Statistics in a recent report from Public Health England and the Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition, drives home the importance of mental health and emotional wellbeing, indicating that emotional health can have far reaching influence on pupils’ attainment.
According to Public Health England’s report, in an average class of 30 pupils aged 15, three could have a mental disorder, seven are likely to have been bullied and six may be self-harming. Suicide is one of the three most common causes of death for young people and half of lifetime mental illnesses start by the age of 14. The halcyon days of childhood? Not for many, so what are the priority areas and best approaches for schools to help pupils navigate the challenges and difficulties that they may encounter?
A whole community ethos If we want to tackle these issues then wellbeing and mental health should be everyone’s business. Schools need to have a clear awareness of the extent and nature of mental health problems in children and young people and of their responsibility to be part of the response, not least because these problems do not go away.
All too often there is a culture of silence when it comes to mental health and emotional wellbeing. This is why ensuring that not only is the whole school aware of the importance of mental health and wellbeing, but the community as a whole. This is the bedrock of an effective approach because it needs to be acceptable to ask for help.
Those more serious problems can then be identified and help can be provided in a non-stigmatising way, with the whole school population supporting those with greater needs. Many problems are multiple and many remain undetected and untreated unless agencies such as schools take an active role.
There are some key principles identified in the report, one of which is leadership. In this context, leadership that develops innovative practice will be critical to the success of any approach. The influence that leadership has on the ethos and environment cannot be underestimated either. Schools need to examine how pupils’ environments impact their performance and how they affect their mental and emotional wellbeing and attainment.
We often measure this impact through the quality of relationships between staff and pupils, the ones that enhance learning and support. For those pupils who do not enjoy school we should strive to build effective and supportive relationships with them and reinforce the messages of support that say ‘we want you here, you belong, you are important to us’.
Teaching and learning Teaching about emotional health is another core facet of any school’s approach, and there is advice for teachers on teaching about mental health and emotional wellbeing; unsurprisingly, pupils are more likely to engage in lessons that focus on emotional wellbeing if they are practical and relevant to them. In addition, using validated assessment tools such as the Stirling Children’s Wellbeing Scale and the Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale can help offer insight to a complex and tricky area that needs demystifying in a sensitive manner.
Teaching about ownership of challenges is also important, and how we do this is especially significant in changing and influencing the hearts and mind-sets of pupils who lack the self-belief to overcome their struggles. Involving pupils in decisions that impact on them can benefit their emotional health and wellbeing by helping them to feel part of the school and wider community and to have some control over their lives. The SEND Gateway offers free resources for exploring strategies to support learners’ emotional wellbeing and help build resilience, all from a range of different voluntary sector organisations.
These resources can contribute towards staff development, another fundamental part of an effective approach. Emotional wellbeing in staff is key to engender the open, honest approach to young people’s wellbeing. Providing opportunities for assessing the emotional health and wellbeing needs of staff, enabling staff to take actions to enhance their own wellbeing, and promoting a good work‑life balance for staff are all ways of driving necessary change. To ensure everyone has the balance right, take a look at the Workplace Wellbeing Charter National Standards.
A boost in achievement While we pay so much attention to assessment and exam results, some schools may feel that efforts to provide support for emotional wellbeing needs to take a backseat. But a report from Public Health in 2014 found that Ofsted had identified a strong link between schools that paid close attention to wellbeing and those that were graded outstanding for overall effectiveness.
An 11 per cent boost in results in standardised achievement tests has been linked to programmes that improve pupils’ social and emotional learning. The report also found that whole-school approaches to this, universally implemented for all pupils, strongly correlates with attainment. That’s a clear message for any school. Support the emotional health and wellbeing of pupils and you ultimately support their attainment.
That staff should benefit from this increased awareness too makes it startlingly clear that this is a critical issue for any school and all pupils.