Supporting vulnerable learners: Aspiration & wellbeing

Written by: Clare Stafford | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The statistics tell us that Black African Caribbean children face many barriers to their education and wellbeing. Continuing her series, Clare Stafford looks at the challenges and what schools might be able to do to tackle these barriers

The majority of children from African Caribbean communities thrive and achieve in school and in life. However, for many years, national statistics have pointed to an over-representation of Black boys being excluded and a higher likelihood of Black men being placed in secure mental health settings and being diagnosed with serious mental health difficulties.

Yet studies indicate that Black boys appear less likely to present with symptoms of mental ill-health than their peers up to age 11. So what goes wrong? Discussions with young men provide vital insights for schools and other services to bring about change.

Lorraine Khan is an associate at the Centre for Mental Health and co-author of the centre’s 2017 report Against the Odds about three community projects in Birmingham aiming to improve the resilience of young African Caribbean men.

Ms Khan stressed that the data we have in this country on Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) child mental health is very limited. Sample sizes have generally been small, preventing robust conclusions.

However, our national Millennium Cohort Study oversampled BAME communities, allowing us to get a more accurate picture of the journeys of children and families. Ms Khan explained: “Recent sweeps of this long-term UK study highlight that Black boys are less likely to have a diagnosable mental health difficulty at the age of 11 than their peers (Gutman et al, 2015), but when we start looking at our national adult mental health survey, some really quite stark shifts take place.

“Black men as they move into adulthood are four times more likely to end up in mental health services, are more likely to end up in highly controlling psychiatric units, and there is a higher risk of suicide.”

African Caribbean women and South Asian women are also more likely to have mental health difficulties, such as depression and anxiety.

Primary to secondary transition

“They only show the bad stuff, the media, to do with the young black community.”
Young man quoted in Against the Odds.

Based on the conversations that Ms Khan’s team had with young African Caribbean men in Birmingham, we know that their experience of primary school was generally positive. So what goes wrong?

A second phase of the centre’s work in Birmingham is currently investigating further what happens during the transition to secondary school and strategies to strengthen young men’s resilience and achievement. For young men, this transition is clearly a significant shift.

Ms Khan told me that young men talked of feeling flooded and overwhelmed by negative stereotypes, perceptions and representations of themselves in the media which could undermine their self-belief and aspiration: “Young men told us that trying to work out your identity in the context of a barrage of negative images is a real challenge.”

They also said that negative stereotypes could be further compounded if boys lacked exposure to positive and high-achieving leaders or male role models in the media, in their family or in local communities. Ms Khan added: “Some young men talked about the struggle of trying to become a man, develop a positive sense of self and achieve without access to successful role models or father figures. Trying to work out who you are as a man during teenage years against the backdrop of broader negative stereotypes is a big issue.”

Once in secondary school, there are some stark statistics pointing to long-standing and persistent over-representation of young Black boys being excluded. African Caribbean boys in particular are three times more likely to be excluded than other boys of their age.

Ms Khan said: “However hard schools try to make in-roads, if you look at the Department for Education data every year it doesn’t change much.”

The erosion of wellbeing

“(Experiences of racism) have an impact. It feels like you’re never gonna be good enough and it makes you feel like you won’t achieve a lot of things, and even things like getting a job is harder – you have to work that little bit harder to be like everyone else, and it’s not a very good start, it wears you down bit by bit.”
Young man quoted in Against the Odds.

Ms Khan discussed some of the risk factors affecting Black boys’ wellbeing during these vital years: “First of all, young African Caribbean boys are more likely to come from families where there are higher levels of economic hardship,” she told me. “And we know that there are links between experiences of poverty and poorer mental health.”

Long-term studies tracking wellbeing over time also suggest that it is the continual experience of daily discriminatory “micro-aggressions” and racism which have a “weathering effect” on the mental health and wellbeing of young men from Black communities over time, potentially wearing down resilience.

Communicating belief

“We have to get inside the crack between that negativity and when boys start living up to what people expect – say, ‘yeah okay, I get it but why don’t you do something else, why don’t you do something creative, come here, act it out in a different way?’”
A youth mentor quoted in Against the Odds.

So, what strategies can schools employ to support young Black boys’ achievement and wellbeing? Ms Khan gave me an example from one young man who is now at university: “He told me that he was seen as a problem by the school until one teacher approached him and said he needed to do something different, steering him towards drama.

“That shifted things around for him – something creative, much more engaging, the style of the teaching, the use of circle time – all things that made him believe in himself. Drama helped him develop from someone who was told he had ‘no talent for English’ to someone who loved writing scripts.

“He recalled being in his first play and loving being in the spotlight. Experiencing the feedback from the audience was the beginning of him being able to believe in himself and feel positively validated. Until then, he had never felt that at secondary school.”

So was it the fact that someone believed in and cultivated his aspiration, or the fact that someone took notice of him, or that they found a way that he could communicate and excel in a way he hadn’t before? “I don’t think there’s a single thing that is a magic wand,” Ms Khan replied, “it’s a mix of all of them.”

Keeping children in mind, keeping communication channels open, fostering self-belief and ambition to be more than you think you can be – all these are certainly important: “Those conversations aren’t always grasped, particularly at secondary level,” Ms Khan added. “I think at primary level there’s more of a chance of it happening – that picking up and checking in with children; opening up conversations: ‘It feels as though things are a bit tricky at the moment, what’s going on for you?’”

Movement and interaction

“The project lead looked like us and talked like us. (He) was so passionate. He gives credit, raises standards, shows commitment. (He’s) empathetic to everyone. (He’s) challenging.”
Young man quoted in Against the Odds.

If boys don’t feel they are getting their sense of wellbeing and status through school achievement, there may be a risk during teenage years that they lose their way and seek other ways to express their masculinity.

So what suggestions did the young men have that schools could adopt to help boys fulfil their potential and maintain a healthy sense of wellbeing.

“There’s something about the importance of interactive activity, movement and building in ‘brain breaks’ to keep minds stimulated and engaged,” Ms Khan suggested. “Learning from our partner – the Birmingham Repertory Company – we often start focus groups with an ice-breaker that is full of movement. It gets people’s minds really racing and engaged and we tended to get really deep and considered answers to the questions we were exploring.”

One project in Birmingham saw a community engagement organisation called First Class Legacy go into schools and work for 10 weeks with boys identified as struggling and at risk: “Activities were led by relatable and positive role models and community leaders who created a safe space and used lots of circle time and interactive exercises encouraging boys to explore who they were, and to develop social and emotional skills – persistence, empathy and perspective.

“Interactive activities helped boys better understand themselves, and to explore their qualities, aspirations, goals and their teachers’ perspectives.”

Creativity plays a part too, not just in fostering unity and team-work but as a coping skill in its own right. Ms Khan added: “What engaged these young men with the projects was often creative or music-based activities – writing songs, producing music in a recording studio.”

Resilience and role models

“I had never met anyone before (in my neighbourhood) who was a CEO of his own company.”
Young man quoted in Against the Odds.

Taking an assets-based approach to Black history, rather than a deficit-based approach was also described as important. As is recognising the importance, significance and power of community resilience in the face of adversity. Working with partners in Birmingham, Ms Khan was struck by the power for young men in the process of “see it to be it” – contact with relatable role models who had “faced and got through the same problems” and who had achieved. Ms Khan told me about a school in London where the mission is to bring in people who have achieved in their career to challenge the stereotypes that often tend to flood young men from African Caribbean communities.

A sense of belonging

“They (the community mentor) helped me and pushed me to do more stuff than I used to do in my school work and that.”
Young man quoted in Against the Odds.

“A sense of belonging is pivotal to a child’s mental health,” Ms Khan said. “And a sense of school belonging is critical in that transition to secondary school and has been proved in studies to be critical to academic achievement too. If a child doesn’t feel able to talk to teachers, it’s a huge risk factor. It’s those children who we should be investing extra time in to try and develop a relationship, whether it’s with their teacher or another member of staff.”

Ms Khan believes that peer mentoring can make a significant difference in keeping young people engaged with school in a positive way: “From what the project leads and young people themselves told us, having someone who looks like you, talks like you, is like you, who can encourage you and foster your talents, helps with that sense of school belonging.

“That kind of intermediary can work well with young people who might be beginning to lose their sense of connection with the school – and mentors can work hand-in-hand with school staff to help them understand where that young person is coming from and problem-solve what might help movement forward.”

But what should teachers be aware of when that sense of belonging starts to disappear and there is risk of disengagement? Ms Khan explained that their research shows that it is still possible to intervene if you can provide a credible alternative.

“Even if young men have gone quite a long way along that path of getting into a negative peer group, it is still possible to help them go in a different direction – and that’s why peer mentoring is really important.

“One young man said the project he was working with was giving him some kind of focus – he knew what he wanted to do academically – but when he was out on the streets, he was under constant pressure to drift back into a negative peer group. There was a real ‘push and pull’ between what he wanted to do and breaking away from more negative role models.”

Final thoughts

Ms Khan suggests that schools could work more with young people to co-produce solutions. This collaboration should be extended to the young person’s family too. Ms Khan explained: “Talking to the family, collaborative problem-solving that feels right for the family, is really important. I think we could do more of that.”

Finally, she talked about the need for an advisory role that would help schools to find better ways forward. While she recognised that in the current economic climate this is unlikely to be possible, she described what this might look like:

“Schools don’t have community advisors who can help them problem-solve and who can work arm-in-arm with them. For example, in the health sector we have community development workers who work with services to try to make services more culturally competent and who make sure activity enhances outcomes for those from BAME communities. We need the same expertise working arm-in-arm with local schools.”

Ms Khan left me with 10 tips for schools to help foster students’ wellbeing:

  • Keep communication channels open with children.
  • Persistently foster self-belief, ambition and aspiration in young men.
  • Be alert to and invest additional support in those struggling with transitions.
  • Be hypervigilant to and address daily discriminatory micro-aggressions and bullying.
  • Use creativity to encourage aspiration and academic learning.
  • Keep learning interactive, including ice-breakers, brain breaks and movement.
  • Ensure an asset-based approach to Black history emphasising Black achievement and community resilience.
  • “See it to be it” – expose young people to positive role models, achievers and leaders.
  • Use peer mentors and community advisors.
  • Collaborate with students and their families.
  • Clare Stafford is CEO of the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust, a charity that provides fully funded mental health training to schools. Visit

Further reading

This series of articles is part of the legacy of the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust’s Stella Project, a year-long initiative funded by Health Education England through which the charity worked with professionals to provide mental health training to better support vulnerable learners. This work continues through the charity’s Schools and Families Programme. For more information, see The Stella Project: Supporting vulnerable learners, SecEd, February 2018: To read previous articles in this series, go to

References & information


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