Emotional wellbeing for young people with learning disabilities

All children and young people, including those with learning disabilities, can at times struggle with their emotional wellbeing.

For example, they may experience anxiety about going to school or feel down when they fall out with a friend.

The PERMA model

The PERMA model can provide some useful ideas of how to support a child or young person with a learning disability with their emotional wellbeing.

It was developed by psychologist Martin Seligman and identifies 5 essential elements which you can incorporate into daily life:

  • Positive emotion: Encourage and support them to do things which bring them enjoyment. For example, dancing around the kitchen, going to the cinema or playing outside.
  • Engagement: Prompt them to do activities which engage them and hold their attention. For example, listening to a story, going to the park with a friend or building a train set.
  • Relationships: Support them to develop and maintain positive relationships. This can be individual relationships, such as encouraging them to ask another child at school if they would like to play together. It is also about finding opportunities for them to develop a sense of belonging, such as by being in a sports team, choir or nature group.
  • Meaning: This is about doing things which are meaningful to them. For example, if it is important to them to be caring, they could regularly help their grandmother with watering her garden. Or if they love the family pet cat, they could be responsible for feeding them each day.
  • Achievement: Provide opportunities for them to build their skills and try new things so that they can feel they have done well.  This does not need to about doing well at school, although it can be.  For example, if they learn how to make their own drink, they will have a sense of achievement when they help themselves without needing to ask an adult.

Other top tips


Children and young people with learning disabilities may communicate how they are feeling through their behaviour, especially if they struggle to express themselves verbally.

Remember that all behaviour is communicating something for the person. For example, if every weekday morning they refuse to get dressed, this might be because they are worried about going to school.

Physical health

Always consider whether there might be a physical health cause underlying a young person’s distress.

They may find it difficult to express if they are in pain or unwell so it is worth checking if this is impacting on how they are feeling and behaving.

Relaxation resources

Mindfulness and relaxation: Cosmic Kids Yoga – YouTube

Five seconds breathing exercise: Surrey & Borders NHS Trust – YouTube

Explaining mindfulness: Surrey & Borders NHS Trust – YouTube

Seven techniques for helping keep kids calm: BBC

Useful sources of information and support

Mencap: a charity for people with a learning disabilities, their families and carers. Their website has useful advice and resources.

Easyhealth: a website with a health information in easy to understand words, pictures and films. This can be useful when you need to explain health information to children and young people with a learning disability.

Challenging Behaviour Foundation: a UK charity focused on children, young people and adults with learning disabilities whose behaviour challenges.

Introduction to Positive Behaviour Support (PBS): a video introducing the core principles of PBS, an approach to supporting people whose behaviour challenges.

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Page last reviewed: 20 December, 2023