Free article: Taking a school-wide approach to mental health and wellbeing

Published: Friday, 07 April 2017

With concerns about mental health rising, what can schools do to help their pupils? Suzanne O’Connell outlines the advice available from the National Children’s Bureau and how it might be applied.

 Summary

  • Changes to mental health provision include: a major review of CAMHS, publication of a green paper to detail plans to improve services in schools, and an expansion of online mental health support.
  • The National Children’s Bureau has launched an online toolkit: A whole school framework for emotional wellbeing and mental health, which includes a step-by-step guide to developing capacity within a school.
  • The toolkit advises: identifying what is in place already; gaining a shared understanding of current practice and a commitment to change and development; building relationships and developing good practice; implementing good practice and evaluating progress.

The concern of schools in relation to mental health needs has not gone unnoticed. In a speech given to the Charity Commission on the 9 January 2017, Theresa May announced improving mental health support to be a key priority for the government.

Actions will include a major review of CAMHS, publication of a green paper to detail plans to improve services in schools, and an expansion of online mental health support. All secondary schools can expect to be involved in the three-year training programme to be run by Mental Health First Aid England. One third of secondary schools are expected to receive this training in 2017.

Ideally, what schools would like to see is an increase in availability of support in real terms. External support and advice has become hard to access for many. However, in the meantime, pupils are struggling and need help. So what can schools do?

Materials are being made available to help schools establish a framework that prioritises mental health. The National Children’s Bureau (NCB) has launched an online toolkit: A whole school framework for emotional wellbeing and mental health, which includes a step-by-step guide to developing capacity within a school.

It might not provide the practical external support that most people are probably hoping for, but these materials may none the less be useful in helping you to maximise your school’s resources and look at how your school culture might be developed to protect wellbeing.

The materials suggest a four-stage approach to wellbeing and mental health that includes:

  1. identifying what is in place already – what happens and what matters in your school
  2. gaining a shared understanding of current practice and a commitment to change and development
  3. building relationships and developing good practice
  4. implementing good practice and evaluating progress.

The information below, together with the toolkit items, provide more guidance on each of these steps.

Identifying what is in place

You need to establish what already exists in your school and how the school already manages wellbeing and mental health. In order to do this you could use surveys and bring people together in forum discussion groups.

The NCB suggests a brainstorming activity around an axes map that allows you to group current practices according to those that are:

  • low risk and high capacity
  • low risk and low capacity
  • high risk and high capacity
  • high risk and low capacity.

All members of the school should be given the opportunity to identify what concerns them and what opportunities for change they consider there might be. Looking for good practice and sharing it is an important element of this. There may be parts of the school where individuals or groups of staff have already begun to establish strategies and support that is working well for them.

Your school should consider the extent to which it:

  • is involved in prevention through ensuring an ethos that supports resilience and mental health
  • has strategies in place, including access to a counselling service
  • is able to identify difficulties at an early stage and is able to address emerging problems effectively
  • uses a strengths and difficulties questionnaire
  • involves pupils and families in making decisions
  • seeks wider help to support those with severe problems.

Look closely at your curriculum and identify where issues related to mental health are addressed. This should not be only in PSHE but requires a cross-curricular perspective.

Shared understanding

Mental health is not a subject that has received much publicity until quite recently. There has been an element of stigma surrounding it that has prevented open discussions and subsequently has compounded the difficulties that children and young people have faced.

Once you know clearly what systems are already in place in the school, the next step is to ensure that, as you develop these further, everyone is sharing the same terminology. Begin a discussion that clarifies a school-wide understanding of what the terms you commonly use mean for you. For example, what does your school understand ‘social and emotional wellbeing’ actually to mean?

You might be surprised at how different people’s responses will be. Once you have clarification on your key terms, then you need to decide your framing principles and establish a vision for the school’s universal and targeted work.

The NCB identifies its framing principles as being:

  • Adopt whole-school thinking.
  • Engage the whole community.
  • Prioritise professional learning and staff development.
  • Implement targeted programmes and interventions including the curriculum.
  • Develop supportive policy.
  • Connect appropriately with approaches to behaviour management.
  • Implement targeted responses and identify specialist pathways.

Your focus on wellbeing should also consider the impact that tests and examinations are having in your school. It is easy to underestimate just how much we expect of pupils and the pressure we place on them in terms of what we want them to achieve. Toning this down and taking a broader view of our hopes for their future can encourage them to adopt a healthier balance too.

Developing good practice

The next stage as part of the NCB materials is that of action planning. Following your consultations and discussions, the senior leadership team should be able to identify what the next priorities are for your school in terms of supporting pupils with mental health needs.

Your action plan should have clear objectives to support the vision you have agreed. It is important that the plan is seen as a key school document and a shared initiative, and those given responsibility for completing actions should be given the time and resources to do so.

Your plan need not be developed in isolation. It can build on existing school improvement plans and its format should fit what your staff are used to working with. Make sure that it includes how you will create confidence and capacity. Training and development of staff is an important feature of this and you need to consider at an early stage who will provide and lead the training.

Targeted and specialist support should cover:

  • anxiety
  • eating disorders
  • attachment disorders
  • hyperkinetic disorders
  • conduct disorders
  • post-traumatic stress
  • deliberate self-harm
  • substance misuse
  • depression.

It is likely that you will need to source external advice on how best to address particular health needs, although some guidance is also available from the DfE’s Mental health and behaviour in schools departmental advice for school staff.

Implementing and evaluating

Once you have the plans in front of you, the most important next step is to ensure that they are put into practice and their success evaluated. The school’s mental health and wellbeing strategy and planning are no different from other areas of school life – they need a rigorous approach to monitoring how effective they are. A mistake that some schools have made in the past is not to have recognised just how crucial good mental health is to learning, as well as to general wellbeing.

Finally

It would be ideal if, as well as helping schools to plan and prepare to improve mental health and wellbeing, these materials were backed up by health services support as needed. In the meantime, schools can at least put some measures into practice that might help stem the tide.

Further information

Toolkit

Use the following items in the Toolkit to help put the ideas in the article into practice:

About the author

Dr Suzanne O’Connell was headteacher of a junior school in Warwickshire for eleven years. During her teaching career she has worked in primary and middle schools in Coventry, Bradford and Leeds. She now works as a freelance education writer and editor. Suzanne can be contacted on This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

Most frequently read