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Allow pupils to share their ideas without judgement

By its very nature, RHE lessons often need pupils to reflect on their experiences in life, and consider very personal feelings and emotions. This can offer huge benefits to pupils’ social, emotional and physical wellbeing, and gives them future self-direction, but can be at best ineffective and at worst harmful if a safe learning environment has not been created.

A safe environment enables pupils to share their ideas without judgement, consider information and develop skills for life within a secure space. A whole-school approach that embeds best RHE practice within the curriculum helps teachers deliver the subject with confidence. When everyone feels relaxed, the real potential for RHE to make a difference can be unlocked.

The following best practice principles, advocated by the PSHE Association, help schools lay the foundations that they need:

1. Create distinct ground rules

Establishing specific ground rules for RHE lessons provides an expectation of behaviour, especially regarding aspects that could have personal resonance or trigger an emotional response. Pupils in all year groups should be involved in the setting of ground rules so that they have an investment in these expectations, and rules should be revised regularly to make sure they are still relevant – some lessons will require additional rules, and others won’t apply.

Rather than sticking a list on the wall and forgetting about them, make sure the rules are ‘active’ – revisit them at the beginning of each RHE lesson and refer to them when necessary. Make sure it’s clear that the rules apply to adults as well, to model best practice.

Ground rules should be relevant and written in age-appropriate language, examples might be:

  • listen to what other people say
  • comment on what someone says, not on who they are
  • use the correct names for all parts of the body
  • you can pass if you want to

2. Distance the learning

Distancing is about taking a situation away from pupils to allow them to consider it in a removed way. A pupil may have experienced or be experiencing something similar, but distancing will enable them to consider it objectively, rather than making it ‘about’ them personally. Distancing helps pupils to consider how they might help or advise someone in a particular situation, which they might then recall for their own use. It can also help pupils to reframe a situation that they are struggling with: e.g. "What would I tell someone else if they were feeling like this?" "If my friend asked me what to do, what would I say?"

Picture books are a great way to distance learning for all ages, as they can act as both an introduction to a situation and an example for someone’s journey through it. They can be used to reinforce teaching points already made, revisited, and referred to as a reminder, even when the lesson has finished (“Do you remember when Frog kept comparing himself to his friends? How did he find out what he was good at?”)

Events in picture books can even be replicated: e.g. asking children to carry around a ‘huge bag of worries’ to experience the physical change when worries are offloaded.

Other ways to distance learning include using puppets or stuffed toys for younger children, images, videos, case studies, ‘hot-seating’ or role play.

3. Encourage and value questions... and be prepared!

Inevitably, many aspects of RHE lessons will prompt questions, and it is important that pupils know their questions are encouraged and valued. Consider reactions to a question: there should be no implication that any question is ‘stupid’, and all questions should be responded to. Being evasive, dismissing or not answering a question because it causes discomfort can lead to a child creating their own response, or looking elsewhere for the information, possibly from inappropriate sources.

However, there will also be questions that pupils feel shy about asking, and others that teachers will themselves feel self-conscious about or unprepared for, such as those asked about puberty or sex education, or about frightening events shown in the media.

To help with these types of questions:

  • have a question box, ‘ask-it basket’ or post-its available at all times so that pupils can ask questions anonymously if they want to buy time if put on the spot by a tricky question, or one that might be used as a ‘test’ for a response or reaction. Delay a response by asking the questioner what they think the answer is, discuss it as a class, or use a response such as, “I’m not completely sure – let me find out some more information so I can give you a proper answer later on.

Above all, it is essential to be honest and open – even if the question is unexpected or the answer uncertain. Being honest about not knowing will instil more respect than being dismissive or unclear.

4. Be sensitive and aware

Teachers cannot know the personal circumstances of every child in their care, but they will know children very well, and be aware of pupils who are vulnerable for a range of reasons. Considering vulnerabilities and potential lived experiences is crucial when teaching about aspects such as family relationships or unhealthy lifestyle habits. However, it is also useful to plan on the basis of there being at least one person in the class who will have been affected by any issue. Avoid asking pupils to share negative personal experiences, or to single out individuals: e.g. “Put your hand up if you’ve ever been bullied.

In choosing resources, avoid images which might be upsetting or shocking, represent certain groups in a stereotypical or negative way, or do not accurately reflect pupils’ circumstances. It is also important to model a non-judgmental attitude when teaching about topics such as family relationships or lifestyle choices – ground rules will help establish this expectation.

5. Signpost to information and support

Wherever possible, help pupils identify or tell them about any sources of additional information and support if they need it, both in and out of school (this should also be in line with any existing safeguarding messages). This may simply be the class teacher or someone else within school, or a parent/carer or other trusted adult outside school.

Draw attention to posters and support information, which should be displayed in accessible places (e.g. in a school library, on the back of toilet doors or at children’s as well as adults’ eye-level in communal areas), or, for older pupils, age-appropriate and accessible online sources, sending this information home as well.

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