Posted on: October 14, 2021
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 behavior and mental health.
What does SEMH mean?
SEMH refers to a broad array of special education needs based on a child’s difficulty regulating emotions and behavior. 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 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 unique needs and require additional strategies and interventions to support them.
What are SEMH causes?
SEMH happens for different reasons for each individual. Life events, trauma, genetic factors, family dynamics and environments can contribute to SEMH difficulties and should all be considered as possible underlying causes.
It may be obvious — for example, a life event that has shaken the family dynamic, like a new baby or death in the family. But it can also be less obvious, which means adults will have to be more gentle, understanding and curious about possible causes.
How to identify SEMH needs
A child or young person’s distress may be shown in changes in behavior, 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 behavior (which can be a symptom of distress)
Withdrawn behavior — including selective mutism
Anxiety and self-harm
Anger and aggression
This is not a complete list, as SEMH behaviors vary depending on the child and their individual situations. Some may be more obvious than others, but it’s important to recognize that behaviors 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 behaviors may be an indication of trauma.
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.
Classroom tips to meet SEMH needs for younger and older children
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
To support those with SEMH, you might find these strategies helpful:
Practice expressing and recognizing
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…”
“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. 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.
If they can explain what is upsetting them, you can then acknowledge their emotions by saying, “It must be really difficult for you…thank you for sharing this with me.”
This will help the child feel that you’re listening and that you care, which is critical.
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, a great intervention is to give them activities or sensory tools to choose from. Great options for your calming kit include:
Items that engage their senses (for example, a small bag of lavender to smell)
Sorting items (like buttons or Legos)
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 reduces stress while the child does an activity that they enjoy.
You should always tailor your box to fit the emotional and behavioral 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.
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 .
Additional support and resources
If you’re looking for additional SEMH support and resources, download our free guide, the Language for Behaviour and Emotions toolkit . This is aimed at children aged 8-16.
The LFBE toolkit includes a list of language and communication needs associated with SEMH, as well as tips to create a communication and emotion-friendly environment.