How PSHE can help equip pupils with SEN for life at school and beyond
The class are busily getting on with their maths, some more than others. A boy on the edge of the classroom has withdrawn from the activity. While the teacher was giving out the instructions, he was doodling on some paper, drawing the same shape, same size, over and over again. Now, he does not know what to do.
A girl elsewhere in the classroom loudly tells her group that they are “stupid”. She finished the task eight minutes after the teacher asked them to start and has lost patience with the pace of the rest of the class. She does not know why they are looking upset.
Outside in the playground at break, screaming in anger at the goalkeeper for letting in a shot, a boy kicks the ball onto the dining hall roof and storms off.
These actions cause confusion and hurt, most of all for the children who perpetrated them. They do not know why they behaved in that way, what made them say what they said, or why they did what they did. The children who witnessed or were recipients of the behaviour do not know either.
Acceptance and understanding
Personal, health and social education is so important as it helps children to understand why they might behave in this way, helps them to know themselves better, helps them to avoid certain behaviour patterns, and spreads tolerance and acceptance.
The doodling boy can be given practical tips on how to focus but also the means and confidence to ask for the instructions again. The high achieving girl can celebrate her speed and skill but also learn how to empathise with her classmates more and maybe help them. The angry footballer can be shown how his behaviour affects others and be given techniques to manage his anger issues.
Personal health and social education (part of the broader PSHE education curriculum), the soft skills that enable us to function properly and easily in a community, are arguably the most important ones we learn. Some learn these at home, reinforced by school. Some only learn them at school. For children with SEN, these skills can be even more important as they help them to navigate a way through their lives, which have their own particular challenges.
If children have a good idea of who they are, how they act and interact, and why they have become the person they are, this will all help them with what they do. It will help them to make better choices for themselves, whether that is to do with how they interact socially or the decisions they make about health.
Children with SEN may feel that they don’t or can’t succeed academically. While input from specialist staff, use of different teaching styles to reflect learning styles and individual learning plans can help, if a child does not feel that they can succeed, then they won’t. Personal health and social education can help to increase self-esteem and resilience so that children have a go at the task in hand and achieve. Or maybe they have a go, fail and attempt it again until it is achieved. This can be part of a school’s work with children in developing a “growth mindset”. Only those who are confident about themselves, or very curious, will keep going. Understanding that they are unique and bring their specific talent to their community will increase their self-esteem. Knowing what they are good at and having realistic self-knowledge will help them to progress.
Personal health and social education gives children skills for dealing with others – their peers, friends and adults. They learn what a good relationship is, how to form one and then maintain it. They learn how to talk about their feelings, which disperses the silence of mental health problems. They learn who to talk to and where to get help from. They learn how to deal with their feelings, how to celebrate the good and how to manage the destructive. They learn how to listen and how to respond appropriately. They learn that bullying is never acceptable and what to do about it when they recognise it, either for themselves or for others. They learn what to do if they feel uncomfortable about something they have seen or that has been done to them. They learn the difference between secrets and surprises. They learn how to be a team player and encourage others.
Making the right choices
Personal health and social education helps children to make healthy decisions. It teaches them why exercise is good for the body, along with eating healthily, drinking water and getting enough sleep. It helps them to deal with issues such as obesity and having a positive body image despite influences from the media pushing the latest trend for how we should all look. They learn the facts about risky health behaviour, such as drug misuse, and then the skills to help them make up their own minds. It looks at the issues of sex, consent and maintaining healthy and respectful relationships – how to keep safe online, and having a healthy attitude towards social media.
All children need to develop these skills to help them learn how to be, how to exist in society and how to keep themselves safe. Children with SEN may need these skills even more than most, as they can be more vulnerable.
So, the doodling boy learns how to listen actively to focus on the instruction or that it is ok to ask time and time again for help. The girl realises that calling people “stupid” will not make her any friends but by offering to show them how she did it so quickly, she might gain some. The footballer learns to walk off the pitch for some deep breaths before returning feeling calmer. And the whole school community learns how to accept and celebrate diversity in all its forms.
Sarah Greenwood is an Educator Manager with Coram Life Education, which provides health, wellbeing and drugs education via life skills sessions delivered by trained educators in mobile classrooms. It is part of the children’s charity Coram: