Revitalising Education: Addressing the Curriculum Gap for Students with Social, Emotional, Behavioural, and Mental Health Needs

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A teacher sitting next to a young pupil helping him with his work

By Dr Sarah Wall, Practitioner Tutor (SEBD), Disability, Inclusion and Special Needs

Back in October, a BBC article reported that OfSTED rated a Birmingham school for boys with social, emotional, behavioural, and mental health (SEBMH), needs as inadequate in all areas. A key argument in the report was the lack of a curriculum for pupils in KS3 (BBC, 2023).

Section 78 of the Education Act (2002) states:

“Every state-funded school must offer a curriculum which is balanced and broadly based and which: promotes the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils at the school and of society, and prepares pupils at the school for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of later life” (p.4).

At Key Stage 3 this includes: English, maths, science, art and design, citizenship, computing, design and technology, languages, geography, history, music, physical education, religious education and sex and relationship education.

I was a Specialist Teacher for Social, Emotional, Behaviour and Mental Health (SEBMH) needs for ten years and worked with pupils who could have attended this Birmingham school. My doctoral research (Wall, 2021) focussed upon pupils with attachment needs, those whose behaviour can challenge staff. Such pupils have suffered trauma, and good practice around developing trust, security, and safety. O’Neill, Guenette and Kitchenham (2010) suggest their emotional wellbeing needs addressing before they access the curriculum.

Such adjustments are not merely good practice, though: they meet legislative requirements. As these pupils have special educational needs and/or disabilities (SEND) the curriculum should be individualised for each.  Such individualisation addresses both the Code of Practice for SEND (2013) and the need to support disability under Section 6 of the Equality Act (2010).

Thus, all schools – not merely those designated for pupils who have SEBMH needs – should ask questions in relation to the curriculum’s composition. Firstly, whether, alongside a ‘formal’ (DfE, 2013) curriculum, there should be an ‘informal’ one and, if so, what the latter may comprise. The curriculum can be shaped alongside a school’s development plan, and this should be evidence informed. It could incorporate:

How such a curriculum is implemented needs careful consideration too; for example, the psychosocial Nurture Group setting is deemed successful at KS3 (Colley and Seymour, 2021), but must be set up with SLT support, and suitable staff training, with a curriculum that is ‘flexible’, ‘dynamic’ (p.1) and focuses on social, emotional, and behavioural, skills. The Social, Emotional and Aspects of Learning (SEAL) materials were similarly designed to address such skills at individual, group, and class level; however, they were fraught with implementation difficulties (Lendrum, Humphrey and Wigglesworth, 2013). This lack of success relates more to the school environment than the materials, though: the nature of secondary school classrooms and the curriculum– with its reliance on discreet subjects and specialist teachers – is not, currently, conducive to the model.

The curriculum should also be appropriate to the developmental age of the pupil, rather than their chronological age. Pupils can be chronologically fifteen, but emotionally, socially, and behaviourally three. Archer (2001) describes these pupils as “thinking toddlers” (p.14). Their curriculum must take this into account. Such pupils will learn more if they engage with activities that a three-year-old would. Therapeutic activities such as art, music, drama, sewing and working with construction materials (for example, Lego) – this is not an exhaustive list – can all support SEBMH development.  But the key is to adjust these subjects to the level of the toddler, rather than a teenager.

Furthermore, the school’s ethos and culture around the curriculum should be considered; for example, staff expectations, behaviour and attendance, and leadership – all feed into everyday practice and support disadvantaged pupils (Baars et al. 2018). Ultimately, the curriculum model that schools adopt should be one informed by research and by the school’s stakeholders. The co-production of the curriculum with pupils, parents, and carers, fosters good relationships and creates a sense of mutual respect and trust.  Research into the ‘voice’ of the child, or young person, with SEBMH, is especially relevant here (Hinkinbotham and Soni, 2021), as the pupils themselves are central to the process.  Overall, I believe such pupils do require a curriculum, but what this looks like is open to significant – and necessary – interpretation, only then will their needs be truly met.


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Wall, S 2021.  ‘A little whisper in the ear’: how developing relationships between pupils with attachment difficulties and key adults can improve the former’s social, emotional and behavioural skills and support inclusion, Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties, 26:4, 394-411, DOI: 10.1080/13632752.2021.1979322

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.

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