Hearts and minds


How specialist settings can support the academic and personal development of students with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties

Young people with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties (SEBD) and mental health issues present a wide range of challenges to their peers, their families, the communities they live in and the professionals who care for and educate them. Issues as diverse as social withdrawal, age-inappropriate behaviours, aggression, achieving below potential, risk-taking and unhealthy lifestyle choices can all be involved. In an individual, factors producing these behavioural outcomes often seem like a Gordian Knot, with strands as diverse as learning difficulties, gaps in learning, family issues, lack of positive or limited social experiences, mental health difficulties, hidden abuse and bullying all entangling to complicate the situation.

The key to academic and personal achievement for these young people is a structured environment which closely supports and stretches them as individuals and community members. Successful SEBD schools take a holistic approach to their students’ learning and their personal development. They will remove barriers and promote self-worth through opportunities to experience success, and show them how to understand themselves, while meeting their needs positively and in balance with the needs of those around them.

Debates are ongoing around the medical versus social models of dealing with young people with SEBD. Diagnosing and officially naming a difficulty or set of difficulties can help young people to access the correct provision for their need type. Equally, labels such as “SEBD” can be nebulous and inaccurate as, for example, aggressive behaviour may mask other, more accurate need types (such as being on the autistic spectrum) or frustration arising from a hidden speech, language or communication issue (such as difficulties processing a teacher’s instructions in a noisy environment).

At our Learning Centre we have found that SEBD is closely linked to a wide range of other secondary and primary SEN, as well as social or familial issues. Getting to know a child by developing a trusting relationship with them and looking at their past history with new eyes are key to uncovering their real needs. An assessment of the gaps in a child’s learning or experience, practical support with issues relating to personal safety (managing risk, aggression, substance misuse, e-safety or bullying) and an evaluation of current challenges faced by the family all add to a rounded picture of the young person’s life as it stands.

Once a student has been assessed in detail, in partnership with their family and other professionals, a range of interlocking strategies combine to create a comprehensive, tailored provision for them. All special schools provide a basic offer of things like smaller class sizes, high ratio of adult support (teachers, learning support) and a personalised curriculum. The individual’s support package may also include things like:

  • nurture group session
  • sone-to-one tuition for literacy or numeracy
  • a learning mentor to provide a single, safe point of emotional and social reference for a child, as well as a conduit to multi-agency support and information
  • therapeutic interventions such as play therapy
  • Team Around the Child (TAC) meetings which can result in referral to a range of services
  • access to short stay residential provision.

Learning and teaching

The higher adult to student ratios in specialist settings means that the forensic knowledge of each student that is required to address their needs as an individual, and as a group member, becomes possible.

Delivery of lessons must be structured, appealing to a range of learning preferences and must communicate high expectations of both behaviour and learning in a climate of tolerance for diversity. Even if some doubt has been cast by recent research over the effectiveness of differentiation in mainstream schools, it is necessary in special schools where a small group of students may vary greatly in their SEN, ages, social abilities and barriers to accessing the curriculum. Differentiation is crucial to ensure fair access for all.

Constant and consistent learning support is important. Learning facilitators can encourage independence and provide another consistent person to whom students can attach and form a supportive relationship.

Physical changes to classrooms or buildings should also be considered, with rearrangement of whole group seating plans, individual work stations, access to ICT and sensory rooms, and access to physical aids such as pencil grips and coloured reading overlays, all playing a role in maximising the chances of each learner’s success.

Team Around the Child (TAC)

TAC meetings are centrally organised meetings called when a young person is experiencing a crisis. Common assessment by the correct assembly of family, carers and professionals ensures the cross-referencing of information from different sources and perspectives to arrive at the most accurate assessment of a young person’s needs. New referrals can be made to an array of services and a shared plan for future action drawn up and left in the hands of a lead professional who then takes responsibility for central communications and keeps all accountable for their commitments to help the young person. When a crisis affecting one of their caseload is acute, individual practitioners can feel isolated themselves and TACs can be as supportive to them as they are for their young charges.

The nurture group approach

For some students, even with the high degree of support they receive in a specialist school, accessing a full timetable without serious conflict or disengagement can still present enormous emotional problems. Nurture groups are small groups of selected individuals staffed by two supportive adults which focus on social, emotional and behaviour barriers to learning (recognising their own feelings, finding solutions to interpersonal problems and understanding the consequences of their actions). The aim is that nurture group students always return to their own classes – the approach is backed by research which indicates that this transition is more successful after students have accessed such a hybrid environment designed to bridge the gap between home and school.

Camps, trips and short stay residential facilities

The opportunity to develop as increasingly independent young people away from the pressures of school is an important aspect of what SEBD schooling can provide. Trips are often used as rewards for learning and positive behaviours. Residential camps provide multi-day opportunities to get away from home and the norms of community environments in order for young people to gain perspective on their own lives and to broaden their horizons.

SEN and the Law

Following the implementation of the SEN Code of Practice in 2014, statements are changing to education health and care plans (EHC) plans. They aim to coordinate the support available to families across their child’s education, health and social care, from birth to 25 years old. Pupils who have existing statements will have transfer reviews in order to change to EHC plans.

EHC plans intend to put young people and their families at the centre of the assessment and planning process. The EHC plan process should help early identification of needs and work to a swift timescale, with a single plan outlining all the support a young person and family needs. The process is still in its infancy and SEBD settings are working creatively to find ways of engaging and eliciting the views and aspirations of young people and their families.

Personalised support plans

Within a specialist setting, personalised support is all the more necessary. The diversity of needs within an SEBD school is vast and personalised learning and inclusive teaching strategies are vital in ensuring each young person has their needs met as set out in their statement or EHC plan. Within the code of practice, IEP documents are no longer essential; however schools must show a way of showing provision and progress. One way to do this is through a personalised support plan (PSP), a working document that outlines the provision a young person needs in order to achieve academically, socially and emotionally. PSPs are drawn up by school staff in consultation with parents and carers and the young people. They also detail stepped responses to managing behaviour in a personalised way which works for the young person but is also in keeping with school rules and expectations. PSPs help ensure staff consistency in managing behaviour whilst also accounting for individual needs. They also help pupils and families have ownership of the support they receive.

One-to-one interventions including pupil premium

Pupil premium, additional funding for disadvantaged children, can be highly effective in raising achievement through the use of additional support such as one-to-one tuition. Within the context of SEBD schools, there is a recognition that in order to close the gap, however, sometimes pupil premium may be needed to holistically support the needs of the young people; this may be through the use of services such as therapeutic support. In making provision for economically disadvantaged pupils, there needs to be recognition that not all pupils who receive free school meals will be academically disadvantaged and also that not all pupils who are disadvantaged are registered or qualify for free school meals.

Personalised learning plans (PLP)

Some pupils with SEN will have been out of education for a long period of time and require additional strategies to support them and their families to engage with full-time education. Recognition should be made that sometimes the individualised support needs to extend beyond the highly personalised classroom setting; for example, a pupil may require specialised tutoring from the main educational establishment together with bespoke packages including creative ways to meet their needs.

Work experience

For older students, a bridge into the world of work not only provides skills-based experience but is also necessary for safe, supported and positive socialisation as they are introduced to new environments and professional cultures. In order to make this transition smoothly a young adult may need help with a range of issues, such as independent travel, work and daily routines, personal hygiene, personal presentation and interview skills.

Ethos, values and behaviour

The overarching aim of any school is to instil the moral beliefs and ethics of the school community into its students. This “other curriculum” should be enshrined in the ethos and values of the school. When students arrive at school prone to engaging in impulsive, risky and, at times, illegal behaviours, the school needs to have rules and measures in place that keep them safe whilst they are learning more positive ways of dealing with difficult situations and negative emotions.


In the short-term, students entering a SEBD setting can experience a culture shock, because the expectations of school life can sometimes conflict with those of home, peers and local communities. However, over time, the personalised support they receive across every aspect of school life can help them build a different kind of mindset, through exposure to the norms of a caring, respectful yet high-expectation environment. Students with SEBD are no different to their peers in most ways; achievement meets an intrinsic need in all human beings. All people feel increasingly in control and optimistic about life when they have new experiences of challenge and mastery. Meeting a person’s needs (no matter how complex) is a powerful argument. A school’s values are the basic lever it uses to create significant change in its students. With the right support, young people with SEBD, many of whom have experienced incredible damage and difficulty, can often recognise these values and respond positively to them.

Further information

Murrough McHugh is Acting Deputy Head at KnowleDGE Learning Centre, a specialist setting in Bristol for young people with social, emotional and mental health difficulties. He would like to thank the school leadership team, and particularly Kate Wells (SENCO) and Nick Lee (responsibility for social/emotional care), for their assistance with this article:

Murrough McHugh
Author: Murrough McHugh

BESD/SEBD Acting Deputy Head at KnowleDGE Learning Centre

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Acting Deputy Head at KnowleDGE Learning Centre


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