A culture of inclusion: Removing the stigma and mystery of SEND

Written by: Rhian Williams | Published:
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Removing the stigma of ‘being different’ and providing a safe forum for students to ask questions and to even self-refer are at the heart of the culture of inclusion at Henley Bank High School. SENCO Rhian Williams explains

Creating a culture where students with SEND feel truly included and their differences accepted and celebrated by all stakeholders in a school is every SENCO’s ambition. But what does this look like in reality?

At Henley Bank High School, I am fortunate to be in the position of not only having regular referrals from all staff and parents, but most importantly, from our students themselves. It keeps me and my team very busy but brings daily rewards as we know that what we are doing collectively is making a difference to the lives of our students.

Having worked in schools where students are often reluctant to be seen as needing additional support, I feel true joy when I am reminded by students that they need their coloured exercise books, asked why they did not receive their extra time in an assessment, or asked to check that their teachers are aware of the information on their student passport.

In short, we have a culture where SEND is everybody’s responsibility and students with SEND are not embarrassed to raise any difficulties they face in the school environment.

Having been a SENCO since 2001, I have seen society become more aware and accepting of our differences. Television shows such as “A typical” and the wonderful “Love on the Spectrum” have helped bring neuro-atypical people’s needs and talents into the mainstream consciousness.

Crucially, they have provided role models for our students to help them to understand their own needs better, helping to demystify why they are “different” to their peers.

It is a frequent recommendation in research for students to have regular social communication groups, which aim to teach children how to communicate within our social norms, or to be taught social stories so that they are prepared with strategies to cope, with changes to their day, for example, or staying safe on social media.

These are essential skills for students to develop, but without understanding that their brains are different from the majority of their peers, students do not have the knowledge to recognise why they are struggling in different situations.

They need to be able to recognise their individual processing and their particular frame of reference in order to develop their own strategies for coping with life beyond that of school.

Respecting differences

Recently, one of our year 10s who had recently been assessed by our speech therapist came into my office and said: “So Miss, you think I’m autistic, I think you’re right, what does this mean? And when will I grow out of it?”

That same term, a year 8 girl came to us and asked that we talk to some boys who had noticed her stimming (self-stimulating behaviour) and had started copying her. In response to this, we worked with a group of children to develop a whole-school assembly called “Different brains: Respecting differences” (you can download the PowerPoint from this assembly by clicking the button above).

The impact of this assembly across the school was wonderful. I had several students come up to me in the days and weeks afterwards asking questions about how they could help and what they should do if they see somebody struggling.

I also received several self-referrals from students themselves, asking me if they could be assessed as they recognised in themselves some of the traits I had described.

Removing the stigma of being different and providing a safe forum for students to come and ask questions has resulted in students accepting themselves and others.

Mental health

We held another assembly last term entitled “It’s ok to not be ok”. As we all predicted, the repeated lockdowns have impacted on our young people’s mental health.

March 8, 2021, is a date I will never forget, the day the schools “reopened” to all students. Those students who had been in school from January were anxious about the return of everybody else, while many of those who had been learning remotely struggled to leave the sanctuaries of their homes and return to their “bubbles” in school.

In the weeks that followed I will be forever thankful that our school budget had allowed me to double the in-house counselling and emotional wellbeing support in preparation for the predicted rise in students’ poor mental health.

However, despite careful strategic planning, my team and I were overwhelmed by the growing need that presented in our students, particularly those in years 9 and 10 where 21% of the children were referred for specialist support between March and May 2021.

Since then, there has been a growing need in our younger year groups as the Covid “hangover” continues to cut a swathe through the mental health of our children.

Train students, not just your staff

Having delivered grounding training to all staff so that they are aware of the various strategies our SEMH team use to support our students, it became clear that we needed to deliver the techniques to all students as the number of SEND referrals continued to rise.

Similar to the “Different brains” assembly, I aimed to explain where anxiety comes from, likening it to a parasitic monster that hijacks our brains and distorts our thinking.

Dan Siegal’s brilliant hand analogy (see further information) is superb at explaining what happens when we become dysregulated by anxiety and is incredibly accessible to all.

Having whole year groups work through the breathing and grounding techniques was quite an experience, which was again rewarded by students thanking us afterward and also telling us what else they do to help themselves.

Developing students’ resilience is a core ethos for my team, but not in the “get on with it” way. No, we work with them so that they have the resources, self-belief and essential tools needed to self-manage on their own.

Anxiety, in my experience, doesn’t ever go away, but it can be recognised for what it is, and students can be given the tools that work for them to self-regulate in classes, on a bus, or when walking into a busy dining hall.

In fact, one of our proudest achievements recently has been seeing a group of our year 10 students, all of whom were referred for specialist SEMH support, signing up to be trained as Mental Health Ambassadors through the excellent work of Bespoke Mentoring (see further information), who is a partner to Gloucestershire’s Trailblazer project. These 10 students have given up their time to learn more about mental health and how they can help others.

We have seen the self-confidence and resilience of these amazing young people grow. They have delivered their own mental health assembly, promoted their work and self-help strategies to younger students, and created a rota to support my team during our Positive Start morning interventions.

One year 10 boy who a year ago I would need to go and collect from his home in order to get him into school (where he would then hide outside my office), is now smiling and laughing with his growing group of friends and actively engaging with and enjoying his learning across a full curriculum.

When I congratulated him on his 100% attendance last term his response was “well, I’d be bored at home”. Moments like that bring tears to my eyes (even now, as I sit here writing this).

Working with parents and carers

While we can offer this high level of support and encouragement within the school environment, if nothing changes in the home environment, how can any change be effective long-term?

I have found myself repeating countless times the same recommendations and strategies to parents and carers so that home and school work together seamlessly to support our children.

Time however remains our most precious commodity, and mine is certainly limited. I have therefore started a half-termly parent workshop programme, with the hope that I am able to reach out to as many families as possible.

The first virtual workshop was entitled “Supporting your anxious child” and saw

20 parents join online. The gratitude from those attending and enquiries about future sessions made the effort worthwhile and I have since repeated the same workshop in a hybrid format – delivering it live in-school as well as filming it for those who wanted to watch from home.


All that we do – different strategies to support different pupils, educating the whole school on SEND, and reaching out to parents – is in order to help our children overcome their difficulties. We are empowering our students to be long-term, independent people who will thrive, both in school and beyond.

  • Rhian Williams is SENDCO at Henley Bank High School in Gloucester (@HenleyBankHigh). Henley Bank won the Award for Secondary Provision at the Nasen Awards 2021.

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