Attachment and SEMH: Supporting our children

Written by: Emma Lee-Potter | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Pikemere School has been working to prioritise issues of Attachment as well as social, emotional and mental health challenges. Emma Lee-Potter explains how the school trains its staff and supports pupils

Like many teachers across the country, staff at one Cheshire primary school have noticed a rise in the number of children starting school without the speech and language skills they need to begin learning in the classroom.

Teachers at Pikemere School in Alsager have also observed a growing number of young children who find it difficult to leave their parents at the start of the school day.

“In the last few years we’ve been seeing more children starting school with speech and language delays,” explained Pikemere headteacher Louise Gohr. “There’s also a greater need around their emotional wellbeing in terms of being able to self-regulate and leave parents quite happily.”

Determined to tackle these issues, Ms Gohr and her team jumped at the chance to take part in two initiatives – first an action research project on Attachment and then an early years social, emotional and mental health (SEMH) pilot project, both instigated by the local authority, Cheshire East.

Fourteen per cent of Pikemere’s 240 pupils are on the SEND register and the school focuses far more on intervention during the early years and key stage 1 than it did a decade ago.

The Pikemere teachers began their action research by learning about Attachment Theory, which states that a strong emotional and physical attachment to at least one primary care-giver is critical to a child’s personal development. After presenting their research to the local authority, Ms Gohr, SENCO Claire Beresford and assistant head Clare Johnson decided to do further work with pupils with Attachment difficulties.

“As a school we have a strong community-based feel to what we do but the Attachment project made us go a little bit deeper and ask ourselves ‘how good are we at this?’,” Ms Gohr explained. “We had one year 1 girl who struggled every day coming into school. She found it difficult to leave her mum in the morning, but rather than recognising that she was struggling to regulate her emotions we would quickly help her to come away from her mum and almost immediately want her to get on with her phonics.

“Through our research project we learned a lot about the importance of stabilisation – the idea that you have got to be able to stabilise the child’s emotions first before you can get to a point of learning.

“We were doing a good job before but the action research project encouraged us to put the microscope on what we were doing as a school. Sometimes in a busy school we rush children to the next thing but often it is important to slow everything down – because some children need it to be slower.

“We did a lot of training on self-regulation and emotion coaching and spent a great deal of time with that little girl. By the end of the year she was starting to feel happy coming to school and letting go of her mum – and her mum felt happy as a result.”

After the success of the action research project, Cheshire East asked Pikemere to take part in a pilot project on SEMH in the early years.

The project started in September 2018, when early years consultant Dr Kay Mathieson delivered specific training focused on identifying children’s needs and behaviours and putting plans in place to support them.

Dr Mathieson also focused on staff wellbeing. “If we were looking at how we support the emotional health of our children we also needed to consider whether we were good role models as practitioners,” Ms Gohr added.

“Kay introduced us to the idea of videoing our own practice. She modelled how teachers can have effective interactions with children within an early years environment and highlighted the children who were struggling to interact in play, based on SEMH challenges.

“The learning from this was that children needed this interaction modelling and scaffolding. It also supported practitioners in recognising the signs and behaviours of children who may find interaction difficult.”

The head wanted to look at how effective its SEND provision was across the school so the teachers also worked with Natalie Packer, an education consultant and author of The Perfect SENCO.

“We encouraged all our teachers to be observed in their classroom practice and then they worked with Natalie on a one-to-one basis to review their practice, specifically looking at the SEND children in their classes,” said Ms Gohr. “It really enabled us to notice the behaviours of some of the SEND children within the busyness of the classroom.”

Ms Gohr believes that with pressure on school budgets these days all teachers need to become experts in SEND – and that CPD is vital.

“I wanted to try and equip them with strategies to be able to meet the needs of SEND children in a mainstream environment,” she said. “From completing a staff questionnaire on how confident staff felt in meeting the needs of SEND children it became apparent that staff needed some high-quality CPD.”

As well as a SENCO, the Pikemere staff include a Reception teacher with SEND accreditation and Jane Chatterton, a dyslexia qualified teacher.

“Jane delivered a series of twilight sessions for the staff and one of the key learning points came when she made us be the children who struggle in class,” Ms Gohr continued.

“She put us out of our comfort zone. She did a range of activities linked to reading, writing and spelling and helped us to see the challenges that the children face on a day-to-day basis. She pointed out the pressures that we as practitioners can put children under if we are not fully aware of their difficulties and challenges. This reflective approach to CPD helped to make us aware of how to shape our provision and practice.

“We are really lucky here because we’ve created a culture where the staff embrace CPD and change for the better. As long as there is a purpose and a clear ‘this is why we’re doing it’ then all the staff engage with it.”

The school puts an emphasis on working with parents and building strong relationships. As well as creating a video about its SEND provision and posting it on its website, it has set up a parents’ forum for parents of SEND children. This meets every term and parents are encouraged to ask questions and discuss any concerns.

Ms Beresford works closely with parents and focuses on children’s strengths as well as their challenges. She explained: “Rather than focusing on what the children can’t do we talk about their strengths and say ‘let’s work towards them’.”

Ms Gohr is adamant that focusing on children’s primary needs is crucial: “Sometimes with our SEND children there are so many things we need to be focusing on and you can almost lose sight of what their primary need is. Maths intervention, reading intervention, emotional support – suddenly you’ve got several things going on and you risk losing sight of what you’re trying to achieve for the child.

“So rather than overload them, we’ve stripped it right back and said: ‘What is the primary need? Let’s plan for that.’

“Our staff, parents and children work in partnership and there has been a real shift in terms of SEND and what we do. We are now in the process of sharing our learning with other schools within our trust (the Chancery Multi-Academy Trust) and beyond to strengthen outcomes for our most vulnerable children.” 

Top tips from Pikemere

  • Building relationships with parents is key.
  • Do not underestimate how important high-quality CPD is for practitioners. As practitioners we have got to become as skilled as we can be.
  • Early intervention is crucial.
  • Know the experts you can call on within your local area. It is important to call on each other’s strengths and expertise and share best practice.


  • Emma Lee-Potter is a freelance education writer.


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