Mental health: Three schools, three strategies

Written by: Phil Denton | Published:
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Three of the schools where Phil Denton has worked have had innovative and effective approaches to supporting good student attitudes, wellbeing and mental health. He explains more

Ibelieve we have a crisis among young people across the United Kingdom. I am not alone in thinking that this crisis is mental health.

Of course, the causes of this are many and varied, but in my experience the impact of the increased rigour to our national curriculum is being felt as much in year 1 classrooms as it is in the exam halls of secondary schools across the country.

Of course this is not just limited to students. It also touches staff, senior leaders, headteachers, governing bodies and those within our local authorities (or multi-academy trusts).

The increased rigour may well lead to students with a greater breadth of academic knowledge and understanding, but in it is wake it could well leave a legacy of stress, anxiety and subsequent mental health casualties.

This issue is exacerbated by pressures brought by social media platforms like Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter. These internet vehicles facilitate online bullying, peer pressure and the depiction of fake lives of happiness, adding to the anxieties of children’s daily lives.

We are still a long way from understanding the full impact on our children of living always-connected, always-online lives.

So, what are schools doing to help counter the threats to the mental health of our children? I have been fortunate to work in three schools that have responded to this issue with three different yet innovative approaches.

Approach 1: Healthy interactions, healthy minds

I spent two years as a history teacher with extra responsibilities at a medium-sized secondary school in Rochdale. It sits just outside the town centre and looks like many other schools transformed with the old Building Schools for the Future funding (in that it is grey and curvy!).

However, from my very first day on interview I realised that this school was quite different. It is without doubt the most innovative school that I have ever worked in. Indeed, you are never the same person, professionally or personally, after you have worked at Matthew Moss High School.

Matthew Moss, under the infectious leadership of Andy Raymer for more than 20 years, believes that it is different and identifies itself as such.

Their proactive approach to supporting students with mental health as well as academic development is perhaps most clearly illustrated in its work with students to study exactly how our brains work.

Students from year 7 onwards spend weeks reviewing the way the brain develops as we grow and learn. The course was geared towards fostering a sense of belief, a sense of drive and a sense that they controlled their own learning though the use of a growth mindset, as championed by the American educational researcher Professor Carol Dweck.

Andy Raymer was well ahead of his time in focusing the school’s learning agenda on this simple premise. It is a proactive way to give students a sense that they can control their own mindsets through belief in and understanding of their capabilities.

Having a premise, a belief, is important but it must be fuelled by effective communication between staff and students. This was addressed through regular staff CPD and student workshops and by using the theory of “transactional analysis”.

This simple principle is that we all have three states of communication – adult, child and parent. The latter being an authoritative dictator, the child being the playful one with a lack of regard for social norms, and the parent being the logical state in which we can communicate most effectively in “normal” situations.

This approach was written about by Claude Steiner, a writer I can strongly recommend. And the use of this language and this set of principles was again championed by Andy Raymer, who pioneered the use of it in English schools. The approach allows a shared language among staff, students and even parents.

In the long-term, Matthew Moss also worked with professionals who used another area of Steiner’s work – Life Scripts. Within one-to-one sessions or small group workshops, both staff and students could talk about how they perceived their lives or their “scripts”.

Consider this for a second – is your life a comedy, a drama, a thriller or a disaster? Who are the characters in your script, i.e. the people in your life? How do they facilitate your story? Take for example the troubled child who arrives at your school on a managed transfer. They often arrive with a disaster life script and, according to Steiner’s theory, will draw characters into their script that can facilitate the disaster script. You can probably think of friends, family or celebrities who you could equate this too, it certainly does not end with children.

At Matthew Moss, external counsellors worked with students to help them understand their scripts and I was even allowed to talk with staff at a residential about understanding their own scripts. The latter certainly led to fascinating discussions at the bar following our session.

Matthew Moss is a superb example of proactive and reactive approaches to mental health as well as having a core purpose which is focused on fostering positive mental wellbeing through a growth mindset.

Approach 2: Managing the mind

While at The Grange High School in Runcorn, I saw a school that was compassionate and proactive in its mental health agenda.

Headteacher Barry Carney brought in and resourced a team of student advocates who drove initiatives including anti-bullying ambassadors, student mentoring, and a student leadership body.

Within this focus was a clear intention to equip the students with the tools they needed in order to understand and manage their emotions more effectively.

The approach incorporated growth mindset, which was writ large through policies, illustrated across the school, discussed in form groups and showcased in assemblies. The other element of this approach was based upon Professor Steve Peters’ “Chimp Paradox” theory.

Prof Peters has worked with top sporting professionals such as Steven Gerrard and Sir Chris Hoy to aid their performance when under extreme pressure. The approach lends itself well to mental wellbeing promotion across schools. This is because it encourages students to understand the parts of their brain which are controlling their actions, and how this understanding can lead to better decision-making in times of conflict or stress.

Quite often, students with troubled backgrounds would allow impulsive or “chimp-like” reactions to dominate their behavioural decisions. Offering sessions to support students in making more beneficial decisions with the use of a shared language (based on Prof Peter’s work) allowed the young people to articulate their emotions more effectively.

This approach can be implemented in a very cost-effective way, which is always a bonus for cash-strapped schools. However, it needs to be sustained over a longer period of time and it must be something which is understood by staff, students and parents.

This understanding must be communicated through CPD sessions, form times and parents’ evenings. It must then be implemented through conversations, communications home and the way in which student behaviours can be supported when it comes to pressure and stress.

To get a full picture of this approach, The Chimp Paradox by Prof Peters is a great read and one which could change the way we understand behaviours across schools.

Approach 3: The personal touch

A quite alternative approach was led at St Edmund Arrowsmith Catholic High School, Ashton-in-Makerfield. Having worked with headteacher, Mark Dumican and the great staff at “Eddies”, I know that the physical, mental and social wellbeing of students is central to the Catholic ethos of the school. Many visitors will comment on the way they feel the positive and caring atmosphere after a tour of the school or interview experience. In a mixed comprehensive school, a polite, caring and articulate student body does not happen by accident. It only happens by this being at the core of what is the norm, every lesson, every conversation during every day.

One aspect of this mental health support is one-to-one counselling through an external professional named Peter Owen. Peter is known affectionately as the mind healer by parents and students. He practises an innovative approach which is based upon Percussive Suggestion Technique (PSTEC).

For the vast majority of students who undertake this, there are real differences to the way they behave and cope with stressful situations.

The approach is different in that it is somewhat reactive and offers students very practical solutions to dealing with high pressure situations. It is of course part of a wider pastoral programme, but it is central to the mental health support offered to students.

Common factors

All three approaches, led by three outstanding headteachers, have one thing in common – they place the mental health of students as a very high priority across school at all times.

My personal approach on my journey toward a substantive headship post is to ensure that mental health is talked about and referred to regularly through pastoral programmes. It is then vital that a shared language is established and shared with all key people: governors, staff, students and parents.

I think the drive that growth mindset approaches offer can give great strength and purpose to academic motivation. However, this cannot allow students to feel like a failure if they have emotional burdens which stifle such a mindset.

Student emotional support should also be coupled with tools such as use of the Chimp Paradox or Life Scripts. And we must not forget that students are not the only individuals in our school communities – staff mental health should also be a priority.

My underlying values are based on love, faith and hope. The first of which being something that should always incorporate a care and compassion for everyone who is associated with our schools today. Should any of this resonate or if you would like more details on any of the approaches mentioned, please do contact me.

  • Phil Denton is head of school at St Bede’s Catholic High School in Ormskirk. You can email him at p.denton@sbchs.co.uk


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