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. It’s therefore easy to see why so many primary schools across the country are looking for ways to improve their pupils’ mental health. If this includes you, here are some tried and tested methods it may be worth exploring further.
Give staff the vocabulary to talk about feelings
Too 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?
This new lexicon can be a game-changer if it enables staff to have a far richer dialogue about pupils’ mental health and therefore ensure that support is more effectively tailored to their needs.
Develop a noticing culture
One of the best ways 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.
One of the schools we have worked with has created such a culture 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.” Many children will consider sharing their worries when they hear this.
Try using a ‘school listener’
We know that listening is an active skill 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 will keep the conversation confidential – unless there are safeguarding concerns. Childline’s confidentially promise is a good example of this.
The job of the school listener is essentially just as the job title implies; to listen to the pupils. Listening is an active skill, which requires discipline and training and ideally the listener would have had experience of working in mental health or in CAMHs.
The listener aims to provide a safe space where the pupil can talk about anything that may be on their mind, and is seen as separate from the school. They are employed exclusively for this purpose, and do not have any direct contact with parents.
At Monkton Combe School, in Bath, which uses listeners, appointments are offered to primary-aged pupils during lesson time and children are notified in advance of their sessions by their tutor, who will have made a referal if they believe the child may benefit.
The listener and the concept of the service is introduced to pupils in PHSE lessons at the beginning of the school year, but pupils can also join mid-year if needed. There are also posters around the school displaying their photographs, so the process of having a listener during times of worry or sadness are seen as routine and non-threatening.
Create a pastoral needs dashboard
Most schools have a detailed academic dashboard, but they tend not to have a pastoral needs one. This is strange because it is just as important to have oversight of the changing wellbeing and mental health needs of pupils across your school.
The schools we work with, who 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.
Check if you’re using ‘bad’ or ‘missing’ data
Too often in education we measure mental health and wellbeing based on ‘bad’ or ‘missing’ data.
Are you trying to identify and support those pupils who, for whatever reason, do not wish to reveal their true feelings? A pupil voice questionnaire can be easily navigated by a young person who does not want to reveal how they are feeling or does not know how to interpret their emotions or their mental state. Some young people may have no awareness that they are on a downward trajectory in terms of mental health and well-being.
As an ex-inspector and ex-headteacher, I have known a questionnaire to ask if a child “feels safe in school?” The answer allows only ‘yes’ or no.’ The definition of ‘safe’ to one child can be very different from that of another child. It could relate to a single incident that has occured in the very recent past or a pattern of events consistent over time. Both qualify as ‘yes.’ Children vary in their ability to measure how ‘safe’ they are. My children would comfortably stand on the very edge of a cliff during a family walk in the countryside without any thought that they might not be safe. Of course, some children will also not want to share how ‘safe,’ or not, they may feel.
A better approach might be to avoid direct questions. Instead, use value-neutral questions that elicit bias in children’s thinking and make it less easy for them to see what is the ‘right’ answer. Then if a pupil tried to ‘game’ the assessment, their data would be flagged.
Never be complacent about safeguarding
Schools should never assume that the way they look after students, whether from a safeguarding perspective or a wellbeing one, would be judged 10/10. They should consistently remind themselves that just because a small minority of students are vocal about their mental health and wellbeing, it doesn’t mean that the rest are. Safeguarding is an ever-changing landscape that needs constant monitoring. We know from recent news reports that peer-on-peer abuse is a major issue in schools. No school can afford to be complacent about this.
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.