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How a therapeutic approach to behaviour management can bring out the best in even the most troubled of pupils

Pupils at schools specialising in social, emotional and behavioural difficulties (SEBD) have complex issues surrounding emotional needs, triggered by a condition or something that has happened in their lives which causes extreme behaviour to be displayed. Historically, many practitioners have felt that the behaviour is the important thing to focus upon, but it isn’t. The bad behaviour that a pupil displays is a mask for an underlying problem.

Pupils will progress, achieve and succeed in a therapeutic environment. It is a fundamental part of this approach to recognise progress and success at every opportunity. Very often, these are children who have been given negatives throughout their lives. Turning them into positives is imperative. We need to ensure that all pupils feel that they are going to achieve, whatever academic level they are at. No-one should feel that they are going to fail. We’re here to facilitate change, so we have to look forwards, not backwards. If we were all judged on our mistakes in life, none of us would succeed.

Individualistic approach

The first engagement with a new pupil should be to identify what it is that has produced the behaviour that has brought them to an SEBD school. Sometimes that process can happen quickly; sometimes it takes time. It can’t be forced and real time and effort must be spent to get to know each individual and learn how to respond to him/her, and vice versa. Respect for the pupil is an essential ingredient. Although we’re still their teachers, it’s important to forge a closer relationship with them than they may have had with staff in previous schools. We’re not friends but we are approachable, as a friend would be. The therapeutic approach means that a teacher has to be tutor, supporter and counsellor.It is essential to facilitate positive change in the pupil. Personalised learning and targets within a subject are important and sometimes this can require very small steps to be taken, one at a time.

Shared agreement

Success requires an understanding from everyone involved around the pupil, including parents, carers, the local authority, social services, the school and, of course, the pupil concerned. Everyone has to buy in to the approach. Some young people can become quite controlling and manipulative with their support teams. Looked-after children will usually be very different to pupils who are at home, particularly over their approach to their entitlement.Referral age has proved to be crucial. My experience suggests that best outcomes happen when pupils are referred to us in Year 7. When referred in Years 10 and 11, pupils achieve and succeed but often it’s much harder for everyone involved.


Relationships are key to behaviour management. There is a hierarchy of needs which applies to every child from the moment of birth. Before any development can happen anywhere – at school or at home – every child needs to feel safe, secure and loved. You can’t attempt to do anything at all before meeting these needs. Many pupils at an SEBD school haven’t been nurtured; the boundaries haven’t been there and they’ve not had these feelings in their lives.Most pupils arrive at an SEBD school in a state where they simply cannot function in a school environment. Sometimes, the pupils will feel safer, more supported and secure in the classroom than they are at home and the therapeutic approach takes this into consideration and can help resolve the problems elsewhere.

Teaching approach

There must be mutual respect built between teachers and each pupil. Only then can learning truly be personalised. Smaller class sizes will also help.The pupils have to be interested to engage in their learning. Teaching should be motivational in its approach and with well prepared and well-structured lessons. A practical, hands-on approach works best – enthusiastically guiding pupils through the learning experience. The approach has to be positive, letting pupils understand that they are going to gain something from the lesson. A therapeutic environment never singles out pupils to embarrass or humiliate them in front of their peers with what they might not know or might not have learnt.


The whole therapeutic approach has to be consistent and it’s important for pupils to see that they are being treated with fairness. Often, SEBD pupils will feel that life hasn’t been very fair to them so far. It is futile to engage in a battle of wills because no-one wins with that approach. What is crucial is a rewards system which offers constant recognition and endorsement of good behaviour and which encourages pupils to replicate it. In each lesson, reward points can be used to acknowledge good behaviour and effort, and to ensure that each pupil has a specific target to aim for.

Focusing on the positive – even when it’s small – seeking opportunities to reward and adopting descriptive praise are important tools which, when used effectively, reduce the need for other forms of behaviour management. Praise is a powerful motivator.Sanctions are important as well and have to be applied just as consistently and fairly as the reward points. Our strategy involves two behavioural support workers who work outside the classroom. They are another useful tool and resource.


Adaptability is as important as consistency. It has to be applied, once again, on an individual basis. A change of approach will usually be the trigger that prompts a change in behaviour. If things deteriorate, the circumstances have to be looked into, to establish how to adjust them in that specific situation and at that precise point in time. It might be something major or minor but when you then witness the change in a pupil and see them succeed, it provides all the job satisfaction any teaching professional could ever ask for.

Further information

James Joyce has eleven years’ experience managing children and young people with severe and complex social, emotional and behavioural difficulties (SEBD). He is Headteacher of Waterloo Lodge School in Chorley, Lancashire, an independent co-education school for 11 to 18 year olds with SEBD. The school is part of the Acorn Care and Education Group:

James Joyce
Author: James Joyce

behaviour Headteacher at Waterloo Lodge School.

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Headteacher at Waterloo Lodge School.


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