Steps we can take to counter the mental health crisis in schools
Clare Brokenshire reminds us that frequent examples of good pastoral practice within a positive school culture can make a big difference to a student’s day.
We all feel under pressure
As we emerge from the disruption of the Covid-19 pandemic, schools and institutions across the country are still reeling from the aftermath of its effects. Student and staff wellbeing is reported as a major cause for concern with mental health deteriorating and anxiety levels rising at a worrying pace.
The recent 2022 Teacher Wellbeing Index shows 75 per cent of all teachers feel stressed regularly, with 59 per cent not feeling confident discussing stress or mental health with their line-manager and 48 per cent feeling their school does not support staff with mental health or wellbeing challenges. This is a problem because, not only are we letting down the very people who are working hard to maintain school standards but, if staff morale is low, students will also be affected.
The issues teachers face are also shared by students. The Nightline Association reported a 51.4 per cent increase in calls this year in comparison to 2019-20 as well as a small increase in calls about suicidal thoughts. Most of these calls centred around anxiety and stress (10.9 per cent), academic issues (10.4 per cent) and mental health (10.4 per cent).
As most of the day is spent in school, it is therefore crucial to implement strategies that tackle this mental health crisis. This must be done at a whole-school level to achieve positive change and ensure all students gain the support they need to thrive.
Anxiety and mental health challenges pose many obstacles which can impact an individual’s ability to cope in an educational setting. These include – but is not limited to – students feeling anxious about attending class, feeling unable to concentrate and unconvinced they can achieve, feeling unable to fulfil their potential and, perhaps most crucially, generally feeling unhappy.
At the end of 2022, we have seen a spike in anxiety levels, including students who have been impacted by the financial concerns and strains their parents are dealing with.
To address this, we must first recognise the behaviours associated with anxiety and mental health. These include outbursts of emotion such as anger and sadness. Students with anxiety often find it difficult to regulate their emotions, particularly when left without coping mechanisms. Sadly, sometimes this is met with punishment and detention, rather than an understanding of the underlying reasons which may be alleviated through counselling or mental health support.
Further and more serious signs may include self-harm and eating disorders, which are used as a coping mechanism particularly if students aren’t aware of alternative ways of seeking support or feeling comfortable to speak out.
Actions teachers can take
It’s perhaps worth emphasising normal good practice, especially at times when we are under stress ourselves. We all know how important it is to ensure students feel welcome from the moment they set foot on school premises, regardless of the time they arrive or their current state of mind.
It’s so easy to let your normal, calm, tone slip and of course this has unintended consequences. It’s important that staff speak calmly to students, asking them how they are: they might even try beginning registration time with breathing techniques.
Another basic is establishing routines well in advance – again sometimes difficult when we are under pressure. Routine is crucial to help alleviate anxiety and concern around the ‘unknown’: we all know that deadlines, timetables, study topics and any assignments or exams they may be taking need to be communicated clearly ahead of time, so that students can feel better prepared, more in control and confident.
New routines can also be introduced if you have a mind and believe in it yourself. What about beginning registration time with short session using breathing techniques? Encouraging students to practise emotional regulation exercises such as grounding strategies is also key. For example, asking students to repeat their name, how old they are and where they live. Simple information such as this can be helpful in centring their focus and reducing any feelings of being overwhelmed and stressed. Meditation, mindfulness, and simple exercises can also help as these techniques shift the focus to their breathing and the air moving through their bodies.
Where appropriate and possible, having a ‘safe space’ designed for time out or to conduct these types of exercises can be effective in helping students reflect and reset in a calming and reassuring environment. This could either be the corner of a classroom or a nearby dedicated area, depending on the space available within a school.
A whole-school approach
While the individual acts of teachers can be impactful, to promote change on a whole-school level, the entire culture should be assessed and revised where appropriate.
Positive messages of encouragement should be part of the school culture and permeate all communication. This might include reassuring students and staff that everyone is on their own journey; it is okay not to be okay; having conversations about emotions or concerns is welcomed; and that there are many people who can help individuals manage anxiety, including professionals beyond the school gates.
It’s crucial these messages are shared within all student and staff groups at different levels of the school hierarchy so that students and staff understand they can speak to anyone, and don’t rely solely on one individual.
The importance of emotional literacy
Teachers and students can also be trained in emotional literacy and vocabulary to help them identify, manage and regulate emotions. Keeping a diary of emotional changes can help individuals track their progress, spot trends and triggers which impact their wellbeing. They can use this record to help understand what is happening, and then put measures in place to counteract the negatives.
They can also share the signs that they have learned to recognise in themselves so that others are able to support during more challenging times.
Back to routines again
Finally, just as it’s important to start the day on a high note, the day should also finish on a positive and optimistic note. Ideas, such as sharing a personal highlight from the day, setting a target for the following day, sharing some aspect of their learning which has been enjoyable that day and what they hope to achieve over the coming weeks, are an effective way of creating structure and helping students look ahead with a positive mindset.
Small positives add up!
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and sceptical about taking on the whole wellbeing thing. But small, positive actions in the context of a well structured school initiative do add up . . . and do make a difference.
Clare Brokenshire is the Head of Online Alternative Provision Platform, Academy21 and ensures that the curriculum offered is diverse and meets the changing needs of vulnerable learners.
Clare has taught, trained and managed teachers in a range of settings and liaises with leaders across the organisation to ensure developments at Academy21 complement those at its sister school, King’s InterHigh, and the wider organisation, Inspired Education Group.