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Jan 22 - Big Dug
Jan 22 - Big Dug

How to create a mentally healthy school

January 10, 2022, 11:39 GMT+1
Read in 8 minutes
  • Dr Sally Pearse and Sue O’Brien discuss the benefit of a trauma informed approach in creating mentally healthy schools for staff – and pupils.
How to create a mentally healthy school

As we reflect on the impact of Covid-19, we should recognise that we were already in the midst of a mental health crisis in schools before we entered the pandemic.

The latest research shows that the rates of probable mental disorders have increased in the past four years from 1:9 to 1:6 in 6–16-year-olds, and from 1:10 to 1:6 in 17-19 year-olds. 

Teachers are on the frontline when it comes to dealing day-to-day with their pupils’ mental health, and they too have been hugely impacted by the pandemic, with stress levels at an all-time high.

The Teacher Wellbeing Index (2020) showed 62% of education staff and 77% of senior leaders ‘described themselves as stressed’, 31% of staff ‘experienced mental health issues’, 74% of staff ‘experienced behavioural, psychological or physical symptoms due to their work’ and 57% of staff ‘would not feel confident in disclosing unmanageable stress/mental health issues to their employer’. 

With the added pressures of missed learning, supporting children and families who are increasingly vulnerable and partial closures due to Covid outbreaks in schools, levels of stress and mental illness are on the increase.

Staff and teachers trying to deal with chronic stress alone may end up with stress related illness, secondary trauma, anxiety, depression and burnout. 

The inevitable knock-on effect is an exodus from the profession, and although a recent survey shows teacher training applications are high, twice as many teachers are considering leaving the profession than pre-Covid, with a higher number in the Early Years.

Absence and staff turnover directly impact pupils, fellow staff and school development. To curtail this exodus and uncertainty, wellbeing and mental health need to be at the top of the school agenda.

What needs to change?

We need to create mentally healthy schools that support the wellbeing of everyone inside their community – pupils, teachers and staff, and parents.

School cultures that encourage everyone to feel connected and part of the school, create a sense of community or family and keep schools moving ahead with everyone on board.

A school’s success is measured by its pupils’ success which is reliant on the expertise and dedication of the teachers and staff, and if they too are feeling supported, fulfilled and content in their work, the school flourishes.

Trauma informed (TI) schools place wellbeing alongside academic expectations as one supports the other. It is a holistic, empathic approach that determines how the whole school community behaves, reacts, and responds, building trusting supportive relationships.

Although there are emerging findings about the impact of trauma informed practices in schools there is not yet a clear evidence base (Maynard 2019) because of the complexity of approaches that seek to impact on relationships and school culture.

The TI approach that we follow at Sheffield Hallam University is however underpinned by over 1000 evidence-based psychological, medical and neuroscience research studies.

It is designed to inform and empower school staff to respond effectively to vulnerable children and those who have suffered a trauma or have a mental health issue as well as support a mentally healthy environment for all. 

The training provides insight into the causes and consequences of mental ill-health and vital tools and approaches to respond to and support children in crisis. Without such interventions, painful life experiences are likely to present in challenging behaviour, and/or blocks to learning. 

If pupils are upset and dysregulated, they are given time outside the classroom to talk to an adult and regulate their feelings, returning to class when they are ready to participate and learn.

Rather than being labelled as ‘naughty’ or out of control and given punitive measures – which are rarely a lasting solution – teachers and practitioners are encouraged to be curious and compassionate and ask the question - ‘why are they acting in that way?’.

Far too many school pupils labelled as disruptive, aggressive or badly behaved, are caught up in a downward spiral of repeated offending and discipline, which for some ends in exclusion.

In reality they are reacting to trauma or adverse childhood experiences that they cannot process without the help of an empathic adult.

Supporting mental health as part of ITE

At Sheffield Hallam, as providers of Initial Teacher Education (ITE) we recognised the need to equip the next generation of teachers with the necessary tools to support their pupils’ mental health.

We recognise this important aspect of their role and want to ensure that they have the skills and confidence to support children and young people in the school and classroom environment, and make a positive difference.

Addressing pupils’ mental health and wellbeing, enables them to play a full part in school life, build positive relationships and make the progress they need to lead successful lives.

Initial Trauma Informed training has been a compulsory element of training for all Hallam students on ITE courses, from 2014 in early years, and more recently in 2019 for primary, secondary and post sixteen.

The training, developed in partnership with Trauma Informed Schools UK (TISUK) a non-profit educational organisation, highlights the crucial role of teacher/pupil relationships, the importance of enriched classroom environments and consideration about how the curriculum is delivered.

Including the initial TISUK training in our ITE courses, not only impacts how our trainees respond to pupils, but also helps them to recognise when they themselves are experiencing stress.

All of our academic staff (20 in total) who deliver this input have completed the Diploma in Trauma and Mental Health Informed Schools and Communities, Practitioner status training.

This includes interventions designed specifically to address teacher stress, so our lecturers can identify and respond to trainees who are facing difficulties due to stress during their studies. 

The most common response from teachers and academics undertaking this training is ‘Why did I not know this sooner?’ It doesn’t just help children. It has a positive impact on all our relationships.

The need for trauma informed practice

The government has responded to the dramatic rise in mental health needs with a focus on mental health training for specific staff.

We recommend that all staff have an understanding of trauma informed practice, so they can use their knowledge and understanding in their interactions with children and young people, families and colleagues.

Embedding trauma informed practice in schools and educational settings will create a much wider positive impact and more support for children in crisis.

The culture of all schools is led from the top, and the lived values of any school are demonstrated and enacted from the top.

If we want this to have the impact, the Senior Leadership Team should lead the way in prioritising this approach.

We need to make change now to improve the outcomes for children and young people, support our teachers and staff and make school - the place we spend the majority of our childhood and for some our working lives - mentally healthy.


Dr Sally Pearse and Sue O’Brien, Strategic Leads for Delivery, Sheffield Institute of Education, Sheffield Hallam University