Published on: 22 Jan 2018

What is SEMH?

Sean Jordan, the senior youth and mental health worker at Greenwood Academy in Birmingham, explains the impact of social and emotional struggles on pupil wellbeing, as well as useful SEMH strategies to help pupils work independently and build self-confidence.

Children with Social Emotional and Mental Health (SEMH) difficulties may experience a variety of social and emotional struggles that can have a big impact on their wellbeing. A child with SEMH may show signs of being withdrawn by isolating themselves and appearing very sad. They may also present challenging behaviour such as being disruptive and hyperactive during lessons. As a whole, these behaviours are often caused by underlying mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression, and ADHD.


Other behaviours that can indicate SEMH issues are: 

  • Mood changes (sadness, withdrawal, mood swings) 
  • Emotional outbursts
  • Intense feelings (worry/fear)
  • Drastic changes in behaviour or personality
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Unexplained weight loss (loss of appetite, vomiting)
  • Physical harm and wanting to harm/kill themselves
  • Fighting and wanting to hurt others


SEMH intervention – helpful strategies:

  • Seat pupil by a more settled peer
  • Understanding the student triggers and apply strategies given to you by the pastoral team
  • If a pupil becomes wound up/anxious allow him/her to remove self to an agreed calm-down area
  • Remember that children (and adults) who are stressed find it hard to take in and remember complex information; make instructions short and clear
  • When a pupil is experiencing emotional turbulence or anxiety, provide low-key tasks and increased structure and predictability in the classroom environment
  • Set tasks with clear goals, outputs and timescales
  • Expect to teach pupil specific behavioural skills, e.g. how to ask for help
  • Make an effort to ‘catch the pupil being good’ and praise them. Aim for a ratio of four positive comments to one negative and teach the pupil how to reward themselves: ‘You have managed to concentrate on your work very well just then: give yourself a pat on the back’
  • Devise a private signal system to let the pupil know when they are off task or behaving inappropriately


To help pupils work independently:

  • Actively teach core routines for certain tasks; have pupils practise them with progressively less help until they can quickly tell you and show you what they have to do if you ask them to do that type of task
  • Give independent tasks that have previously been modelled for the whole class
  • Give clear guidelines: ‘I expect you to have produced at least three lines by ten past ten; I will be asking you then to share these with your writing partner’


Take steps to build pupils’ self-confidence: 

  • Find out what they know about or are good at, and have them share this with the rest of the class or school
  • Give them responsibilities, for example organising a lunchtime or after-school club, being a playground buddy, helping those who are new to the school
  • Have them keep records of new things they learn and can do
  • Ask them to tutor another pupil with their work
  • Photocopy good pieces of work for them to take home
  • Take special steps to build the relationship with the pupil – for example, take extra care to greet the pupil each day and say a word or two individually to them, invite them to help you with daily tasks and listen without giving advice or opinions; show that you understand how the pupil feels (‘That must have made you very angry/upset’)
  • When things go wrong, reject the behaviour, not the pupil… ‘This is not the behaviour I expect to see from someone as kind and helpful as you’
  • Don’t be afraid to tell the pupil you like them and that what happens to them matters to you… ’You really matter to me and it’s important to me that you do well this year’
  • There will be a student in your class who will look forward to seeing you every day. You would probably be astonished if you knew who it was.

Read our case study with Greenwood Academy on Using PASS to support student wellbeing.