I was saddened by the recent news that the number of children referred to NHS CAMHS with serious mental health problems has reached a record high. Saddened but, sadly, not surprised.
The challenges of the last 12 months have placed enormous pressure on the mental health of most people.
For children, these challenges come at a formative time in their lives and so it is no wonder that the Royal College of Psychiatrists has warned that the psychological impact of the pandemic could be felt by children for years to come.
It is a similar story for teachers. More than half have experienced a decline in their mental health as a result of the pandemic, according to research from Education Support and YouGov.
Teachers have had to switch rapidly between face-to-face teaching and online learning with little or no notice and have had to work under constant speculation around the health risks of classroom teaching and discussions around school closures.
It’s no wonder that so many of us that work in schools have been feeling the pressure.
It is clear that a renewed focus on mental health and wellbeing in schools is needed and needed now, but what does that mean in practice?
How can schools implement a whole-school approach to mental health that will benefit both their teachers and pupils and provide both groups with the tools and the confidence to know who and how to ask for help?
We know that great teachers have a huge influence on the lives of children and so putting teacher wellbeing at the heart of your strategy really will have a dual benefit.
Listening to teachers that contact you for support is really important but what is even better is reaching out.
School leaders that proactively check-in on the wellbeing of individual teachers will build new channels of personal communication and stronger relationships.
They will learn about challenges earlier and they will be able to put support in place to help their teams and colleagues through this difficult time.
One of the hardest things about the Covid-19 pandemic is simply how long it has gone on for. Teachers are tired. Pupils are tired.
Talking to your team about small ways you can make their working life easier or more rewarding – from a daily affirmation email that goes out to teachers each morning to a dedicated ‘quiet time’ each day, where teachers can get a break from Zoom and any form of digital messaging – will help protect their wellbeing and shows you have really thought about their needs.
My key piece of advice would be, talk to your teachers about what would help them, then work hard to implement meaningful changes that show you have listened and you care.
When the Government announced in February 2020 that teaching mental health and wellbeing in schools would be compulsory from September 2020 I don’t think any of us that attended their official roundtable event realised quite how desperately it would soon be needed.
Unfortunately, research shows that teachers just don’t feel they have been given adequate training or tools to deliver this in practice and they understandably want more support.
Coming at a time when there are so many other pressures on their time and headspace, teachers cannot be expected to create a full mental health curriculum from scratch – especially one that is evidence-based and structured in a way to address all of the children’s key mental health and wellbeing needs.
There are ready-made solutions out there and teachers should explore which have the best evidence, are most likely to engage their pupils and fit within their budget allowance.
Appointing a Wellbeing Lead who is passionate about the importance of mental health to take charge of this process can be motivating and they can be supported by a small team of colleagues, who share their passion.
It’s vitally important that the head and governors also share this commitment to the importance of wellbeing in the school, if it is to be successful.
We find it so easy to talk about our physical health because we have created a common language to explain how we are feeling on the outside. We need to learn to do the same for our mental health so we can talk about our feelings on the inside.
With primary school children, my organisation has found words like “niggles” and “stressors” – which we use to differentiate between big worries and little worries – to be a brilliant way to engage children with the idea of talking about their feelings.
You can then extend these words into engaging activities, for example getting children to write down their worries on post-it notes and then drop them into a physical niggle jar or stressor jar can be a great way to encourage them to engage with their problems, put them in perspective and discuss how to solve them.
Creating a new language doesn’t have to be a daunting task – we’re not talking a dictionary-sized list of new words. But creating a few lighter ways for children to talk about their mental health is a great way to get them to open up. Again, this language should become embedded as part of a whole-school approach.
If teachers, pupils and parents are all using the same words to describe their feelings then we can turn mental health conversations into normal conversations, which removes the stigma and encourages pupils – and teachers – to access much-needed support far earlier.
With evidence showing that pupils, teachers and parents have all been particularly heavily impacted by the challenges of the pandemic, it’s clear that now is the time to put wellbeing at the heart of the school experience.
What you need to know
- The iSpace Wellbeing Curriculum is an evidence-based, award-nominated curriculum that has recently been made freely available to all schools.
- The curriculum is underpinned by mindfulness, positive psychology and neuroscience frameworks, and is designed to make learning about mental health and wellbeing fun.
- Comprising more than 140 ready-to-go lesson plans, the curriculum provides a whole school approach that brings mental health conversations to life with a new language, creative characters and engaging activities.
- Studies show that curriculum improves the mental health of 96 per cent of pupils who are taught from its lesson plans, helping children to understand their feelings, improve their relationships and access support when they need it.
- Teachers can now register for the free gold standard iSpace Mental Health and Wellbeing Curriculum at https://ispacewellbeing.com/.
Paula Talman MSc, founder of iSpace Wellbeing, the proven mental health and wellbeing curriculum for schools.