Primary pupils are increasingly keeping their worries and fears to themselves, making it more difficult for school staff to spot vulnerable students.
And, as we all know, the pandemic has both increased many children’s levels of anxiety and lowered their confidence and resilience. Primary schools across the country are looking for ways to improve their pupils’ mental health.
Here are four tried and tested methods.
Give staff the vocabulary to talk more precisely about pupils’ feelings
Often, the words we use to explain feelings are vague. What ‘feeling sad’ means to one person will be completely different to what it means to another. There are some very helpful terms that can describe in more detail the state of a child’s mental health.
For example, it can be illuminating to think about how much a certain child ‘self-regulates’ - are they constantly and very consciously regulating their behaviour, or are they going the other way and doing this too little?
How much do they ‘self-disclose’ - that is, how much do they share their thoughts, ideas, questions and feelings with others? Is this too much or too little?
At one school we worked with, in Kent, this new lexicon was a game-changer because it enabled staff to have a far richer dialogue about pupils’ mental health and therefore ensured that support was more effectively tailored to their needs.
Develop a “Noticing Culture”
An effective way to improve pupils’ mental health is to train staff to notice when there is a sudden change in a student’s social and emotional habits, routine or attitude.
For example, encourage staff to use open questions that invite pupils to give reflective responses, such as: “What has been the hardest part of the past week for you?”
Staff can spot changes in pupils’ behaviour best when they use tools that track and measure young people’s mental health. This encourages a ‘noticing culture’ where staff share evidence of their concerns about the welfare of their pupils.
Another school we worked with has created a noticing nulture in part by suggesting that staff talk to students who appear to have emotionally shut down, or who are volatile, with this conversation opener: “I can see that something has happened. I am here to help you talk. I’ll listen.” There are many children who will consider sharing their worries when they hear this.
Try out a ‘school listener’
We know that listening is an active skill and one that requires discipline and training. School listeners aim to provide a safe space where pupils can talk about anything on their minds.
They need to be seen as separate from the staff at your school. They don’t pass judgement over anything that is shared and, where possible, the service is confidential.
Of course, it may be that for safeguarding reasons, the school listener decides it’s in the best interest of the pupil to selectively share information with the school’s pastoral care team, but this would be done with the pupil’s prior agreement.
In the schools we’ve worked with, listening appointments are often offered to pupils during lesson times and pupils are told in advance when their appointments will be in a discreet way.
The listener and the concept of the service can be introduced to pupils at the beginning of the school year. It can also be effective to have posters around the school displaying the photographs of the school listener with details of how to contact them.
Create a pastoral needs dashboard
Most schools have a detailed academic dashboard, but they don’t tend to have one for pastoral needs. This is strange because it’s just as essential to have oversight of the changing wellbeing and mental health needs of pupils across your school.
A pastoral needs dashboard is most effective when schools track and measure their pupils’ mental health. Schools that have a pastoral needs dashboard have found they can more easily identify areas for development in their pastoral care, initiate appropriate interventions more quickly and monitor the impact of their pastoral care team.
Simon Antwis is senior education consultant at STEER Education, a whole-school mental health platform. He has been a headteacher of three schools and a school inspector.