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The SEMH Handbook: How Local Authorities are Supporting Inclusion

Lee Boyce comments on recent work by the Barking and Dagenham Local Authority to support young people with special education needs and disabilities (SEND) in mainstream schools. The SEMH Handbook can be accessed via the BDSIP website here.

Lose the child from their school and we lose the child.’ - Roger Mitchell, Head of Ripple Primary

The latest data on permanent exclusions and suspensions in England for the autumn term 2021/22, published by the Department for Education on 24th November 2022, shows that the highest rate of suspensions is for students with an EHC plan at 6.37, followed by those with Special Education Needs and Disabilities (SEND) without an Education, Health and Care (EHC) plan at 6.31. For all students, the suspension rate is 2.21. The highest rate of permanent exclusions is for students with Special Education Needs (SEN) but no EHC plan at 0.08, with students with an EHC plan being excluded at a rate of 0.05. For all students, the permanent exclusion rate is 0.03.

This disproportionality of exclusions and suspensions of students with SEND is reflected in Barking and Dagenham, where students with identified Social, Emotional, and Mental Health (SEMH) needs have the highest rates in this cohort.

Keen to address the issue, the Local Authority redesignated an SEMH Working Group with Roger Mitchell (Head of Ripple Primary School) as the chair, and a membership drawn from across education, health, social care and third sector organisations who support our young people and schools in Barking and Dagenham.

A vocal advocate for inclusion, Roger was keen to use the collective expertise of this group to strengthen universal provision and High Quality First teaching in our schools. However, it quickly became apparent that we needed to provide a framework for what ‘good’ looks like before we could embark on developing training opportunities to strengthen local expertise. From this vision, the redesigned SEMH Handbook was born.

Headshot of Lee Boyce, Principal Adviser for Education and Inclusion, BDSIP
Lee Boyce, Principal Adviser for Education and Inclusion

Located in Barking and Dagenham, Barking and Dagenham School Improvement Partnership (BDSIP) is a not-for-profit organisation, majority schools-owned and schools-led, which specialises in providing professional services for education through a team of experts who have all been leaders in their field. Therefore, armed with 28 years in education with the experience of roles ranging from teaching assistant to Head of English to SENCO to senior leader in mainstream and an SEMH provision, BDSIP’s commission to produce the SEMH Handbook fell to Lee Boyce, Principal Adviser for Education and Inclusion.

From the outset, it was agreed that the SEMH Handbook needed to address six key areas to act as a framework for successful inclusion:

  • The causes of SEMH needs

  • A model that allows teachers to appreciate the interrelated factors that need to be considered when developing effective provision in every classroom

  • What can happen for these students when we do not meet their needs

  • A reframing of the perception of behaviours which leads to suspension and exclusion

  • The key pillars for building effective universal provision and high quality first teaching for SEMH

  • The need to raise aspirations for adulthood to support them to connect the ‘here and now’ with their future success.

‘It isn’t exhaustive by any means but a concise guide to the minimum we should be doing in schools.’ – Lee Boyce

The handbook acts as a comprehensive guide for educators, and indeed all professionals working with children and young people, to begin to unpick medical models of behaviour, where the focus is on the behaviour itself, and move beyond ‘labels’ to embrace an understanding of how attachment, trauma, peer group dynamics, and negative experiences can impact developmental, social, emotional, cognitive, self-regulatory and self-esteem growth, especially in children. There is a discussion of the ways in which children and young people with SEMH needs may behave but with a positive encouragement to see all behaviour as communication of unmet needs.

Armed with this understanding, there is an emphasis on the need to develop High Quality First Teaching approaches, by firstly ensuring that all adults are trained in the underlying causes of SEMH needs and then provided with the tools to ensure they are providing a classroom culture that will support those children who have experienced trauma or who are struggling with their sense of wellbeing. The key features of High Quality First Teaching are:

  • How to respond with empathy and be an emotionally available adult who is always available, consistent, fair, reassuring, safe and resilient

  • How to create a culture of nurture

  • How stress and trauma affect the child or young person’s ability to learn

  • How to use the Low Arousal approach to ensure that learners feel safe, secure, seen and soothed. This includes a practical definition of the approach, with checklists to assess a range of factors that might be causing distressed behaviour so that schools can develop appropriate plans to avoid crisis situations

  • The need to approach children and their families in a non-judgemental way, instead building a culture of collaboration which seeks to offer a holistic package of support to address all identified needs

  • The key principles of restorative approaches

  • Supporting learners with SEMH to develop resilience

To support schools to access the knowledge they need, the handbook also signposts resources and training opportunities, such as free certified online ACEs training.

‘The most powerful healer for attachment difficulties is a nurturing, consistent, non-judgmental environment which allows children and young people to feel safe, accepted and able to learn, both personally and academically.’

Teachers will be able to use the handbook to support their own professional learning journey, while leaders can use it to identify what specific training needs to be in place to ensure that learners with SEMH feel that they belong in their school. Educational adviser for Studio 3, Gareth D. Morewood, speaks often about the importance of implementing approaches at a whole-school level but that this requires top-down, bottom-up commitment from staff at every level of the school system. Supporting children with SEMH must be embedded in the ethos of the setting using a whole-school approach to well-being so that the school is a safe and affirming place for children and young people to develop a sense of belonging and trust.

'Consistent, calm approaches are hugely effective, and this requires a collective and unified approach from management and frontline staff alike.' - Gareth Morewood

Finally, the handbook addresses the need to develop an aspirational SEND curriculum which supports learners with SEMH to maintain high aspirations of what they can achieve, and provide opportunities for work-related learning to support them to connect what they do now to their future success.

The full SEMH Handbook can be found on the BDSIP website.

Written by Lee Boyce,

Principal Adviser of Education and Inclusion, BDSIP


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