Creating a culture to support SEMH needs

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Donna Gale-Page, CEO of SENDEducation & Pathway2Independence and Kerryn Thomas, SENDCo of the Romsey School discuss their thoughts on “Creating a culture to support SEMH needs”.

A school needs to be so much more than an institution for educating children; as school leaders we aspire to create communities that meet the needs of the children, families and staff we work alongside. School-age children spend almost 25% of their waking life in the school environment: we know that to succeed and make the most of their potential schools need to be welcoming, safe places where students, and staff alike, feel supported and are able to thrive.

Our students with SEMH needs can be some of the more difficult to work with, disaffected due to trauma, special educational and mental health needs. The headline figures for this year are 15.9% of students are categorised as SEND. The second largest group within the SEND category is SEMH (240,000 children). Support for these students needs to be carefully considered – their environment, curriculum, interventions and most importantly the school ethos that underpins the values of all within the community. Schools tread the fine tightrope of balancing the needs of the individual against the needs of the school; this has never been more important when dealing with SEMH, especially in the wake of a year of uncertainty and global crisis.

It is estimated that 1 in 10 children have a diagnosable mental health need. 1 in 4 show evidence of mental ill health, including depression and anxiety. Speaking to school leaders and teachers, this estimate is growing daily; this at a time when services and resources are overwhelmed due to the social, employment and financial impact of the last 18 months. As schools we are the frontline in mental health support for our students and families: signposting and referrals are not enough in the current climate. 

How do we create a culture to support SEMH needs?

Identifying the needs

SEMH needs come in different shapes and sizes. Prompt identification is key to support. Unmet needs in critical areas such as mental health, self-esteem and anxieties can widen progress and developmental gaps to ‘Grand Canyon’ sized crevices within the fabric of our children’s health and future aspirations. Once a need has been identified, we must carefully monitor the holistic progress of the individuals – tracking not just academic progress but the complexities of personal development. Without focus on independence, health and wellbeing, daily living skills, communication and social skills, students will be unable to apply the academic knowledge they have gained.

The graduated approach provides a structure promoting inclusion and success for all. Early identification is key. Staff awareness of behaviours that may reflect underlying mental health difficulties is vital, alongside clear processes to support following the “Assess, Plan, Do, Review” model.

Consistency of whole school message

Every school has a vision, value or mission statement – most follow a three-word format, much like the ‘hands – space – face’ message we all know verbatim. In fact, the repeated COVID message has shown us that catchy messaging catches on – everyone knows it, everyone lives it. A school’s vision is much the same. Three words that can be powerful if they are ‘lived experience’.

Annie Eagle, Head teacher of The Romsey School shares how she created a school vision to support the needs of the whole school community:

“To build a vision that’s fit for purpose for the 21st century school, I started by working out my own personal purpose, or my ‘why’ as per Simon Sinek. For me, the heart of a school which can meet all students’ needs is one of utmost care. That school cares whilst maintaining the highest of expectations for, and belief in, all young people succeeding. Two words resonated in this regard-‘Compassionate Excellence’.

The next steps were to ensure that this vision was co-constructed with colleagues and community. To effect long-term change and to take people with me, I knew I needed to develop a vision that was truly shared. We set about engaging the staff body in a ‘what three words’ exercise. Colleagues chose three words they felt described a school of compassionate excellence, and encapsulated The Romsey School of the future.

Aspire, Care, Include

Each colleague has contributed to this vision, and each word within this vision has great value. It’s taken a year. In some ways it isn’t the final vision that matters as much as the enlightening discussions we’ve had along the way. At times some colleagues may have considered why I was ‘still talking about those three words’ but it’s been fascinating to discuss our purpose as a school. This has enabled us to unpick our belief systems. We’ve spent considerable time considering what ‘aspire’ ‘care’ and ‘include’ really mean to us at Romsey. Eventually we have established what we all share as common goals. The aim of the vision is to establish a coherent approach moving forward to meet all of our students’ needs and ensure they are ready to ‘rise to the challenges of their future’. I am confident we have made strides forward in this regard, despite the pandemic.”

Annie’s cultural change, through her collaborative vision shaping, will support the children and communities she works with. Vision informs and shapes culture, culture leads to consistency and coherence. Consistency and coherence leads to change – change for the better.

Matching need to provision

Young people report that what can make a big difference is not necessarily expensive or unrealistic. A point of contact, a place to go and staff awareness of need. Staff must show they care, and understand that behaviour stems from need. In lessons, opportunities will present to model teamwork and emotional intelligence. Schools also need to involve, inform and support parents if interventions are to be successful and embedded.

Gauging the correct level of intervention is vital. In every school, universal interventions aimed at all students will benefit. Targeted interventions, aimed at some students, will be needed to supplement this and specialist interventions will be needed for a few.

On a whole-school level, coaching methods can support staff to develop and improve both their resilience and their practice through reflection and joint learning. Consider mindfulness training for staff and students, restorative approaches, access to exercise, food and water. Question if the school needs to revisit their behaviour policy: is it fit for purpose?

On a more targeted level, the PACE model, Attachment Based mentoring, Emotion Coaching, ELSA, Motivational Interviewing, positive behaviour support, active reflective listening, nurture groups and group based therapies can be offered.

For the few students in need of more specialist intervention, funding may need to be diverted. I hear the cries of “easier said than done” – but, some things are out of our control and our area of expertise. We return to the phrase from earlier – “Schools tread the fine tightrope of balancing the needs of the individual against the needs of the school”.

The most important aspect in building a culture to support SEMH needs is to know, live and experience those needs. It’s more than a policy or a set of procedures – this is someone’s life and someone’s future. You need to unpick the behaviours and target the need, using the whole school vision or ethos to make sure every member of the community feels supported; supported in providing the provision and supported by the provision.

Donna Gale-Page
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Donna Gale-Page is CEO of SendEducation and Pathway2Independence.  Donna is a former headteacher and educational consultant

Kerryn Thomas
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Kerryn Thomas is the SENCo at The Romsey School in Hampshire. After starting her career win South Africa she has been working in the UK for over 20 years.

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