Helping children experiencing SEBD to understand and manage their own feelings and behaviour : the experiences of a headteacher of a day school for such children

By Joan Pritchard

Date Posted: June 15th, 2013

Joan Pritchard began working life as a teacher in a secondary school in Manchester and moved into special education in 1969, eventually becoming the head of a day special school for children described at that time as”maladjusted”in 1979.

 As well as qualifying as a teacher Joan gained an Advanced Diploma in the Education of Maladjusted Children and a MEd in Educational Psychology. Since 1977 she has been a member of an association now entitled Sebda (originally known as AWMC and the AWCEBD) since 1977, a member of its National Council since 1981 and was its national chairman for eight years.

 Joan was the Course Co-ordinator for the Post Graduate and Foundation degree level courses run by the Association and validated by the University of Leicester. These cover the topics – Understanding and Managing Children with SEBD and Mental Health Problems in children with SEBD.



Helping children experiencing SEBD to understand and manage their own feelings and behaviour : the experiences of the headteacher of a day school for such children


By Joan Pritchard

The term “maladjusted” was first used in the 1944 Education Act to describe those children and young people who found it difficult to thrive and benefit from education in mainstream settings. Numbers of special schools – both day and residential – catering for these children were increasing by the late 1950s and early 60s. Child Guidance Clinics opened. Their role was to provide for the needs of children presenting as maladjusted. They often had education units on site for those children who needed extra support to access education. Some of these clinics had close links with psychiatric units in hospitals. My first experiences of such clinics and units were on placement while following a diploma course on the education of maladjusted children. I was involved in case review meetings and shadowed the work of psychiatric social workers, educational psychologists and a child psychiatrist. The multi-agency teams worked well together and included schools in all case review meetings. It would be good to see similar practice develop further once again.

Soon after gaining my diploma I became the head teacher of a newly opened day school for maladjusted children in an authority in the northwest of England. As mentioned earlier there had been a major increase in the number of such schools across authorities in the whole of the United Kingdom as schools struggled to meet the needs of such children and young people.

The remainder of this article will explore the strategies we used in order to help the children and young people in our care to achieve their full potential socially, emotionally, behaviourally and educationally.

The children and young people (I will just refer to them as children from now on although the age range was 6 – 16) we admitted had all experienced failure in school, with some of them also having difficult home lives, including some living in children’s or foster homes. Some had missed months and even years of meaningful education. We always aimed to work closely with social workers, care staff from children’s homes, foster parents, parents, educational psychologists and psychiatrists and anyone else involved with the individual child. The school was often a busy place with such a wide group of professionals being made welcome to come into school rather than the child having to go out.

The community we tried to create was structured in such a way that the ethos was nurturing and caring. We sought an environment in which everyone looked out for each other, noticing signs of unhappiness or distress. This was an attempt to provide a model of caring and relationships to be found in a family which functions well. The classes were small with a maximum of seven children supported by a teacher and at least one support assistant. The facility was always there for children to move to another group if they needed some “space”. It wasn’t unusual to see a fifteen year old boy “helping” in one of the younger classes as he recovered from the frustration of struggling with work he found difficult. The chance to be involved in the sort of play-related activities he had missed when he was that age was deemed to be a valuable instrument in his emotional development. Regular opportunities were created for whole school activities which enabled the children to learn how to mix in larger groups. This was important as so many of them lacked positive group experiences as they had had to spend time isolated from their peers in their previous schools because of their behaviour. We had daily assemblies where, each Friday, good work and deeds were celebrated. Anything deemed “creditworthy” was given a “credit” and names and numbers of “credits” were read out. That was the only reward but was very highly valued by the children woe-be-tide any member of staff who got the total wrong the child in question would correct it!

We always had a football team which was entered for any appropriate competitions.We seldom won but those taking part were always well behaved. We found out that they had seldom been allowed to take part in such activities in their previous schools because of their behaviour. We came to the conclusion that being picked for the school team made them feel part of the school and valued so they behaved well to avoid the risk of not being picked (they had not realised that our numbers were so small we needed all of them!)

Lunch times were important. The food was cooked on the premises and the cook knew and cared about the children, so excellent meals were served and individual needs catered for. One child once announced when presented with Hot pot, that he was allergic to it. So the next time it was on the menu she put his into pastry and called it meat and potato pie. He ate it with relish and without an allergic reaction!

Staff ate with the children offering good adult role models of behaviour at a family meal. It was not unusual to have children who had never eaten at a table and did not know how to use a knife and fork. We made sure that our Christmas dinners were very special occasions of great fun and happiness.

The rest of the dinnertime break was also structured with a range of activities on offer. I was always on duty and became very skilled at table tennis, cricket and other sports!

To go back to my title our aim and responsibility was to help the children in our care to gain insight and understanding of their own behaviour in order that they could learn how to manage it in such a way that they could react and behave appropriately in the range of situations they would encounter in life. This was no easy task because each individual child’s presenting behaviour had individual and unique causation which we had to seek to identify and understand. We sought advice from the range of professionals and the literature on the subject in order to inform our strategies. Books by Ayers, Clark and Murray (2000) and Hook and Vass (2000) proved helpful in developing strategies. The seminal texts by Robert Laslett (1977) and Paul Greenhalgh (1994) were thought provoking and helped staff to gain insight into children’s behaviours.

Maslow’s hierarchy of Needs as described in Mosley’s(1994) book entitled Turn your school around was always in our minds as we tried to ensure that our classrooms met each step so that we provided all the basic needs, a safe environment, a sense of belonging in order to help children to gain self worth and so be motivated to achieve.

We did adopt a somewhat eclectic approach. We used some behaviour modification techniques in order to provide structure and a feeling of safety in the classrooms and around the school. Rewards were given for on task behaviour, being in the “right place at the right time” etc, and we used the “credits” I mentioned earlier. Beyond that however our approach was very much along the lines of those used by nurture groups. We sought to provide appropriate role models, to listen, guide, facilitate and give positive feedback. We aimed to “catch them being good” rather than highlight the negative. This is not always easy in a busy school situation and it would be wrong to suggest that we never made mistakes!

We wanted the children to “thrive” in their learning environment. We wanted them to be happy to come to school each day and to want to learn. One of the sad things I found, far too often, was that many of the parents had unhappy memories of their schooldays and so had unwittingly transferred those attitudes to their children. So we put on events for the whole family – coffee mornings, concerts, jumble sales etc. We tried to break down the barriers and with some success. We had one mum who wanted all her children to come to us! Sadly we did end up with more than one group of siblings who were referred to us. I am glad to say they were not her children. She was a good mum who did her best in trying circumstances.

It is not always easy to assess success, however our attendance figures were good and some of our children were able to achieve a successful return to mainstream schools. Those who remained were able to gain grades on external examinations and the majority completed their education. It was always heartening when old pupils returned and talked about their time at the school with fond memories. Some saying “how did you put up with me, Miss?”

As I mix with members of our association, SEBDA – Social, Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties Association – I hear of similar good practice around the country, Terminology changes but the needs of the children remain very similar. It is important that we continue to work together across all agencies so that the voice of the child, and that of their parents, is heard and the needs of the children (and their parents) met. We should always strive to ensure that establishments working with children are full of laughter with everyone motivated to achieve their full potential with all Maslow’s hierarchy of needs being met.



Ayers, H., Clarke, D., Murray, A. (2000) Perspectives on Behaviour   London   David Fulton

Greenhalgh, P. (1994) Emotional Growth and Learning.  London    Routledge

Hook, P. and Vass, A. (2000) Creating Winning Classrooms  London   David Fulton

Laslett, R. (1997) Educating Maladjusted Children  London Crosby  Lockwood Staples

Mosley, J. (1994) Turn Your School Around     Wisbech  LDA


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