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How to Address SEMH Needs in the Classroom

Posted on: July 18, 2023

SEMH stands for Social, Emotional and Mental Health. In 2014, the term was created by SEN Code of Practice to replace SEBD, which stood for Social Emotional Behaviour Difficulties — a move that was designed to recognize the direct link between behaviour and mental health difficulties.

Explore strategies for effectively addressing SEMH needs in an educational setting. This blog provides practical tips and additional resources.

what is SEMH icon What is SEMH?

SEMH refers to a broad array of special educational needs based on a child’s difficulty regulating emotions and behaviour. As schools, teachers and parents gain more understanding of the connection between mental health and education, SEMH guidance has become an essential tool to aid children.

Children with SEMH needs struggle to build and maintain relationships and find it difficult to engage positively in educational settings like the classroom. They may act out due to fear, whether because they feel anxious or they struggle to understand the environment around them.

That is why SEMH guidance aims to meet those unique needs through additional strategies and interventions not commonly found in the classroom. Children and young people with SEMH have specific needs and require additional strategies and interventions to support them.

Importance icon The importance of recognizing SEMH needs

Although SEMH needs often manifest themselves as behavioural issues or difficulty learning, they go far beyond these observable struggles. They are an integral part of a child's well-being and are linked to their ability to lead fulfilling lives both in and out of school.

Recognizing SEMH needs in children is an essential responsibility for all school staff. Ignoring these needs or leaving them unaddressed can significantly hinder a child's learning potential and overall school experience. For many young people, school is not just for academic growth but also a critical environment for social and emotional development.

When staff are equipped with the knowledge and skills to spot and support SEMH needs, they can proactively prevent escalation and create an inclusive, supportive learning environment where children feel safe to explore, make mistakes and, most importantly, learn.

Early recognition of SEMH needs is key. The earlier the school staff identify these requirements, the sooner they can implement appropriate interventions and strategies. Recognising these needs as soon as possible can help children build resilience, develop coping mechanisms and ultimately reach their full academic and social potential.

Furthermore, a child who feels understood and supported at school is more likely to engage positively with their peers, teaching staff and the learning process itself.

Get your Language for Behaviour and Emotions Toolkit

Language for Behaviour and Emotions Toolkit

This free guide includes a list of language and communication needs associated with SEMH, as well as tips to create a communication and emotion-friendly environment for positive relationships. It is suitable for use with children aged 8-16. It includes sample activities, worksheets and resources and is taken from Language for Behaviour and Emotions: A Practical Guide to Working with Children and Young People by Anna Branagan, Melanie Cross and Stephen Parsons.

Get your free Toolkit >


What are the causes of SEMH needs?

Individual experiences of SEMH vary widely, as they arise for different reasons. Life events, trauma, genetic factors, family dynamics and various environments contribute to these difficulties and should all be considered as potential underlying causes.

Some triggers can be overt, such as a life event that disrupts the family dynamic. The introduction of a new sibling or a death in the family, for instance, may create an emotional upheaval that manifests as SEMH difficulties. However, some reasons may often be less obvious, requiring adults to approach these situations with gentleness, understanding and curiosity.

Among the less visible causes, genetic predispositions play a significant role. Just as physical traits are inheritable, so too can a susceptibility to emotional and behavioural challenges. Another crucial, yet sometimes subtle, influence is the impact of family dynamics. A chaotic, stressful or unsupported home environment often results in complex needs, as children adapt to what feels like an unsafe or unpredictable situation.

The role of the school setting is equally important. Experiences such as bullying, social isolation or lack of adequate support from school staff can deeply affect a child's mental health. Children who don’t feel safe or supported in school may start to withdraw, exhibit disruptive behavior or face academic struggles.

magnifying glass iconIdentifying SEMH needs

A child or young person’s distress may be shown in changes in behaviour, for example sleeping, eating, playing and interacting with others. This can affect their emotional wellbeing and ability to learn.

Children with SEMH can show signs of:

  • Disruptive or antisocial behaviour (which can be a symptom of distress)

  • Withdrawn behaviour — including selective mutism

  • Anxiety and self-harm

  • Anger and aggression

  • Depression

This is not a complete list, as SEMH behaviours vary depending on the child and their individual situations. Some may be more obvious than others, but it’s important to recognize that behaviours can range across the spectrum from acting out to a child withdrawing quietly or freezing during situations. It’s also important to keep in mind that these behaviours may be an indication of trauma.

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.

In this video the authors of  Language for Behaviour and Emotions: A Practical Guide to Working with Children and Young People , explain the theory behind why language is so important for behaviour and introduce tools that will help young people develop these skills.   


However, it's essential to involve professionals in the evaluation and interpretation of SEMH symptoms. This ensures that the right support is put in place and that the underlying causes are adequately addressed.

The role of the school and its staff in this process is pivotal. They’re often in a position to observe and respond, providing the necessary encouragement to help children continue their learning journey while managing their emotional well-being.

barrier iconBarriers to learning for SEMH students

SEMH students regularly face a variety of barriers that can hinder their ability to concentrate and learn. Below are some common challenges:

  • Difficulty focusing: SEMH students often struggle to pay attention due to emotional or mental distractions. Staff should provide supportive techniques to improve focus, such as breaking tasks down into manageable chunks.

  • Frequent lateness: Persistent lateness can disrupt the learning process. Children may be struggling to attend school or facing school-based distress, so it’s important that school staff can work with the child and their family to address any underlying issues that could be leading to this.

  • Social interactions: Difficulty in forming or maintaining social relationships can lead to isolation. Facilitating peer support groups can help improve social skills.

  • Engagement: SEMH students might exhibit a lack of participation in class. Providing engaging, relevant content and ensuring a safe, supportive classroom environment can enhance engagement.

  • Coping with stress and anxiety: Managing nerves can be particularly challenging for SEMH students. Regular check-ins, mindfulness exercises and stress management techniques can be helpful.

  • Low self-esteem: This can severely impact academic performance. Encouraging self-compassion and celebrating achievements, however small, can boost confidence.

  • Resistance to change: SEMH students may struggle with new situations or routines. Preparing the pupil for upcoming changes and providing predictable structures can help ease transitions.

  • Past traumas: Traumatic experiences can impact a child's learning capacity. Provision of trauma-informed support is crucial in these cases. A good resource in this regard is The Hero's Mask: Helping Children with Traumatic Stress by Richard Kagan,  which is a guidebook for teachers, counselors, therapists, parents and caregivers to help to promote resilience within children, families and communities.

classroom tips icon Classroom tips for SEMH schools

As you work with children struggling with SEMH issues, building trust with them is very important. Without trust, the child won’t feel safe, which will remove opportunities to engage positively and encourage learning. Adults can use the following guidelines in each interaction:

  • Maintain a calm demeanor and presence

  • Give the child reassurance

  • Be curious

To support those with SEMH in school, you might find these strategies helpful:

Practice expressing and recognising

This technique should be engaged when you can see a student is becoming aggressive or overwhelmed. If this is happening, try to speak with them calmly and start a conversation to understand how they are feeling. Use phrases such as:

  • “I wonder if…”

  • “Let’s try…”

  • “Maybe we can…”

This can help to distract and re-engage them positively. Give them options to help calm themselves down and avoid reacting to any attempts to bring you into an argument.

Personalising the approach to meet individual SEMH needs

It's crucial to remember that every child's experience and response to SEMH are unique, requiring a personalised approach. Acknowledge their emotions, saying, "It must be really difficult for you … thank you for sharing this with me," to make them feel heard and cared for.

However, also be aware that the child may need time to calm down before you engage with them with words. When a child or young person is very angry or upset, talking can be hard. It works better to save the discussion for when they are calmer. A child that is hugely deregulated won’t be able to process your words.

Important note: Avoid telling the child what you think they’re feeling. You may tentatively suggest feelings but make sure you check that this matches their experience.

Give activity options through a calming kit or box to primary-aged children

When a child is overwhelmed, an intervention that can be implemented at SEMH schools to help with emotional regulation is to give them activities or sensory tools to choose from. Good options for your calming kit include:

  • Items that engage their senses (for example, a small bag of lavender to smell)

  • Stress balls

  • Pipe cleaners

  • Tangle toys

  • Sorting items (like buttons or Legos)

  • Play-doh

  • Bubbles

Each of these items gives the child a sense of control in the situation — as they can pick whichever they want to play with — and can calm them down by removing their mind from what was causing them stress.

Some items even have added benefits, like bubbles. When a child blows bubbles it can simulate the 7-11 breathing exercise, where you breathe in for seven seconds and then blow out for 11 seconds. This method can reduce the physical symptoms of stress while the child does an activity that they enjoy.

You should always tailor your box to fit the emotional and behavioural needs of each child. For example, if you’re working with a child that is prone to biting or playing roughly with a toy, you may not want to include a stress ball, which can rupture. Similarly, if you’re working with an older child, you can opt for Legos in your sorting activity, instead of buttons.

Implementing SEMH support at a whole school level

Implementing SEMH support should not be restricted to individual classrooms; it should be a whole-school approach. This involves training and equipping all staff to recognize and address SEMH needs, creating an inclusive and supportive learning environment.

Remember, SEMH provision in schools is crucial for managing challenging behaviours and promoting positive mental health.

Support children in the Early Years

Support children in the Early Years

Get a free chapter from the book Supporting Children with Social, Emotional and Mental Health Needs in the Early Years that will help you to create a suitable environment. It explains features that might cause sensory overload for some children and includes tips on how to create a quiet and calming space that will support children with SEMH needs.It also explains how children can help to create a shared environment that meets everyone's needs and can be cared for collectively.



Discover more interventions and guidance in Sonia Mainstone-Cotton’s Supporting Children with Social, Emotional and Mental Health Needs in the Early Years: Practical Solutions and Strategies for Every Setting .

SEMH Books for Teachers