Sophie Tales portrait

Written by Sophie Tales

Associate Assistant Principal for the Mead Educational Trust in Leicester. Sophie leads on Social, Emotional Mental Health, SEND Support and Development, Transition, Oracy, Team Teach and is chair for SENCo and Family Support Worker Networks.

What does it mean when students with SEMH show prejudice within a state of crisis? How can this be managed? How should this be tackled?

Within an SEMH context there are high staff to student ratios. Therefore, in the best of settings, there is very little behavior that goes unnoticed. This means that as staff you have a very insightful position within the lives of the SEMH students that are in your care and, therefore, have an opportunity to support students within any ounce of behavior that has been shown; positive or negative. 

When it comes to times of crisis for students with SEMH, this can manifest in different ways. Behaviour that can be shown as an SEMH student reaches crisis: verbal abuse, physical abuse, controlling behavior, damage of property or self-harm.

Verbal abuse can often be part of an individual student’s behavior when they are in or reaching crisis. When an SEMH student is in crisis they are in ‘Fight, Flight. Freeze.’ Fight and flight are often seen within SEMH contexts. Verbal abuse is part of the ‘Fight’. Typically abuse that I personally get is “fat”, “bitch”, “slag”, “slut”; all very much to do with my body and being female. Within this state of crisis an SEMH student is in such a state of unrest that they are attempting to show you just how badly they are feeling; sometimes they want you to feel just as badly as they do – hence the abuse. What I, as a white woman, haven’t experienced is any abuse about the colour of my skin. However, what I wish to discuss within this piece of writing is that when working with students with SEMH, racist language may well be used as abuse towards anyone; regardless of the colour of their skin.

As with any SEMH context, the behavior policy of that setting is a fundamental part of the running of the school and provides a clear set of rules, as well as opportunities, for students to follow to be rewarded for positive behavior. Racism is a key part of the policy which outlines steps of action if a student shows racial prejudice. However, what I would argue is that all contexts, SEMH or not, alongside their behavior policy, equally need a defined focus within the setting’s curriculum where ‘racism’ is being taught; for SEMH students, especially those who are white, racism is a very hard concept to understand.

The importance of having a differentiated curriculum designed to discuss what race and racism is became increasingly apparent to me when dealing with a group of white students who were increasingly using racist language towards members of staff when they were reaching a state of crisis. It became increasingly apparent that this needed an individual approach as no form of sanction was helping them change their behavior. For instance, these students all hated working away from their main class group and this was the first part of the sanction for the racist words that they had used. In the past, working away from their main class group would help these particular students to understand what they had done wrong and to stop any repeat offenses. However, with this incident, it didn’t. The words these students were using became worse and, strangely, the targets of these racist words became more varied. These students started to use these words towards anyone who was around at their point of crisis. They were not directing these racist words towards any particular skin colour; they were saying them to anyone available – white or black. This change in word direction helped me to see the issue. These students were not showing their prejudice; they were using words that they knew offended and upset people, without having any real understanding of what they were talking about.

This is where I realised I had overlooked something. I had overlooked just how complex a social construct such as racism is for any child, let alone a student with SEMH. To be able to understand racism, you are not just having to teach how historically people of colour have been treated as inferior to white people – you have to help teach the impact of community, culture, religion and, above all else, empathy. This is not an easy endeavor for students who struggle with social understanding. Yet, once this has been identified, you can identify what needs to be broken down for those students to understand the impact of their words and behavior.

For the students I was working with they needed context. They needed to understand what the words they were using meant to the staff they were saying it to. This could not come from me. A white woman telling them how it made another person feel wasn’t enough context; they needed to hear it from the person they had said it to. Secondly, they needed to see what this meant in context. They needed to see the community of people that they were directly offending when using those words. Finally, they needed to be in that community, to see those faces, and to discuss, in front of the community they were offending, when out of crisis, and to feel the weight of the language they had used.

The above approach worked. These students no longer use racist language within a state of crisis; it has been put back into a box that they know is not to be touched; regardless of the level of distress they are feeling. This is not to say that I think they will never use these words in a state of crisis again; they most likely will. But what they have now is a foundation of understanding that can be used to remind them of who they are not to use such language. Most importantly, it helped everyone involved to see that these students were not prejudiced. They were not targeting race; they were seeing a way of hurting someone as a tool for communication, without an understanding of the historical and social weight of the words they were using.

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