Relationships, Sex and Health Education (RSHE) is instrumental to young peoples’ health and wellbeing, setting them up to develop healthy relationships throughout their lives. But it’s tricky to teach at the best of times and can feel especially challenging in a SEND context.
Students with SEND are more than three times more likely to experience sexual or emotional abuse. RSHE is crucial to help them voice their needs and navigate relationships – but minimal guidance about how to teach this subject to these students makes it difficult to design an effective curriculum that caters to each student’s unique needs.
I work with hundreds of schools across England, including special needs and alternative provision (AP) schools, to develop an outstanding RSHE provision and support teachers to deliver it. Here are some key considerations.
Ensure SEND voices are represented
RSHE provisions should include a diverse range of voices on topics like sex, consent and relationships. This is especially true when it comes to SEND and AP settings, where students’ experiences can differ enormously. For example, many students with autism have a different understanding of communication, so content should include people with autism discussing how they navigate relationships and issues like consent.
At South Quay College, an AP school with a high number of students with SEND, the RSHE curriculum includes lessons on topics like ‘How autism affects my life’. This ensures all students feel adequately represented, and in a mixed setting diversity enhances learning for all students, exposing them to different experiences and developing their empathy.
Communicate in clear language
It’s tempting to talk around tricky topics, using metaphors about cups of tea to navigate issues like consent indirectly. However, an RSHE curriculum should always teach the correct terminology, ensure it is clearly understood and get students to practise these exchanges.
Using direct language is vital as it narrows the window for misunderstanding, especially for neurodiverse students or those with speech and hearing difficulties, while also giving students the vocabulary to understand their emotions and the oratory skills to discuss them.
When designing a curriculum, it’s helpful to include fact-based explainer videos, allowing professionals to unpack complex topics like consent laws and sexually transmitted diseases in a clear and objective manner.
Focus on skills
Many young people with additional needs can lack pragmatics when it comes to relationships and difficult conversations. It is important for young people to develop an understanding of the appropriate proximity to that person, how to take turns in a conversation and the ability to ‘let things go’, all skills which impact how they communicate with others.
RSHE should give students with SEND opportunities to practice, focusing on building the skills that will enable them to navigate the complexities of everyday life. This should extend beyond romantic relationships to include relationships with peers, teachers, family members and carers.
Haringey Learning Partnership have seen a remarkable difference in their students since their refocus on emotional literacy. Assistant headteacher, Kalpana Jegendirabose acknowledges that young people can be squeamish about these conversations, but says that seeing them modelled on screen gives them the confidence to have those same conversations in class. “As a result,” she adds, “students are more engaged, and get more out of their PSHE sessions.”
Teacher CPD and ongoing support
The teacher recruitment crisis has made it very difficult for schools to get specialist RSHE teachers. This is particularly true for SEND and AP schools, where it’s predominantly non-specialist teachers who deliver the subject. I’ve spoken to many who are worried about getting it wrong.
Equipping teachers with training and support is crucial, especially where recruitment lacks. Resources, advice and reassurance are available to support staff to confidently and effectively teach RSHE.
Above all, there is no one-size-fits all approach. Expect the unexpected, and be ready to modify and adapt the curriculum according to feedback. There’s no denying that this is easier for knowledgeable and skilled facilitators, but take comfort in knowing that even they don’t have all the answers. It’s always okay to address something the next day once we’ve done our own homework.