Social and Emotional Wellbeing of Children with SEN

Social and Emotional Development

Social and Emotional Wellbeing of Children with SEN

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Social and Emotional Wellbeing

‘… the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school.’
William Shakespeare, ‘As You Like It’ (1600).

The importance of education, Shakespeare’s 17th-century wisdom implies, is such that it overrides ‘minor’ considerations like a child’s personal happiness. And as with similar aspects of natural parenting, the practical cruel-to-be-kind measures this scholar endures may turn out to be the best medicine after all. Sadly, over four hundred years later, our rolling media news makes it hard to miss images of children who may be lost to education for ever, and some whose sole remaining aspiration is to stay alive.

Basic needs

Realistically, there are vastly different degrees of ‘school unwillingness’, lack of engagement, poor behaviour and more, and many obvious – though regrettable – reasons why. However, most parents and childcare professionals well understand any child’s emotional and social competence and well-being must at least be on track before even the most basic educational development can be anticipated. Maslow1 made this same point back in 1943, and his well-known ‘hierarchy of needs’ diagram – shown below – is a stark reminder why government SEN policy in the modern age now considers it essential to equip all children with essential social, emotional and behavioural skills.

Read more about SEN and behaviour in our article: Behavioural, Emotional and Social Difficulties

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs
Adapted from Fontana (1981)2

Maslows hierarchy- social and emotional

Maslow later developed far more elaborate versions of this diagram to support his basic premise that, before the intellectual developments leading to autonomy and ultimate self-actualization can ever take place, the most basic needs associated with human survival must be fulfilled. Nevertheless, the image suffices to highlight the pathway to personal growth, whilst also reminding us that this route to emotional health and well-being is non-negotiable because every single child matters – a theme now enshrined in educational legislation.

Every Child Matters

This landmark initiative further addressed by The Children Act 20043 and at least partially prompted by the Laming4 report investigating the tragic death of Victoria Climbié, sets out the minimum levels of support each child is entitled to expect. In diagram form, when similarly formatted as below, the five key ‘Every Child Matters’5 principles show a certain family resemblance to Maslow’s hierarchy. But much more importantly, as Frederickson & Cline6 note, they act as a safeguarding framework designed to address ‘the negative consequences of deficiencies in social and emotional competence and well being’.

Every Child Matters: five key principles

social and emotional Every Child Matters

This legislation acknowledges that, whilst some children require extra support for a variety of reasons, accepting the need for broad-based institution-wide interventions will serve to significantly reduce the numbers who require more-specific, or even individual interventions to prevent a slide towards deteriorating mental health. The diagram below outlines how positive early-intervention measures to improve the social and emotional environment for all signal a policy shift towards using psychology to enhance children’s life chances rather than just to fix emerging problems.

Impact of explicit intervention strategies
Adapted from DfES (2005d)7

Impact of interventions

Peer groups and friendships

Direct adult observations of child interactions in a classroom or similar setting can yield accurate and perceptive survey data on many aspects of the prevailing social climate. Unfortunately, what is known to researchers as the Hawthorne effect8 – where the subjects behave differently just because they are being observed – tends to skew research outcomes to a marked extent. More informal assessments fare better by comparison but still tend to miss crucial subtleties which often only come to light over time.

Work with younger children is essential, and overarching peer group assessments are often quickly and simply achieved via some form of rating scale. For pre-school children this must be easy to understand, so the use of images as in the example below helps to set the scene:

Social Inclusion Survey
Inspired by Frederickson and Graham (1999)9

Social and emotional Inclusion Survey

During a survey, children might be asked how much they like to play with each classmate in their group. Smiling, neutral and frowning faces offer a choice of response, with a question mark used where the respondent cannot place an occasional individual. Photos of each child can help to jog memories and keep down erroneous replies. It can be revealing to rerun the survey on another day, this time asking how much the children like to work with each member of the class, because a change of activity and context will often produce a varied outcome. Periodic social data collection can help track the natural dynamics and fluctuations of friendship groupings, but can also provide an early warning about children vulnerable to social isolation, or worse.


Special Educational Needs in the Early Years – Download Free eBook

Special Educational Needs in the Early Years


Interventions at institutional level

DfES guidance stresses that the development of social & emotional competence is an ongoing process which is necessarily linked to, and part of, child development. Thus Bruner’s ‘spiral curriculum’10 which returns to topics again and again, each time recasting them in the light of a child’s increasing maturity, is the most relevant learning model. As the DfES document explains:

‘… children’s capacity to manage the feelings involved, and the range of strategies at their disposal, will be very different in the early years than, for example, their experience at the age of 11. We cannot therefore ‘teach’ these skills as a one-off. There is a need to revisit and develop the concepts, understanding and skills over time, building on what has been learned previously.’

Highlighting another key feature, the advice points out ‘there are also differences in the ways that emotions may be valued, experienced and displayed across cultures’.

The DfES conceptualise the social and emotional aspects of learning (SEAL) across seven key themes as follows:

Seal themes:
Adapted from DfES (2005d)

seal topics

These themes, the DfES recommend, should be regularly approached in institutional settings through the medium of five personal and/or intrapersonal socio-emotional skills, each of which is shown below accompanied by its symbolic image:

DfES social & emotional aspects of learning
(DfES 2005d)

wellbeing-Seal themes

Interventions for at-risk groups

The role of parents in child development is universally acknowledged. For instance, Nutbrown et. al11 note that Every Child Matters legislation makes the parental contribution ‘explicit in helping to achieve … outcomes’ – especially the first three, which ‘apply more obviously to the youngest children’:

‘1. Be Healthy … parents, carers and families promote healthy choices …

2. Stay Safe … parents, carers and families provide safe homes and stability …

3. Enjoy & Share … parents, carers and families support learning …’

Thus intervention programmes target parents first, and include both voluntary groups and arrangements set up under compulsory parenting orders. Experience reported by the Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE), the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE), and others suggests: practical advice strongly underpinned by theory has been effective, aggressive child behaviour was positively influenced, families with younger children fared best, and recruitment was better where the course descriptor avoided the term ‘parenting programme’.

Small ‘child social skills’ groups tend to operate in discrete clinic settings on school premises. These are generally seen as effective, with some feedback noting that child social-problem solving skills were positively enhanced, children from families under particular pressure also improved, and the programmes were also of practical benefit to children with ADHD.

Early years childcare professionals have a major responsibility to do all they can to break the link between socio-economic disadvantage and consequent educational under-performance. Far from being no more than a thankless task, promoting emotional literacy in an environment which positively affirms that every child really does matter sends out a constant message of hope which will enhance the lives, experience and prospects of all children who attend – no matter how ‘unwillingly’ they may at first ‘creep to school’.

Individual interventions

Individual initiatives for children with major difficulties are invariably multi-agency responses and tend to involve safe and secure settings where boys, children from deprived backgrounds, children with SEN, and those from cultural and other minorities are generally over-represented. One-to-one contact allows a full range of strategies to be employed and tailored to the needs of each child. Sessions will often focus on a specific social skill, or a group of ‘can do’ skills, and use a combination of modelling, reinforcing, scaffolding strategies, and coaching skills to promote positive social behaviours and responses. Children with sensory impairments will have, or must be taught, specific ways of recognising and interpreting emotions in others. In addition, cultural knowledge and sensitivity is demanded when interacting with children from other cultures whose background may, for example, have taught them to use and respond to gesture and gaze in different, culture-specific ways.

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