Mental health: Practical approaches to developing pupils’ resilience

Written by: Dr Pooky Knightsmith | Published:
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Promoting resilience is seen as key to helping pupils handle challenges to their mental health. But what are the tools that pupils really need? Expert Dr Pooky Knightsmith advises

In an environment where every day brings new headlines about mental health crises and a self-harm epidemic, it is vital we keep sight of what we can do to support the children and young people in our care.

Earlier this year, Kate Middleton said: “We cannot always change a child’s circumstances, but we can give them the tools to cope and thrive.”

In this article, I consider what those tools look like and how and when we should provide them.

When is the right time?

When we talk about resilience, we’re essentially thinking about developing a young person’s “protective factors”. In much the same way that there are a range of risk factors that might put a young person more at risk of low attainment or mental health issues, there are protective factors that can help support against these. Some of these are beyond our control, but there are many that we can weave into our curriculum and provision of pastoral care.

It is never too early to start. While we’ll always need to adapt our teaching to meet the age and stage of the pupils we’re working with, these messages are every bit as relevant to a four-year-old as to a 14-year-old, and these life-skills are best learned when embedded as a part of the curriculum from an early age.

They should not generally need to be taught as discrete lessons but rather woven into the complex tapestry that is the primary curriculum and then drawn on repeatedly as we explore more sensitive topics in our secondary PSHE programme.

Key skills for a more resilient life

Four skills which we can readily build into our curriculum in order to promote young people’s resilience are:

  • Communication.
  • Problem-solving.
  • Healthy coping.
  • Understanding emotions.

Communication

One of the key reasons that toddlers have tantrums is that they become frustrated at their inability to communicate their thoughts, feelings, experiences and emotions. They simply don’t have the words yet. We can see these patterns of externalised or internalised damaging behaviour repeated in older children who are unable to express themselves.

For this reason, it is important that children learn how to communicate clearly. They need to learn the appropriate language to share concerns they might have and they need to be able to verbalise or otherwise communicate these. Ask yourself:

  • Are there any especially vulnerable groups who may need extra input, for example EAL or SEND pupils?
  • What different ways of communicating can we teach our pupils – might some find alternative means of expression such as drama, dance or art more helpful?
  • Can we consider alternative forms of communication for pupils who are struggling – for example use of instant messaging rather than face-to-face meetings?

Problem-solving

The ability to problem-solve is a hugely important, but largely under-developed skill, in many young people. In 2016 they can turn straight to the social networks or the internet for instant answers and they have less down and play time than previous generations. Unstructured time is vital for experimentation, game playing and imagination – all of which develop problem-solving skills. A young person with secure problem-solving skills is more likely to respond positively to moments of crisis and less likely to choose “harmful solutions” such as self-harm, misuse of drugs or alcohol or truancy. Ask yourself:

  • Can we encourage pupils to become more autonomous and independent in their learning in order to develop their problem-solving capacity?
  • Can we provide pupils with the freedom to explore, experiment and imagine?
  • Can we use specific approaches such as team-building activities or strategic games (like chess) to develop pupils’ problem-solving skills?

Healthy coping

Our pupils need to learn how to manage difficult thoughts, feelings and experiences in a healthy way. This will look different for every person but a range of ideas will need to be explored. These might include things like mindfulness, breathing strategies, exercise, use of music, writing – the list goes on. The most important thing about healthy coping strategies is that pupils need to learn and practise using these techniques in moments of calm so that they are able to access them in times of crisis. Ask yourself:

  • Can we build relaxation, calming or mindful activities into our regular programme so pupils become comfortable with these techniques (and ready to learn)?
  • How can we enable pupils the opportunity to try a range of healthy coping strategies they might not otherwise have tried? Would a workshop help?
  • How can we support pupils to share ideas with each other as well as us sharing our own ideas?

Understanding emotions

Pupils need to be able to name, describe and understand a range of emotions. They need to know that it is normal and healthy to experience many different emotions and that they should not be scared of emotions such as sadness and anger.

They should, however, understand at what point they should seek further help with these feelings. Improved emotional literacy makes young people more able and more likely to seek help, and for the help they receive to be more tailored to their needs. It can also aid young people in working through issues at an earlier stage before they escalate. Ask yourself:

  • Can I role-model by making a conscious effort to name and describe emotions and feelings as an integrated part of my teaching approach where relevant?
  • Are there any kinds of feelings our pupils are less able or willing to talk about? How might we address this?
  • Would it be helpful to use additional ways of describing or exploring feelings – such as the use of colours, a scale or animal analogies?

The importance of failure

It is important too that our pupils are given the opportunity to learn from their mistakes. Sometimes the lessons best embedded are those where we took the scenic route with some mistakes along the way.

While first time success brings instant gratification (and happy parents), there is a huge amount that can be learnt from being allowed to explore, experiment and occasionally get things wrong.
Additionally, those pupils who have not experienced adversity or failure can suffer very poor outcomes the first time this arises as they simply aren’t prepared for things that don’t go right and do not have a secure understanding that there is often an alternative route or the opportunity to try again. Ask yourself:

  • Can pupils be encouraged to see continuous success as an indicator that they are not challenging themselves enough – can they be encouraged out of their safe zone?
  • Is it possible to provide pupils with an opportunity to experience fun, safe failure – e.g. using climbing walls or high ropes courses?
  • Can we reframe the language we use around failure, seeing it instead as a learning opportunity or a step on a journey?

Becoming a listening school

We can promote the resilience of the pupils in our care by ensuring that our school has a truly child-centred ethos where every child is heard and respected. Young people who attend schools where they feel their voice is heard and their issues taken seriously are more likely to seek the support and care of those around them when it is needed. While we often think of resilience like the armour that enables us to take life’s knocks without crumbling, it is also about having the self-awareness and confidence to ask for help when it is appropriate.

Every child needs at least one good adult in their life. Many will find this support at home, some will not. Stop and ask yourself: “Does every child in my school have an adult in their life that they could turn to in a time of need?” If the answer is no, then if you do nothing else after reading this, please work with colleagues to ensure that each of those silent children has their voice heard. Five minutes in your busy day can be transformative for a vulnerable child used to fading into shadows.

  • Dr Pooky Knightsmith is director of the children and schools programme at the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust, which provides funded mental health training for schools. Follow @PookyH and @CharlieWTrust.

Mental Health in Schools Conference

Dr Pooky Knightsmith will deliver a keynote presentation at SecEd’s Mental Health in Schools best practice conference on June 17 in Birmingham. The day features practical workshops offering schools advice on prevention, interventions and removing barriers to learning. Visit www.schoolsmentalhealth.com


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