A School’s Role in Children’s Mental Health

by | Feb 7, 2022

In December 2020, as part of a seminar series on Well-being, Schools and Mental Health, experts gathered to debate the question, ‘Do we fix the child, or do we fix the school?’ The event led to contributors producing compelling research (HURRY, 2021) outlining the critical issues presented and discussed at that seminar – research that you will find helpful as we approach Children’s Mental Health Week. 

Firstly, the British Educational Research Association differentiated between two dimensions of mental health – well-being and mental illness – and acknowledged that while these dimensions are undoubtedly associated, they are very weakly correlated. Causes, interventions, approaches, and treatments differ significantly between these two dimensions. Yet much of the responsibility for managing them falls on teachers – they are the people with whom our children spend most of their waking hours. They take the lead in environments where their support networks help. Yet the research also finds that these interventions have minor to moderate effects on both well-being and mental illness outcomes.

That seems like a lot of responsibility for something which has limited impact. So, are we fighting a losing battle in schools to address the mental health of our pupils?

The simple answer is no.

Schools play the most vital role in identifying mental ill-health and providing targeted interventions through a universal intervention such as LifeWise, aimed at all children and young people within a school, where assemblies and follow up lessons target well-being and mental health. And then, through personal intervention and support, the issues experienced are revealed through that universal intervention. LifeWise wholly embraces social and emotional learning through PSHE and the broader academic curriculum. Developing a positive school culture and basing understanding on community, collaboration, and mutual support enables young people to experience a sense of belonging, builds their confidence and enables them to thrive.

Relevant content allows all students to better connect with themselves and who they might become. When large percentages of children come into EYFS not yet demonstrating the skills expected, including Social-Emotional Development, Language Development, and Communication, the starting point from which teachers begin their instructional support for students is already in deficit. Too many of our students suffer from low academic self-esteem, exacerbated by the past two years and the constant media focus on loss and catch-up. We cannot continue to operate from a deficit model where we believe they’ll achieve only if teachers drive harder and students work faster. If they aren’t succeeding, we must reconsider what we need to change or drop. Where do we need to refocus? The only thing we will surely drive is poorer mental health! 

The report states, “We have to start by finding ways to build up their confidence in themselves. Whole School Approaches can offer a mechanism to help schools and teachers adopt approaches and interventions, addressing the variety of mental health concerns they are likely to face that are as well-linked as possible. Our review clearly shows a wide range of effective interventions on offer, both at the universal and targeted levels, which address social and emotional skills, bullying, aggression, depression, anxiety, substance misuse, and more, and apply a range of different frameworks.

Recommendations from the report:

  1. Schools would benefit from having a policy for Tier 1 (whole school) and 2 (personalised targets) approaches to mental health. The evidence is beginning to suggest that this should include evidence-informed approaches for WSAs to support the development of consistent, sustainable structures with an excellent fit to the school.
  2. Schools should monitor the efficacy of interventions. 
  3. Education and health professionals should collaborate, constantly exchanging expertise to effect helpful change. 
  4. 4. Teachers should receive support to address the mental health of their students. This support should include opportunities for developing knowledge and skills, acknowledging the emotional labour involved and transparent structures for any proposed school-wide changes.
  5. The full report can be found here

Julie Chudleigh

About the Author

Julie continues to build on her relentless quest for innovative and impactful pedagogy and is motivated by growing knowledge of neuroscience and its impact on ways of learning. After 30 years in both the UK and schools around the globe, supporting inclusive, diverse learners and mentoring PGCE student teachers as a Headteacher, advisor and consultant, we’re absolutely thrilled to have Julie onboard.

She wholeheartedly supports the LifeWise mission to positively prepare children for life. Julie has been involved in opening trauma informed schools, classroom design and creating communication friendly spaces, growing student numbers, raising attainment. She is also a published author but ask her what her greatest accomplishments include and she’ll tell you the success of students thirty years down the line!

Explore more