Person-centred approaches: a useful tool for supporting CYP mental health

By Dr Samuel Kelly, author of The Greater Me Cards

As an Educational Psychologist, my role is often to collaborate with schools and organisations to meet the social, emotional and mental health (SEMH) needs of the children and young people. There are regularly heightened emotions around the child, especially if their mental health manifests itself in concerning ways, such as emotional-based school avoidance, self-harm, or frequent emotional dysregulation in school. This can sometimes lead to misunderstandings about the child or young person, and the adults around them are left feeling unsure about the best ways to support them. Children and young people sometimes feel as though they are unable (or have not been given the opportunity to) share and collaborate on potential ways forward, or agree additional sources of support. This is where person centred approaches can be most useful, leading to an opportunity for children and young people, and the adults or the organisation that support them, to grow together.

Person-centred planning is becoming more established as an evidence-based approach to supporting the goals and aspirations of children and young people. In the UK, organisations such a Helen Sanderson Associates have worked with the government to establish a culture of person-centred practice within policy and guidance. While such approaches have historically been rooted in movements promoting social justice and disability rights, there is a growing recognition of the potential value person-centred approaches could have for supporting children’s mental health and wellbeing. This includes person-centred care in mental health services for children, young people, and their families (Gondek, 2017) as well as in schools and early education providers (Fröhlich-Gildhoff & Rönnau-Böse, 2012).

Person centred planning draws on ideas from several areas of psychology, including social psychology, personal construct theory and positive psychology. It can promote self-awareness, self-esteem, and personal resilience.  Schools and organisations that have an established culture of person-centred approaches are more likely to create an environment that provides a sense of belonging, a key component in helping children to feel emotionally held. Key principles of person-centred practice are as follows:

  • The child or young person is always at the centre

  • Family members and friends should come together with the school or organisation as partners in planning with the child or young person

  • Children and young people should feel that their views are listened to, valued, respected and where possible, acted upon

  • The outcomes should reflect what is important to the child as well as their views about what support they require to be successful

  • The plan should help build the child or young person’s place in the school or organisation’s community, helping them to make connections and establish a network of support

In considering the purpose and aims of person-centred planning, it is possible to see how these approaches can be tailored to support the mental health of children and young people. For example, for the student who experiences regular panic attacks in school, a person-centred meeting with key members of school staff can help to establish aspects of school which cause greater anxiety, and the young person can be collaborated with to plan around their strengths and the strategies they need to use to regulate. Making use of tools such as “Sorting important to/for” or “good day/bad day” can support the child or young person to share their views and self-advocate for what they need in order to be successful (see Helen Sanderson Associates Person Centred Thinking Tools).

Person centred approaches can also be used to support children and young people at key periods known to impact upon mental health, such as transitions to a new school or moving into adulthood. Person-centred planning can be a hugely grounding and holistic approach to supporting wellbeing at times of change or turbulence. For example, The Planning for Adulthood Team has a suite of person-centred planning materials which are specifically designed to find out what is important to a young person and the support they need to be successful as they move into adulthood.

Schools and organisation may also think about embedding a culture of person-centred practice that fits with existing systems and procedures already established or taking place. For example, in the context of children and young people with an Education, Health and Care Plan for SEMH needs, it is possible to move towards an annual review system which is person-centred and enables the child or young person to participate to varying degrees. An example of this includes the Tower Hamlets Model of Person-Centred Planning which was created and evaluated through collaboration and research with local schools, children and their families.

As well as creating the necessary space and systems for person-centred approaches, it is also crucial that young people are properly enabled to have a voice ahead of and during meetings about their mental health and wellbeing. This includes providing them with enough information and giving them different options to express themselves (Lundy 2007).  It also includes ensuring they have the relevant self-awareness and self-advocacy skills to participate in person-centred planning, in a meaningful and authentic way (Kelly, 2016).

One tool that parents, schools and other organisation may wish to make use of to develop self-advocacy and participation includes the Greater Me Cards. The aim of the cards is to support young people (including those with mental health needs) to become a self-advocate by understanding themselves better and knowing what they need to be successful. The cards facilitate conversations which help them to gain this insight, and help young people recognise the qualities associated with their personal resilience. By instilling these skills in children and young people with mental health needs, they hopefully become better able to participate in person-centred practice, which enables them and those supporting them to move forward together.

In summary, person-centred approaches are an authentic and holistic approach to supporting children and young people reach their full potential. It can be a helpful tool in empowering children and young people to manage their mental health more effectively and become an equal partner in the planning of support and provision that enables them to be successful.


Fröhlich-Gildhoff, K & Rönnau-Böse, M. (2012). The promotion of mental health in early childhood institutions (ECI) under a person-centred perspective. Hellenic Journal of Psychology. 9. 255-277.

Gondek, D., Edbrooke-Childs, J., Velikonja, T., Chapman, L., Saunders, F., Hayes, D., and Wolpert, M. (2017) Facilitators and Barriers to Person-centred Care in Child and Young People Mental Health Services: A Systematic Review. Clin. Psychol. Psychother., 24: 870– 886. doi: 10.1002/cpp.2052.

Kelly, S. (2016) Can Self-Advocacy Skills Support Young People to Participate in Person-Centred Planning? An Example from Research Involving Young People with Dyslexia. Educational Psychology Research and Practice. 2:2. 25-30.

Laura, Lundy (2007) “”Voice” is not enough: conceptualising Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child”, British Educational Research Journal, 33:6. 927-942, available at:

The Greater Me Cards by Leanna Lopez & Sam Kelly

Person-centred Thinking Tools | HSA | Consultancy | Training (

Person-centred Planning (

By Dr Samuel Kelly, an HCPC registered Senior Educational Psychologist currently working for East Sussex County Council. He is the co-author of the Greater Me Cards, who has conducted research and is passionate about pupil voice, self-advocacy and person-centred practice. He is also an AVIGuk-accredited Video Interaction Guidance practitioner.

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