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Self-Harming. How to support students and staff?

Updated: Oct 6, 2023

Self-Harming. How to support students and staff?

Bea Inclusive TV and Podcast Episode 022

Hey everybody.

Happy Thursday.

Five weeks ago, I posted the VLOG about coping skills and mentioned self-harming. If you missed this VLOG, I placed the link here.

I had a few questions about self-harming at school, how difficult it is, and how to react when witnessing this behaviour. So, in this week’s episode of Bea Inclusive TV, I will give you essential information about self-harming. Also, you will be able to hear from the psychologist Anna Faff where to seek help and advice on self-harming, and if you are from Great Manchester, you may see Anna in person. I will place all the links to Ann’s practice in the description below the video here.

My name is Bea, and this VLOG is dedicated to advocating truly inclusive school provision through well-researched, safe, and recommended approaches.

A huge thank you to you if you subscribed to my channel. I appreciate that you are here. If you are new to my channel, welcome, and please subscribe as this is free, and you will help me to grow the channel.

All educational or specialist staff working with children, and young people, are likely to encounter children or young people who self-harm at some point in their school career.

I worked with at least five children who self-harmed, and I understand this is not easy for some adults, especially if you have never had any training about that topic. You feel like running away from the situation when witnessing it.

Self-harm is distressing for all concerned, and many working in children's services feel unprepared to deal with it.

Ignorance, fear, and misunderstanding may be why the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE, 2004) has found that staff frequently have a negative attitude towards those who carry out acts of self-harm, particularly those who repeatedly harm themselves.

I will place the link to a few self-harming handbooks and guides designed to provide basic knowledge and awareness of the facts and issues behind self-harm in children and young people, with advice about how staff can respond.

It is not a definitive guide and does not replace official guidance issued by professional bodies or government policies. Still, it provides a clear and straightforward starting point for easy reference. I used these guides to support my children and myself in dealing with self-harm.

I firmly believe that all educational staff should be trained on what it is and how to react when witnessing self-harming as our first response. It's crucial for children and young people's future behaviour.

I strongly believe that our duties as educators are:

  1. To understand self-harm and possible underlying reasons for this behaviour.

  2. Act sensitively and appropriately in supporting each child or young person to be emotionally well through interventions such as yoga, meditation, and social skills groups where children or young people can increase self-esteem, learn self-regulation or explore more positive options on how to problem-solve.

  3. To report self-harming to the safeguarding officer.

  4. To refer the child to CAHMS for more specialistic help

In this VLOG, you will:

  1. Find out what self-harming is.

  2. Get through possible types of self-harming.

  3. Explore possible reasons for self-harming.

  4. You can check your knowledge as I prepared the short quiz.

  5. Learn about possible signs of self-harming, as this is not always apparent.

  6. Learn how to react and why this is important.

  7. Find out how to help when waiting for a specialist from CAHMS.

  8. You will be able to hear from my friend Anna – she is the psychologist – and she will tell us what to do when experiencing or witnessing self-harming and where to find help.

Anna specialises in many different areas, and she helps people experiencing detachment, unexplained pain, lack of stability, emotional distress, mood difficulties, shame, guilt, self-esteem difficulties, and life difficulties in general. She also works with ASD/NT couples, and she's married to ASD men for over 14 years, so she can understand the difficulty from both sides.

I will place the link to Anna's practice under this video.

Let's start with defining self-harm.

Without any complications, simply saying, 'Self-harm happens when someone hurts or harms themselves.'

There are many different types of self-harming:

  • overdoses (self-poisoning)

  • self-mutilation (e.g. cutting behaviours)

  • burning

  • scalding

  • banging heads or other body parts against walls

  • hair-pulling

  • biting, etc

There could be many different reasons why children or young people self-harm, and it's hard to explain the thoughts. Self-harm is described as an inner scream, a way of expressing deep distress.

Several purposes may be served by self-harm, such as communicating unmet needs and feelings, finding comfort, self-punishing, gaining control over the situation or life, avoidance, etc. In addition, self-harm can be a way to help someone cope with overwhelming emotions such as rage, sadness, emptiness, grief, self-hatred, fear, loneliness, or guilt.

There is never one reason, event, or experience that may cause self-harm, but the research shows that the experiences most intricately linked to self-harm in young people are:

  • Mental health problems

  • Family issues

  • Disrupted upbringing.

  • Being abused, etc.

There are a lot of stigmas, myths, and negative attitudes surrounding self-harm in the school setting or among health care professionals. Often, assumptions are made about why children or Young People self-harm and how to treat them.

A lot of educational and health care staff believe that children or YP self-harm to:

  • Seek attention.

  • For pleasure

  • Because they are bored, etc.

I would like to try something new, so let's have a quick quiz where you can check your responses. There will be eight questions. After each question, you will have a few seconds to choose your answer (yes or no). When the time ends, I will reveal the answer, and if you answered correctly, you win 1 point.


Statement 1: All who self-harm are suicidal.

Answer: NO. Only a small number of people are suicidal. For most, it is a release from emotional pain.

Statement 2: The more serious the injury, the more serious the problem.

Answer: NO. The nature and severity of the self-harm do not reflect the nature or severity of the problem.

Statement 3: Children who self-harm can stop quickly if they want to

Answer: NO. It is a way of coping and is difficult to control unless a better way of coping can be adopted.

Statement 4: Self-harm is attention-seeking.

Answer: NO. Many young people will hide their self-harm.

Statement 5: People who self-harm - like/enjoy the pain.

Answer: No. It is not about pain. It is about coping.

Statement 6: Self-harm is the problem. If we stop this, then the person will be fine.

Answer: NO. Self-harm is not the problem and may be seen as a solution to issues that will not disappear.

Statement 7: Children self-harm to avoid work.

Answer: NO. Many children and young people may struggle with understanding, communicating, sensory, coping, environment, etc.

Statement 8: Self-harm is a young people issue.

Answer: NO. People of all ages self-harm.

If you scored 8 points – Well done!

It is not always easy to spot the signs of self-harm as they can feel shame, fear, and embarrassment at their actions and may hide scars, wounds, bruises, or cuts. People recognise that their self-harming will be viewed negatively by others, so they become secretive in order not to be exposed to criticism and stigma.

If you suspect a young person has self-harmed, remember to approach them non-threatening and non-emotionally.

You must stay neutral.

Also, prepare yourself to receive evasive responses to your questions. Young people may offer stories that seem implausible or only partially explain physical indicators, for example, I can't remember, fell off my bike, playing with my cat, messing with my mates, etc.

There are things to look out such as:

  1. Unexplained burns, cuts, scars, and markings on the skin

  2. Arms, hands, and forearms opposite the domain hand are common areas for injury

  3. Inappropriate dress for the season

  4. Constant use of wristbands or scarf

  5. Unwilling to participate in PE, swimming

  6. Frequently wearing bandages

Remember that if you spot any self-harm signs, a child or young person may be at risk of harm or being harmed by others. Therefore, you should always follow your safeguarding policies and inform and seek advice from the Safeguarding Officer in your setting.

So, let's talk about the reactions when witnessing or suspecting self-harm. If you discover that the child or young people that you support self-harm, you may experience some unfamiliar responses, especially if you find them in the act of self-harm or with fresh wounds.

Research in education settings found that adults responded in several ways to young people's self-harm, such as:

  • Sorrow, alarm, panic, shock

  • Being scared, distressed, upset, frustrated, repulsed, etc.

Remember, your reaction to self-harming when disclosed for the first time can potentially have a profound influence on whether they go on to seek help from support services.

Self-harm can become a preferred way of coping, making it difficult for young children to believe that anything else will help. Still, there are other ways of coping, and we should teach different coping skills and try and practice them with children/young people. We can also build their self-esteem and resiliency through small group collaborative activities where we can teach them positive ways of communicating needs and problem-solving skills through small group activities.

Try to be a good listener by allowing the following:

  1. A young person to speak without interruption or judgment. If a young person can open up to you, it could be a significant breakthrough, so tread carefully.

  2. Set boundaries around what you can offer and be clear with yourself and your organisation about what you cannot provide and which other individuals or organisations can be used for help. Don't try to work alone.

  3. Do what you can to encourage children's parents or young people to seek professional help such as counselling.

As I mentioned before, I've asked my friend Anna to give you some advice on what to do when witnessing self-harm or when to seek help when self-harm. So, this is what Anna said:

I've placed links below this video if you want to contact Anna.

So how to behave and what to do?

  1. Self-educate yourself about self-harm – the more you understand, the better. Do not think that the problem will go away. If you work with children and young people, at some point, one of them will self-harm. In my school career, I had three different cases of self-harming, and I was working mainly in the mainstream primary setting

  2. You will need your organisation's support as you cannot act in isolation. Look after yourself – it is hard to support someone if you are feeling overwhelmed. Make sure you also have a source of support for yourself. It is OK to be honest about your fears.

Staff who have contact with children/young people who self-harm in their setting should be provided with appropriate training to understand and offer support.

Educational staff can work around children coping skills, self-esteem, self-care, and resiliency, teaching them to problem solve and encouraging children and young people to seek individual therapy. Assessment of Needs should be offered to all people who have self-harmed, and the risk assessment of further self-harm or suicide should be identified.

OK. There you have it!

I hope you enjoyed this video and the quiz today, and I look forward to hearing from you.

After you've finished, please join the discussion below. Please tell me what you would like me to cover in my VLOGs. Don't forget to like and subscribe.

I will see you next Thursday.


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