Many children have undoubtedly had a tough time over the past 14 months or so.
But as we emerge from the pandemic and return to what we hope is something approaching normality there must be a renewed focus on children’s good mental health and wellbeing. There is strong evidence that the mental health of our children has been deteriorating in recent years, and lockdowns will not have helped.
An autumn 2020 NHS report stated that rates of probable mental disorders had increased since 2017.
The report said that in 2020, one in six (16 per cent) children aged five to 16 years were identified as having a probable mental disorder, increasing from one in nine (10.8 per cent) in 2017. The increase was evident in both boys and girls.
The pandemic has been a challenging time for many families but the next few months should be viewed as a time of opportunity when schools can fully focus on the healthy social and emotional development of every child as an important foundation for growth and learning.
Rather than waiting to identify problems and then trying to put them right then, all of us who work in and with schools should support children to stay on a healthy trajectory, with teachers having the tools, skills and insights they need to help children and young people become more emotionally resilient so that they are better placed to engage with learning and with life.
Part of this is to understand that children’s responses to the disruption which may be manifesting themselves at the moment are entirely natural. Challenging behaviour is just one example of normal and healthy responses to what have been very trying circumstances.
The key for all adults working in our primary schools is to recognise that these are symptoms of upheaval in these children’s lives and then to support them to reconnect and re-engage as quickly as possible. If we can get these elements right, the catch-up learning will undoubtedly follow.
The evidence that prioritising children’s wellbeing has a positive impact on happiness, health and attainment is substantial.
Our own work with primary schools in Bath and North East Somerset over five years showed that targeted wellbeing support for children led to improved attendance and engagement with learning, fewer behaviour incidents and improved academic progress.
There are now encouraging signs that the machinery of government is aligning in recognition of the importance of wellbeing and good mental health in our primary schools. The Department for Education says that student wellbeing and mental health is a central part of its response to the pandemic – for example, schools can use some of their share of the £700 million Recovery Premium for pastoral as well as academic support.
The Department for Education has also set up a Mental Health in Education Action Group to look at the pandemic’s impact on children and in the longer term is looking to introduce new mental health support teams.
That’s the bigger picture, but what we’re most concerned about is helping school leaders and teachers take practical steps that will put children’s wellbeing at the centre of everything that they do so that they have a solid social, emotional and health basis on which to build.
Thomas Arnold Primary School in Essex is a good example of how practical steps to support children’s wellbeing and mental health leads to improved behaviour and attainment.
Case study – Thomas Arnold Primary School, Dagenham
Holly Pottle, Deputy Headteacher said that their “moment of clarity” on children’s mental wellbeing came about seven years ago: “At that time, we had interventions and strategies in place, but we felt they weren’t purposeful and didn’t offer the support some of the children so desperately needed.
“As a result, we had high levels of behaviour sanctions and fixed term exclusions which wasn’t where we wanted to be as a school. We have 430 pupils and are based in East London in a community which has high levels of deprivation. We wanted to make a difference in our pupils’ lives; to provide them with the support and stability that may be lacking for some and to help them fulfil their full potential.
“We realised that we needed to do things differently and for us this started with a recommendation from another school which had successfully embedded the Thrive Approach. Initially conceived as a way of helping to reduce school exclusions, Thrive now offers a whole-setting approach to supporting the social and emotional development of all children and young people.”
She says that the approach has become an integral part of school life and that all pupils, parents and staff are committed to the approach.
“We have seen a positive shift in behaviour as a result,” Holly adds. “Our exclusion and sanction rates have decreased significantly and the children are now able to communicate their needs and talk about why they’re struggling. There has also been a real change in the atmosphere at school – the children are more confident, and they have a better relationship with staff. Attainment levels have also improved because children are in class, calm and ready to access learning.”
Thrive trained practitioners have met parents and carers at consultation events who talk to them in much the same way as teachers talk to parents.
“This gives the parents a clearer understanding of how their children are progressing both academically and emotionally,” says Holly. “Parents have a good relationship with our Thrive staff in school and they will often ask for support themselves. The approach is something that has really trickled out from school to home and parents often comment on the positive impacts Thrive has had on their children and home life in general.
“The changes in school have resulted in much better staff morale. It’s made SLT more aware of staff wellbeing and it’s created a culture where we all check in regularly with one other. Staff are much more able to talk about what is working and what is not and, as a team, we have more of an open dialogue about all issues in school.”
The approach has also helped the school manage the impact of Covid disruptions.
“We were quite worried about how the children would come back to school, but we have found that Thrive has definitely made the children more resilient,” Holly adds. “When we remained open for vulnerable and key worker children during the first lockdown, we continued Thrive work with them. For the children that were at home, we published Thrive-based activities on the school website weekly. This was really important for us and, as a school, we prioritised Thrive support being available to all pupils during the lockdown. Pupils came back to school with such a positive attitude and they are really happy to be back.
“For us, this reaffirms that our approach to mental wellbeing is an ongoing success – our pupils are glad to be in school and they are thriving.”
Diana Dewing is Managing Director of Thrive, an organisation that specialises in training teachers and other education professionals to support children’s emotional and social development. More information is available at thriveapproach.com.