At our Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) Conference 2021 we heard from Nicola Crossley, Executive Director of Inclusion for Astrea Academy Trust [1]. Nicola presented on the Social, Emotional and Mental Health (SEMH) needs of SEND pupils.

SEMH needs are a type of special educational need in which children/young people have severe difficulties in managing their emotions and behaviour. They often show inappropriate responses and feelings to situations such as [2]:

  • Disruptive, antisocial, and uncooperative behaviour
  • Temper tantrums
  • Frustration, anger and verbal and physical threats / aggression
  • Withdrawn and depressed attitudes
  • Anxiety and self-harm
  • Stealing
  • Truancy
  • Vandalism

Recent figures estimate that around 150,000 children in mainstream and special schools are suffering from SEMH [2].

Nicola notes that many of the students struggling with SEMH can be identified as students with SEND.

The strategy of the Astrea Trust in Supporting the SEMH of students with SEND

The Astrea Academy is a multiple academy trust of 27 schools across South Yorkshire and Cambridgeshire made up of 18 primary schools, 7 secondary schools, 1 all-through school and 1 special school for SEMH. The trust was established in 2015, originally to address educational disadvantages in the North of England.

The vision and ethos of the trust are to inspire beyond measure, and this reiterates the founding principle that all children, regardless of background and context should have access to a broad and rich educational experience.

Nicola explains that the trust’s approach to SEMH has developed over the last couple of years and it has had to be ramped up during the pandemic

 Promoting a Trauma Informed Culture

The first principle that Nicola promotes is a trauma-informed school culture that supports all pupils including those with SEND. This involves a commitment to the trust-wide rollout of trauma-informed approaches, which underpin the ethos and culture of all schools. The aim of this project is to make students feel seen, with no student feeling dejected due to their unique needs and experiences.

The Trust is now in partnership with Trauma-Informed Schools to support the training and development of Level 5 Diploma qualified Trauma-Informed practitioners in every school. This is a 3-year rolling programme so that all schools in the trust are covered by 2023, with all practitioners supported by clinical supervision which occurs monthly. This was achieved through a grant application.

The trauma practitioners in the schools will be responsible for delivering these key techniques of the trauma-informed approach [3]:

  • Providing vulnerable children with daily access to at least one named, emotionally available adult, who believes in them, relates to them with compassion, empathy, and unconditional positive regard.
  • Catching children as they are ‘falling’ not after they have fallen. When the child is experiencing a painful life event, the emotionally available adult/s will help them process, work through and make sense of what has happened, rather than waiting until the pain of the trauma has transformed into challenging behaviour and/or physical and mental health problems.
  • The implementation of a Relationship Policy for all staff to ensure they interact with children with kindness and compassion.
  • A commitment to relating to children in a school or other setting in ways that help them feel calm, soothed, and safe, instead of over- stimulated, bombarded, and anxious. 
  • Staff/adults interacting with all children in such a way that they feel valued as individuals throughout their day.
  • Staff/adults adjusting their expectations of vulnerable children to correspond with their developmental capabilities and experience of traumatic stress.
  • Training staff/adults in key conversational skills to enable children to address negative self-referencing and to help them move from ‘behaving’ their trauma/painful life experiences, to reflecting and developing coherent life narratives.

Nicola explains that the trust began the rollout of this trauma-informed approach just before easter of this year. It was beneficial because it meant that instead of it being a project that focused on children with SEND, the whole student population benefited, given everyone’s experiences of trauma that are related to the pandemic.

Developing In-House Specialist Support

Additionally, in September the trust appointed 2 in-house Educational Psychologists to support the accurate and early identification of need, which doesn’t necessarily require a diagnosis to offer support and guidance.

Nicola reported that a lot of schools are hesitant to ask for support when a child is yet to receive a SEND diagnosis, however it should be perceived that a diagnostic label is not needed to see when a child needs additional support. 

In-house specialists can help identify the barriers to that child’s progress is, what the child’s strengths are and how can we profit from these strengths to help the child progress in their education.

The Trust has also appointed 4 in-house councillors to provide targeted and responsive support to children and young people in crisis. But also moving towards a model of prevention, the councillors are there to provide that reactive and responsive support but also to develop training and development of staff so that they understand what anxiety in the classroom looks like.

A Focus on Mental Health

Nicola highlights the way that the trust prioritises the mental health of all students, with a particular focus on those with SEND. For example:

  • The Trust has their own mental health review. This is available on request by any of the schools in the trust and it aims to inform priorities and support the strategic leadership of mental health across the trust.
  • An appointment of 2 in-house trainers who can deliver L1, L2 and L3 Mental Health Awards which are externally accredited and can therefore train Designated Safeguarding Leads in mental health in accordance with the Green Paper (2018) [4] expectations.
  • From September 2021, all Designated Safeguarding Leads and all Trauma Practitioners are to access monthly Clinical Supervision to ensure support for developing practice and reflection.

Addressing Exclusions

Nicola states that when they were appointed as Executive Director of Inclusion at the Astrea Trust, they noticed that 70% of all exclusions were students with SEND. This highlighted a problem that needed addressing.

They developed the PEAP approach (Pre-Exclusions Assessment Process) to ensure exclusion really is the last option available. This involves, structured conversations to build up a full profile of the child.  The voice of the child is captured, and the characteristics of the child are noted as safeguarding concerns. All details are looked at and an action plan is created to decide whether the child merely needs SEMH support as opposed to exclusion.

Furthermore, the trust has welcomed 2 in-house Team Teach trainers to deliver positive behaviour training courses that provide a holistic approach to managing behaviour for individuals and organisations working with children and adults. 

The Team Teach trainers offer a consistent approach to de-escalation and the safe handling of children and young people in crisis with the aim of reducing exclusions across the trust.

Additionally, a partnership project with The Brilliant Club and the University of Leeds has been formed to support reduced exclusions and improved attendance. The project seeks to raise aspiration and access to HE for children who are repeat offenders of exclusion. 

Impact of the Astrea Strategy

Exclusions have been reduced across all schools. Where previously SEND pupils accounted for 78% of all exclusions this has now been reduced to 40%. 9 out of 18 primaries and 4 out of 7 secondaries are now below national for exclusions.

Prior to Covid-19, they had started to see a positive impact on attendance, particularly in primaries, where on average attendance had improved by 1%, showing that the strategy was working in keeping children in school. This does need further focus post-pandemic as attendance has dropped again with students transitioning from remote working to back to the classroom.

Students are increasingly seen as individuals with unique needs. They are less likely to be deemed as ‘unfixable’ and more likely to be seen as individuals with specific traumas that contribute to poor behaviour.


[1] Crossley, Nicola. 2021. Executive Director of Inclusion at The Astrea Trust Academy

[2] Camden. What are Social, Emotional and Mental Health needs (SEMH)?

[3] Trauma-Informed UK Schools

[4] Government Green Paper. 2018. Transforming children and young people’s mental health provision: a green paper

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SEMH needs are a type of special educational need in which children/young people have severe difficulties in managing their emotions and behaviour. This case study looks at the strategy of the Astrea Academy Trust. The Trust promotes a focus on the social, emotional, and mental health needs of pupils with SEND.

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