Effective in-school SEMH and counselling support

Written by: Sarah May | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The pandemic has brought pastoral and social, emotional and mental health support to the fore. Sarah May discusses her role as an SEMH support worker across a primary and secondary setting

If there is one thing that the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted it is that schools are about so much more than educating students; schools are the hub of a community, representing a microcosm of the areas they serve.

Over the past decade, with the growing incidence of mental health issues among children and young people, there has been increasing emphasis on the important role which schools play in improving mental health.

The government now expects schools to have a designated mental health lead in place by 2025, to have a whole-school approach to mental health, and to work in a joined-up way with community mental health professionals (Headteacher Update, 2021).

In a society of young people who are grappling with post-lockdown mental health issues, Brexit, Black Lives Matter, climate change, constantly changing rules, exam confusion, uncertainty, and the general loss of “normal”, it has never been more vital for schools to invest in wellbeing support for their students. One way in which schools can do this is to employ a social, emotional and mental health (SEMH) support worker.

Building resilience

In January 2021, I left behind my 12-year teaching career and began a new role as an SEMH support worker. I work three days per week at Bede Academy – a school with both primary and secondary sites in Blyth.

I work across both sites and have also set up a support room on both sites, offering one-to-one support and Friends Resilience small group support to students, as well as helping teachers and parents. Friends is a collection of Australian-developed, cognitive behavioural therapy-based programmes designed to build life-long resilience in individuals and families.

The support I give individual students differs depending on that student’s needs and on their personality and interests. The focus of my first couple of sessions is always to build a strong positive relationship with the student. I achieve this by using person-centred counselling skills which involve active listening, empathy, unconditional positive regard, and congruence, while following the student’s interests.

Children and young people are not always able to verbalise their feelings and experiences, so I help them communicate through play and other creative methods. This can involve playing games, drawing, art and crafts, story-telling, Lego-building, puppet shows, using clay, or going outside, alongside lots of listening and conversation.

When a student is referred to me for support, I always speak to their parent/carer first to explain my role and gather as much information as possible. When appropriate, I offer parents information and support too. In the primary school setting, I also speak to the student’s teacher.

Supporting staff

I also act as a resource to staff by offering tailored information, advice and resources to help them support students.

I have pooled together resources from ELSA (emotional literacy support assistants – ELSA offers number of free and cheap resources), Twinkl, the Anna Freud Centre and Northumberland County Council’s Padlets on a range of topics (see further information) and organised them into folders – for example, resources for anxiety, anger, self-esteem etc. All staff can access these on our school network.

After receiving training in the ROAR response to mental health, I have helped implement this as a whole-school approach in the primary school. ROAR is a programme developed by the Merseyside Youth Association RAISE mental health promotion team and it equips all staff with the tools to recognise and quickly respond to mental health issues (see further information).

Implementing ROAR involved delivering training to staff to help them identify and support students with social, emotional and mental health needs. It is important to equip staff with this knowledge as many teachers have not had any training in recognising and responding to mental health issues.

Mental health top tips

I find my SEMH role very rewarding and it is proving to have a positive impact on the lives of students. This impact can be seen in questionnaires I carry out before and after my intervention, and in wellbeing and attendance data. More importantly it can be seen in the positive changes that take place in students’ lives and in the verbal feedback from staff, parents, and the students themselves.

Here are some tips for any school that is considering setting up a support service or employing a SEMH support worker or a counsellor.

Speak to your staff

Although employing an experienced counsellor or SEMH worker from outside school has its advantages, it is worth checking to see if any existing staff member may be interested in a SEMH role within your school.

It has been very advantageous for me to take on the SEMH role as having worked at Bede Academy previously as a teacher, I already knew the school building, ethos, policies, and staff and I had already received relevant training, such as in the Friends Resilience curriculum, Mental Health First Aid, and counselling at Level 2.

I have found that staff have been open to having conversations with me about students and are happy to refer students to me for support, possibly because we already had a strong professional relationship. More importantly, I was known by many of the students and families, which has meant that they have felt at ease about receiving my support.

A safe, consistent area

Finding space can be a challenge in many schools, but I cannot stress enough the importance of dedicating a room or a consistent space for the students to be in when they are being supported. Children who have turbulent lives or anxiety particularly benefit from seeing the same person in the same room. It not only helps to develop a therapeutic alliance between a student and the SEMH worker, by offering a sense of security and reliability, but it also has a symbolic power. It symbolises the fact that a school is valuing wellbeing.

Ideally the room will be one that is not used as a time-out or exclusion room (such a room may hold a negative association for some pupils). At Bede Academy, we have had black-out blinds fitted on the windows in the two support rooms I work in. This gives privacy, which I find self-conscious secondary school pupils particularly appreciate. In the primary school it also allows us to take advantage of lovely lava lamps and wall projector lights so that the room can act as a sensory space too.

Prepare the room

In the primary school I have created a child-friendly room with the calming theme of the ocean (see images, above). Many of the resources have been pulled together from existing resources we had throughout school.

I would recommend plenty of art and craft items, Mindful colouring books, modelling clay, and games such as Jenga, Connect 4, Uno, Pop-Up Pirate and Rat-a-tat-cat.

I am lucky in that I have a wonderful colleague who can sew and knit, and she has created some lovely resources, such as puppets and worry monsters. It is worth asking the school community if there is someone (staff or parent/carer) who can create such items. Also, there is a fantastic charity called Knit-for-Nowt, which supplies hand-knitted, crocheted, or sewn items to those who work with vulnerable children.

In the secondary school, I have a bowl of fidget toys available. I have found that many secondary students and even sixth-formers enjoy using these; they somehow make it easier for young people to talk about difficult emotions and experiences. I have noticed that the students particularly like and use a reversible octopus soft toy, possibly because these have been trending on TikTok.

Manage referrals realistically

In the primary school, teachers refer students directly to me. In the secondary school (which is larger), the welfare team and the SENCO decide who to refer on. In a smaller school or in a school with a larger SEMH team, it may be possible to introduce student self-referrals, drop-ins and parent referrals.

When I began my role, I had the luxury of being able to say yes to every referral and I was able to begin support immediately. I quickly ended up filling my timetable with back-to-back student support sessions. This was not sustainable as it did not allow enough time to make session notes, have valuable conversations with parents/carers and teachers, or to see students who needed immediate, urgent support. It is therefore important to leave gaps in a SEMH timetable and not to spread your SEMH worker too thinly.

Timing of support sessions

There is never a particularly good time to remove a student from their classroom, however I have found that sticking to a regular day and time is the best approach. It was helpful for me to send staff a photo of myself, while explaining my role and that at times I may appear to take a student out for support.

I see primary school children for 35-minute sessions and secondary school students for 50-minute sessions. The 50-minute session is the length of a whole lesson, which means that the secondary students do not have to step in or out of a classroom in the middle of a lesson.

These sessions happen once a fortnight, which means that the students do not consistently miss a particular lesson. In the secondary school, I use a personalised stamp which says “Meeting with Mrs May”. I stamp this in the student’s diary, so that they know when their next session is and they can show their teachers if necessary. I aim to time sessions out of core subject time, although I also check with the student which their favourite subject is so I can make sure they do not miss it.

Keep your SEMH worker in the loop

It is important for a SEMH worker to stay informed about educational visits, exams, exclusions, and absences. I have a staff email and therefore receive email notifications about events, and I can log-on to our school system to check attendance and timetables. This helps me plan my time better, avoids clashes and allows me to forewarn students if I will not be seeing them one week.

Emotional weight of the job

One of the core conditions of humanistic, person-centred counselling and of SEMH support is to show empathy. Being truly empathetic requires a person to connect with a part of themselves which knows that pain. I have learnt that it is essential to operate plenty of self-care in my role, otherwise taking on other people’s wounds can become overwhelming.

What helps me is having a supportive welfare, pastoral, and SENCO team to turn to. These teams work together and with the headteacher and other senior leaders. This creates the best response for individual students, but also shares out the emotional weight.

I also have free coaching conversations with our local area educational psychologist. If you employ a counsellor, they should be supported by a clinical supervisor, but bear in mind that this can be costly.

Create a support card

I have found that I often need to point secondary school pupils towards support services which are available (for example, Kooth, ChildLine, Young Minds Crisis Messenger, Shout Crisis Messenger, The Samaritans, School Nurse Text). With the help or our school’s audio and visual technician, I created a credit card-sized card with these support contact details to hand-out when appropriate.

  • Sarah May is a social, emotional and mental wellbeing support worker at Bede Academy, a primary and secondary school in Blyth, Northumberland. Before deciding to retrain as a children and young person’s psychotherapist, Sarah was a primary teacher at the school for 12 years.

Further information & resources

This material is protected by MA Education Limited copyright.
See Terms and Conditions.


Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Sign up Headteacher update Bulletin
About Us

Headteacher Update is a magazine, website, podcast and regular ebulletin dedicated to the primary school leadership team. We tackle a wide range of leadership issues, offering best practice, case studies and in-depth information, advice and guidance. Headteacher Update magazine is distributed free to approximately 20,000 primary school headteachers.

Learn more about Headteacher update


Register to receive regular updates on primary education news delivered free to your inbox.