The links between character education and mental health

Written by: Anna Feuchtwang | Published:

The government is to strengthen the role of schools both in preventing mental health problems from arising and in supporting pupils in crisis. Anna Feuchtwang considers the part that ‘character education’ can play in new policy

Character education: it’s a term loaded with traditional values. It almost harks back to a time when schools were judged on their ability to stiffen upper lips and turn out young people with generous amounts of “backbone”.

Until recently, character education was used by policy-makers as an umbrella term to describe a whole raft of activity within schools as they support children to become well-rounded individuals, who can bounce-back from life’s set-backs, succeed and be happy.

As concern about the mental health of children and young people mounts, it’s inevitable that the flipside of this, how we build resilience and emotional wellbeing, is under increasing scrutiny. Developing positive character traits has a role to play in this work and interest in character education may revive.

The Department for Education (DfE) has recently published two pieces of research – one on “character education” and the other on mental health provision in schools – which may hint at the direction of the government’s Green Paper on mental health in schools, expected in the autumn. The paper is likely to set out proposals for improving support for children with mental health conditions, but also for bolstering prevention in schools, including through developing character traits such as resilience.

The research shows that teachers are often helping their students to build “character”, they just don’t always label this work as “character education”. They may be confused by the evolving emphasis placed on the aims of character education by successive education ministers. Do we want to create “grit”? Or is character education’s primary function to “unlock potential” and improve employability, like initiatives such as the National Citizen Service?

When the National Children’s Bureau and NatCen researched the experiences of schools and colleges on behalf of the DfE, nearly all said they sought to promote desirable character traits among their students.
They spoke of encouraging positive behaviour, social and emotional development, and instilling a moral compass to guide relationships with other people. These are all part and parcel of how the government defines character education too: we are singing from the same hymn sheet.

Schools that are already actively involved in developing character use a school-wide, cross-curricular approach to this work. Almost all have a mission statement or set of core values intended to contribute to character education – where qualities like honesty, integrity and respect for others are set out as guiding principles.

These key messages are then promoted and reiterated at different levels, with the majority of schools in our research using extra-curricular activities, assemblies and subject lessons to drip-feed these values to students and encourage them to reflect upon, develop and demonstrate positive character traits. A significant minority of schools – about 41 per cent of those surveyed – also offer distinct character education lessons through, for example, a programme of PSHE.

Crucially, schools consider the quality of relationships between staff and students to be the key to success. Staff can model the desired traits and be approachable and engaging, so that students feel encouraged to be open with them and take on board their advice.

But school staff can only be available to form these relationships if their working day is not consumed by competing demands on their time. The schools we spoke to said capacity was often undermined by the introduction of new curriculum specifications and pressures such as performance-related pay and inspection requirements that encouraged schools to focus on academic subjects and results.

Allocating staff time to deliver character education, sharing ideas and resources among staff, and having a culture where staff felt valued themselves and could understand the benefit of character education, were all identified as essential in overcoming the barrier of staff capacity.

School staff felt that recognition needs to be given to the importance of developing character in pupils. Resources and skills are required to support practice in developing character, alongside other requirements for academic success. Teachers needed to be encouraged, developed and supported with activities to develop character traits in their pupils.

In addition, the schools we spoke to felt that the government and wider sector could helpfully support schools by creating a database of organisations providing guidance, resources and tools for developing character, and a network for schools to discuss and share practice would be useful.

Character education is an element in the early intervention side of mental health work. It complements the systems, processes and support that should be in place so a school can respond to pupils in pressing need. The second part of the research, published by the DfE, looked at this side of the equation.

The mental health research, based on the views of more than 2,780 schools and colleges in England, showed that 99 per cent attempted to identify pupils with mental health needs.

Many of the schools we spoke to in depth, which were selected from the survey group because of the high degree of focus they placed on student mental health, said they provided tailored support to children with specific needs, including counselling, educational psychological support, peer mentoring and buddying schemes, group interventions, and providing dedicated space to support mental health. As one respondent told us: “Our primary purpose is to educate … but many of our children come in in no way ready to do academic learning because they need nurture.”

But again, schools and colleges highlighted considerable challenges. Seven out of 10 said there was a lack of funding for adequate mental health provision within the school. They also said that they didn’t have enough staff time and capacity to create a culture and ethos that supports mental health. And when they needed specialist support beyond the school gates, long waiting lists and high thresholds for care presented children from getting the help they needed.

What is evident from our research is that the overwhelming majority of school leaders are committed to supporting pupils’ wellbeing and promoting good mental health, which includes many aspects of character education. But they can’t be expected to undertake this additional work without help. If schools are key components in a child’s happiness and wellbeing, their contribution must be recognised and given the proper support.

  • Anna Feuchtwang is chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau. Visit www.ncb.org.uk

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