Among those working at the chalkface of secondary education, the need to support pupils’ emotional wellbeing and mental health is widely recognised. This need is highlighted through the following statistics:
One in 10 young people, or at least three in every class, has a behavioural or emotional difficulty (Green, et al., 2005).
Almost half of young people with fewer than five GCSEs graded A* to C said they “always” or “often” feel down or depressed, compared with 30 per cent of young people who are more qualified (Prince’s Trust, 2012).
In an average classroom: 10 young people will have witnessed their parents separate, one will have experienced the death of a parent, and seven will have been bullied (Faulkner, 2011).
One in four young people of secondary school age will have been severely neglected, physically attacked or sexually abused (NSPCC, 2011).
Clearly these statistics will vary from school to school, but one thing is apparent: you are likely to be working with a high number of pupils whose ability to engage with learning is severely hampered by the worries, distraction and fears that they carry with them to school.
Pupils who act out or those who simply fall below the radar are often struggling to balance their own emotional needs with the demands of school and their peers; furthermore their struggle to engage with school can detrimentally affect the ability of other pupils to concentrate and learn alongside them.
It is crucial that schools recognise and address the challenges facing their pupils and provide support for them, their parents and also teaching staff.
Though each school is unique and as such each may need to take a slightly different approach to supporting their pupils, there are nonetheless some key guiding principles that can help schools in providing support for their pupils’ mental health and emotional wellbeing.
First, it is essential to take a whole-school approach. In practice this means providing both universal mental health and emotional wellbeing support to all pupils, while balancing this with swift and effective targeted support for pupils most in need.
This is crucial as a disconnection between the approach to supporting the general school population and the pupils with the greatest need can potentially lead to a certain level of stigma (or perversely credibility) relating to targeted support services, and this can be hugely counterproductive.
Normalising mental health and emotional wellbeing services within a school as positive and accessible tends to result in pupils coming forward for this support more readily and teachers using the services more constructively. Achieving a whole-school approach to supporting pupils’ mental health and emotional wellbeing requires several steps, including the following.
Integrate mental health and emotional wellbeing into the curriculum. Traditionally the domain of PSHE lessons, there are several curriculum plans that are freely available to focus students on their own emotional wellbeing and mental health, as well that of others. Many teachers of other core subjects integrate emotional wellbeing into their teaching methods, “mindfulness” being a key example, or the teaching content where relevant.
Establish, or better co-ordinate, your pastoral care system so that learning mentors, school nurses, teaching assistants, school-based counsellors, and other key staff adopt a consistent approach to emotional wellbeing. This can often lead to stronger messaging within the school and more seamless support for pupils. Many schools will delegate responsibility for emotional wellbeing and mental health to a member of the senior leadership team to oversee.
Provide consistent training to the whole-staff team, from senior managers to midday supervisors, relating to children and young people’s mental health. This can significantly heighten understanding of students’ behaviour and also ensure that all school staff respond consistently to any presenting issues.
Ensure that any commissioned counselling or mental health services are fully integrated into the fabric of the school, rather than using these to “fire-fight”. Services should be anchored in the school and capable of offering a range of interventions based on need and assist where appropriate with the curriculum, staff training and existing pastoral care systems.
Build an ethos within the school which firmly supports the emotional wellbeing of all pupils and staff. Ensure that this culture is reflected not only in the school’s mission statement and material, but also in the mindset and behaviours of the entire school community. This should be evidenced with concrete examples of how this works in practice. It should flow from self-evaluation forms and Ofsted reports, through school leadership and from governors. It is also important to ensure that there is a good fit with anti-bullying and healthy schools material.
Engage with parents as much as possible. Parents are critical to supporting or backing up the school approach at home and the need to understand how the school embraces mental health and emotional wellbeing.
Collect as much evidence as possible that links the improved emotional or psychological wellbeing of your pupils with improved academic progress. Raising standards and closing the academic gap is a great way to justify a whole-school approach to supporting pupils’ mental health and emotional wellbeing.
Attending to the mental health and emotional wellbeing of the whole school can also have a positive impact on the physical health of pupils. The public health sector has put much emphasis on the need for a “parity of esteem” between physical and mental health, and schools are a key environment for this.
Happier pupils tend to make more informed decisions about their physical wellbeing, and healthier pupils tend to be happier. By raising aspiration, choice and responsibility in schools through open discussions, more shared decision-making, and establishing active school councils, pupils are more likely to embrace personal responsibility and develop resilience.
By recognising the importance of and attending to pupils’ mental health and emotional wellbeing needs, schools can make further positive steps towards meeting their ultimate goal of raising the aspiration, achievement and enjoyment of all their pupils.
Mick Atkinson is head of commissioning at Place2Be and chairman of the Schools and Colleges Workstream for the Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition.
- Place2Be provides schools with mental health and emotional support services, supporting children, parents and teachers. Visit www.place2be.org.uk
- The Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition campaigns on behalf of children’s mental health and wellbeing. It is made up of 14 UK charities, funded by the Zurich Community Trust and hosted by the Mental Health Foundation. Visit www.cypmhc.org.uk