Wellbeing: The words that go unsaid

Written by: Dr Pooky Knightsmith | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Picking up on changes in our pupils can help teachers and school staff to spot emerging mental health or wellbeing issues. Dr Pooky Knightsmith advises

How can we tell when a pupil needs our support? It’s a simple question and the most obvious answer is if they ask for our help. However, often the voice which most needs to be heard is the quietest.

These are the children who keep me awake at night, these are the children who slide through life so quietly that we might not pick up on their needs.

At worst, they are the children who make headlines when they take their lives for no apparent reason; at best they are children who continue to just about manage and find a way to safely navigate their issues or a means of accessing support eventually.

The easiest analogy is to physical health – I remember learning on a St John’s first aid course when I was in primary school that if we found ourselves at the scene of an accident that some people would be shouting for our help, others would be quiet. Go to the quiet ones, the trainer taught us, those are the ones who need your help most urgently. It felt counter-intuitive to my six-year-old brain, but of course the most severely injured casualties may be unconscious and therefore unable to cry for help.

Similarly, in our classrooms, sometimes it is those pupils most heavily hampered by difficult thoughts, feelings or experiences who might find it the hardest to make their voice heard.

So how do we spot them? How do we pick up on the child who is quietly breaking inside and how do we distinguish them from their peer who may be introverted but happily so?

I could write lists that run to reams of warning signs you might look out for, but when it comes down to it, you need to look out for one thing – and that is change. As school staff, we are fortunate to get to know pupils over a number of terms so we’re well-placed to notice even subtle changes.

I often find that staff under-appreciate their own ability in this regard and that given the space and time to think, they can pick out a handful of pupils that are a cause for concern because something has changed. Changes might include (but are not limited to):

  • Weight – an unusual increase, decrease or fluctuation in weight.
  • Alertness – becoming demotivated or lethargic or full of anxious energy.
  • Academic performance – a fall in grades, or an obsession with perfection.
  • Attendance – worsening attendance/punctuality – or sometimes the reverse if school is a safe haven.
  • Appearance – neglecting self-care or spending more time on their appearance.
  • Popularity – withdrawing from friends, or socialising a lot more or with different people.

It’s harder to spot these changes in pupils who slip under the radar each day – a good way to try and prevent this from happening is to make a time to stop and reflect on pupil emotional wellbeing – perhaps as part of regular departmental or pastoral team meetings.

The key thing here is to ensure that every child gets considered regularly, even for a moment or two; just long enough to consider whether things have stayed the same for them, or if perhaps there are subtle changes which may flag the need for further investigation.

As well as the quiet pupils, there are others who may not vocalise their need for help, sometimes the difficulties that a child is facing is beyond what they feel willing or able to vocalise, or sometimes they are too scared to speak up.

But we’ll often find that even without speaking they ask for our help – though it’s not uncommon for these asks to go misunderstood.

Three common ways pupils might show us they need our support are physical ailments, difficult behaviour, and self-harm.

Physical ailments

Young people who are unable to vocalise and work through difficult issues will often begin to display physical symptoms of illness – this might take a range of forms, for example headaches, stomach aches or nausea. If a child is frequently unwell and there is no clear physical cause, it may be that their ailments are stress or anxiety playing out in physical form and that the pupil may need supportive listening if they are to overcome their physical symptoms.

Repeated injuries/self-harm

Alternatively, a young person may repeatedly present with injuries or self-harm. The injuries may appear minor and might be dismissed as attention-seeking, but a key question here should be why might this young person need my attention. It’s important to note that many young people feel more comfortable seeking help for a physical injury than emotional distress.

Difficult behaviour

A child who is uncharacteristically poorly behaved, seems irritable, dismissive or rude may be struggling with their emotional regulation because they have issues that need recognising and addressing. They may also be specifically seeking attention.

My rule of thumb with this type of behaviour is to recognise two things. First, we have a disciplinary procedure to follow and young people, especially vulnerable young people, need the consistency, boundaries and safety that rules bring. Second, we need to wonder why this child is attention-seeking – do they need attention or support, and why?


If we can find a fair compromise between punitive and supportive responses to unusual, difficult behaviour, we can often quickly find out what’s really going on. So, keep an eye out for changes in your pupils and, vitally, don’t let the quiet ones get forgotten.

  • Dr Pooky Knightsmith directs the children, young people and schools programme at the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust, a charity that provides fully funded mental health training to schools. Visit www.inourhands.com/cwmt/ and email training@cwmt.org. For more information on the charity, visit www.cwmt.org.uk

Mental Health Advice

Dr Pooky Knightsmith provides regular support and advice in SecEd. To read her previous articles, go to http://bit.ly/2daU4zs. If there are specific issues you would like to see addressed, email pooky@cwmt.org or tweet @PookyH


Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Sign up SecEd Bulletin