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  • Writer's pictureVanessa Ford

Building Positive Relationships with Children with SEMH Needs

Building Positive Relationships with Children with Social, Emotional and Mental Health (SEMH) Needs in School is an important and yet challenging journey.

Children who go into the care of government local authorities do so as a result of a number of complex interrelated factors. A majority of young people who have been subject to neglect and abuse will have experienced trauma and loss in some form.

A high percentage of looked-after children also have special educational needs (SEN). The most common types of needs are social, emotional, and mental health (SEMH). As a result of their early life experiences and the impact on their social and emotional development, many looked-after children demonstrate behaviours and issues that require additional attention or special adjustments in the classroom.

So, how can teachers and schools best support the needs of these children in the classroom?

Be trauma-informed

In the last ten years, our understanding of the impact of adverse childhood experiences on brain development has advanced dramatically. Having an understanding of the key concepts and principles of a “trauma-informed” approach could help you and your school better meet the educational needs of looked-after children. Being trauma-informed starts with being mindful of the child’s individual lived experience, and having a good understanding of their past, in order to best evaluate their present behaviour. A child who has not had adequate stimulation and nurturing, for example, in the form of talk and touch in their formative early years may have age-appropriate cognitive abilities but struggle with social interactions and emotional regulation.

Be mindful of the child’s lived experience

Being mindful that understanding a child’s history, as well as helping to explain certain behaviours, can also help in avoiding triggers for behaviour and situations that may inadvertently “re-traumatise” a child. This could mean considering sanctions that do not isolate the child or are in any way punitive or humiliating. Knowing a child’s history could also help to avoid certain stressors that might lead to hyperarousal.

For children who have experienced regular abuse and neglect, this means having some control over their situations by putting into place predictable routines, as well as having as much information as possible about changes to these routines, or new situations. For instance, a child who has experienced severe neglect may need to know when food will next be provided in order to help them focus in the classroom. Alternatively, a child who has experienced sexual abuse may need to know in advance if a stranger is visiting the classroom setting. Mother’s and Father’s Day are also often highly emotive subjects and should be approached sensitively and led by the child’s cues.

If you are struggling with a child who has SEMH needs in school, try adopting some of these approaches to support you and the child in the classroom and in the wider educational setting.

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