they do positive behaviours -they may not recognise it
  • See the child (not the behaviour):
    The person in front of you is a minor – even the ones a foot taller than you. They are still learning. The anxiety levels, mental health and past experiences may not be easily seen – but they can all affect the person you are trying to teach.

Help them to be safe, learn positive behaviours, build positive relationships and ensure they feel they belong in your classroom – then, maybe then, they will be able to participate.

Sign up to the Free Video Series for more ideas, scenarios and tips on working with pupils with SEMH/EBD:

How to manage challenging behaviour in the classroom.

I’d love to hear how you get on – get me over on Twitter @adelebatesZ or contact me here to book in behaviour training with me.


  1. Vasco T

    Hi there,

    Just an observation and from what I have heard in the community; a good number of student emotional and learning problems are due to not being properly diagnosed medical issues. At least those seem to be on the rise in our area. Plus, peer to peer pressure is playing its hand at certain behaviors.

    In the past and I don’t want to date myself, the local wrestling or football coach would take on some of those and would try to build kids’ confidence and self esteem up at early on and by graduation time, students would considered him or her someone who has their back no matter what.

    Well, not to bore you too much further with my rambling thoughts, I will close it here. Thanks for the article.

    Have a good day.

    • Adele Bates

      Yes – you’re right, we see this often too. The crossover between areas and misdiagnosis can be unhelpful – ADHD for e.g. and ACEs is often not clear too. Then on top of this, in mainstream schools, often the people working with the most challenging regularly – the Teaching Assistants, are the least trained and supported – which is a whole other blog…
      And yes, the PE, boxing etc. seem v effective for many – however we find they have to come with clear guidelines and conditions as to WHEN boxing is suitable and not!

      Thanks for your observations 🙂


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