What is an SEMH school?

SEMH schools are schools which focus on the social, emotional and mental health needs of the children and young adults within their care. Many schools will claim to have SEMH as an emphasis within their setting, but what might we see in good SEMH schools and what might other mainstream schools be able to take from that? And in the process of looking for the right SEMH focused school (specialist or not) for a child, what might we want to look out for and what questions might we ask? Following feedback from a range of helpful, knowledgeable professionals in this area, here are some thoughts for consideration.


The best SEMH schools will be working with a range of external providers to cater for the needs of a very diverse set of students. Access to a range of therapies is vital including, but not limited to, on site counsellors. Connections to charities and voluntary groups can also provide opportunities for the children to access support and experiences that may meet their needs to an even greater extent. When looking around an SEMH school, don’t be afraid to ask about partnerships with external providers. Schools can make use of the accrediting bodies, for example BACP, to source registered and properly qualified staff in this area. The use of these professionals for supervising staff to help them reflect (outside of a performance management system) would also be a bonus and help ensure staff wellbeing. These services should be, where possible, given a dedicated space to ensure that the separation is made between school and the support offered and consistency is occurring. 


In specialist SEMH schools, it is key the staff have a high level of knowledge about good SEMH theory and practice. These settings should look to employ staff with a passion for this area as well as a solid knowledge base to go with it. Ongoing professional development is also vital. In choosing an SEMH school, discuss the level or type of training the school offers with the relevant member of staff. Ask on what basis they choose their employees – what do they look for? Consider if that is what you want for your child. You could specifically ask about the use of physical restraint and the training given to it. The focus should be on minimising the use of any physical intervention used and it only being used as a last resort where there is no alternative. If you visit an SEMH school, ask questions about the use of nurture, knowledge about trauma and attachment, mental health first aid and positive behaviour support. You could also ask for further reading to help develop your own knowledge. Staff in SEMH schools should be extremely passionate about issues around child and adolescent mental health and wellbeing and this should be clear. The knowledge of the children is also incredibly important – you can’t know what to expect if you don’t know a child


A good SEMH school will recognise the importance of relationships. This is not limited to the staff-student relationship but also student-student and staff-staff. Happy staff, well regulated staff are better equipped to handle the ever changing needs of an SEMH focused cohort. Good relationships between staff members allow for better communication across the school and students to have a consistent response from whatever member of staff they come across in a day, something that is crucial for emotional regulation. Enquire as to what the staff member showing you around enjoys about the school and try to get a feel for the atmosphere in general. Obviously it is a given that relationships between staff and students need to be positive too. SEMH schools who get this right will focus on mentoring, extra curricular activities, restorative practices, positive language, opportunities for interactions built into the timetable, pastoral needs prioritised and a support given for behaviour in place of a need to control. Student-student relationships will also be highly valued, with opportunities to collaborate, work in teams, celebrate each other’s success as well as clear and strong policies on bullying. This doesn’t mean intensely focusing on the punishments attached to bullying, but increasing knowledge of what is bullying, providing opportunities to resolve issues with support in a structured way and teaching skills that will help children to avoid/de-escalate conflict. Risk assessing is always a key factor in any evidence of bullying and this must also be considered to keep all parties safe. Ask about relationships on your visit to the school and consider how highly they are valued within the setting. Home school partnership are also vital so be sure think of a question around how you can be involved in your child’s education.


A good SEMH school will have policies that may surprise you. There will be evidence of a different way of thinking, specifically to meet the needs of a complex group of children/young adults. The behaviour policies will be focus on meeting the needs of all students and creating an environment where poor behaviour is least likely to occur and taking steps to keep everyone as safe as possible. These policies may be presented in child friendly language and could involve the children in the process. There will be a strong emphasis on wellbeing across the board, showing an understanding that without the foundations of health of all kinds, learning cannot occur. The policies will be able to be reviewed on the school’s website – review them before visiting a school and have some questions prepared to ensure you feel reassured.


A creative and flexible curriculum is key in an SEMH school. A range of different qualifications and extra curricular activities will work hand in hand to create the balance needed to challenge and provide continuous opportunity for success, vital for providing the confidence to try new things. Skill development is key within this curriculum as well as a base of solid knowledge to work from. Opportunities for students to follow interests within the boundaries of the curriculum should be maximised and encouraged. Look out for such opportunities when visiting an SEMH school and ask questions about the availability of extra curricular activities. 


The management of any school create the conditions for the ethos of the school to develop. Where certain approaches are clearly favoured, these will flourish. Look for visible, hands on senior management. Such staff should be the most passionate and vocal about SEMH needs. They should empower and trust staff to be flexible to ensure they can make decisions that are right for that child at that time. Genuine warmth is key. In a truly SEMH focused school, the evidence of the importance of SEMH will be evidenced in the displays, the interactions between management and staff and the time given to the concerns a prospective parent may raise about the ability of the school to meet a child’s needs.

In conclusion…

Whether looking at a specialist SEMH school or a mainstream school with a fantastic SEMH ethos and provision, relationships remain the most important factor in judging the potential of a setting to meet a child’s needs. Relationships provide the channel for many different types of learning to occur. They provide the feelings of safety, success, esteem, belonging, confidence and understanding that children with SEMH needs require. Staff who provide these relationships need supporting themselves (supervision?), hence why management is such an important aspect. The level of emotional investment of these relationships can be particularly difficult which is why passion is absolutely a necessity. Overall, if you are looking for an SEMH school, visit multiple settings and heed your gut. If the school makes you feel valued and listened to, they give you their time and you get answers to your questions, it’s likely your child will too.