Meeting the mental health challenge


Early support is crucial to enable children with social, emotional and mental health needs to flourish, writes Eileen Sheerin

With mental health services for young people and adults oversubscribed, under pressure and facing cuts, it’s more important than ever forus to understand the challenges that young people with social, emotional and mental health (SEMH) needs face in school. By understanding the barriers that those with SEMH needs face to get the education they deserve, we can work to address these issues at an early age and make a real long-term difference.

Focus on individual needs

One challenge that children with SEMH needs face is that their behaviours are often simply labelled and dismissed as “naughty”. Rather than categorising these behaviours as “wrong”, we need to gain a better understanding of young people’s individual needs and motivations.

Young people with SEMH needs may be living with domestic violence, alcoholism or drug addiction. They might suffer from anxiety which has led to long-term school absences or they could have been a victim of child sexual exploitation. Young people may be in the care system and, statistically, looked-after children don’t do as well in school as their peers.

SEMH needs can also be as a result of behaviour disorders. Young people with oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) can have a pattern of hostile, disobedient and defiant behaviours directed at adults or authority figures. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) generally includes behaviours such as inattentiveness, hyperactivity and impulsiveness.

By assessing young people’s SEMH needs individually, we can provide a person-centred approach to supporting them in school. This kind of approach can help to combat the lack of understanding and education around mental health in schools that can lead to young people facing unequal opportunities throughout their lives.

Change attitudes in schools

Young people with SEMH needs can be stigmatised in schools, which can create social exclusion and have a further negative impact on their mental health.

If children are seen as a bad influence, they might miss out on important opportunities to socialise with their peers. Young people who are labelled as naughty might not be invited to their schoolmates houses or parties because parents have concerns about their behaviour. Looked-after children may be left out because they are unable to invite other children to their home, or they may feel isolated because their childhood experiences and the issues they face are so dissimilar to their peers.

Sadly, educational environments can also be isolating for young people with mental health needs. In mainstream primary schools, you might find children with SEHM needs stood in the corridor during class time because their behaviour was disruptive. In secondary schools, young people may face exclusion due to their behaviour or be absent from school, and they can then be at risk of being out of education for longer periods.

Children also face a stigma attached to having open conversations around mental health. Because of the lack of conversations about mental health, children might not have developed the words or emotional maturity to fully express how they are feeling. 

To tackle this, schools can take a whole-school approach to mental health, to create a safe, open and inclusive culture where children, young people and staff feel able to share. This can involve helping pupils, staff, school leaders and support workers to develop an understanding of their own mental health, as well as that of others. It can also be very useful to integrate elements of personal, health, social and economic education (PHSE) throughout the curriculum. This means that conversations around mental health can become part of the school’s culture, instead of being seen as a subject limited to one lesson a week. Adopting approaches such as positive behaviour support (PBS) can also empower staff to manage behaviour consistently across classes in a person-centred way.

Start from an early age

Early years and primary school are formative times for children to develop physically and emotionally, and what they learn during this period of their life can help to support them throughout their education.

Starting the education, health and care (EHC) plan process at a young age can also help ensure children have support in place to help them thrive.

The Boxall Profile is a good method of assessing children’s SEMH needs. It can be used to identify young people’s early developmental needs and then used to track their development and progress through transitions at the end of the year or into secondary school.

Fight for support

As educators, we are in a position to make a real difference to young people’s lives. By supporting young people with SEMH needs from an early age, we can help remove barriers they face every day of their school lives.

Unless there is more investment in supporting children and young people’s mental health, though, we are fighting a losing battle. Schools are trying to manage budget cuts at the same time as there is a shortage of educational psychologists, child and adolescent mental health services (CAHMS) are overstretched, and social workers are facing ever-growing caseloads. Primary schools are trying their best, but all these issues mean that they cannot get young people assessed or access the support that is needed. 

So, in these difficult times, we need to redouble our efforts to help all our children get the education they deserve. We need the Government to provide greater investment in support for children from an early age but, to make this happen, we need to do everything we can to ensure more and more people understand the issues that children with social, emotional and mental health needs face in our schools.

About the author

Eileen Sheerin is Headteacher at Ashcroft School, a specialist school in Cheadle which supports young people aged eight to 18 with SEMH needs. The School is part of the Together Trust.



Eileen Sheerin
Author: Eileen Sheerin

Choosing the right school Ashcroft School (Together Trust)

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Choosing the right school
Ashcroft School (Together Trust)


  1. ADHD is not a social, emotion or mental health difficulty. Children with inattentive ADHD in particular have often had zero behavioural issues in their lifetimes. They do not have social or emotional difficulties. Their mental health is fine. Please make this distinction. Labelling children with ADHD as SEMH and throwing them in a box where the first port of call is “poor mental health” is unhelpful.


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