The Stella Project: Supporting our vulnerable learners

Written by: Clare Stafford | Published:
Crucial support: In Somerset, the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust has provided training for local teachers and parents to run ‘Understanding and Helping your Anxious Child’ workshops for parents and carers of children with autism (Image: Avalon School)

The Stella Project has been working with professionals to provide mental health training in order to better support vulnerable learners. Clare Stafford explains more about the legacy the year-long project hopes to leave

The Green Paper – Transforming Children and Young People’s Mental Health Provision (December 2017: http://bit.ly/2nOHFel) – acknowledges that some young people are far more likely than others to experience mental health problems. The Charlie Waller Memorial Trust’s (CWMT) Stella project focuses on the needs of those most at risk.

Responding to local need

The Stella project is a one-year initiative, running from April 2017 to March 2018. Stella stands for Sustainable, Transformative Education: Local Learning Amplified and its aim is to provide mental health training and development for those working with young people who are particularly vulnerable to mental health problems, and to tailor this to local needs.

Identifying vulnerable groups

The project received initial funding of £250,000 from Health Education England and CWMT is working with 10 regions across the country (Durham, Bath & North East Somerset, Somerset, Medway, Ealing, Doncaster, Brighton & Hove, Staffordshire, Havering, and Oxfordshire/Berkshire/Surrey – via the Aureus school network).

As the Green Paper points out, some young people are far more likely than others to experience mental health problems. It cites, for example, that an estimated 45 per cent of looked after children have a diagnosable mental disorder, compared to 10 per cent of all children.
Others more likely to experience mental health issues include children with a chronic physical condition, those who have experienced trauma, young carers, refugees and those with learning disabilities. The Stella project aims to increase teachers’ understanding of the particular issues faced by children in these groups in relation to their mental wellbeing.

The vulnerable groups identified by the Stella project include children and young people who:

  • Are at risk of school exclusion or attending alternative provision.
  • Are currently or previously looked after.
  • Have experienced separation, loss or bereavement (including by suicide). Have experienced trauma.
  • Have a parent with a mental health condition or are young carers.
  • Are living in poverty or experience rural deprivation or isolation.
  • Are LGBT or gender-questioning.
  • Have a history of self-harm or suicidal ideation.
  • Are male.
  • Are transitioning from CAMHS to adult services.
  • Have learning disabilities, autistic spectrum conditions or neurological disorders. Have a chronic physical health condition.
  • Are refugees.
  • Are in contact with the youth justice system.

Giving staff confidence

CWMT has a network of trainers with a broad range of experience. They all have expertise in mental health, drawing on backgrounds in teaching or academia or as clinicians; some have lived experience of mental health problems.

The focus of their training is to give teachers and other professionals the confidence to help children maintain their mental health and to spot those who may have problems, taking action if need be. We know teachers can have a beneficial influence on children’s wellbeing, but they need to have confidence that what they do to help an individual child experiencing anxiety or in leading a healthy classroom debate on self-image will have a positive impact, that they will do no harm.

This means having access to basic but very sound knowledge of the range of mental health issues they are likely to encounter, informed by current evidence and research. It means having simple tools and techniques they can recall and use in the five minutes at the end of a PSHE lesson when a pupil discloses suicidal thoughts or the first signs of an eating disorder. Our general mental health training and resources aim to provide these.

However, when children have a higher degree of susceptibility to mental health problems because they fall into one or more vulnerable groups, teachers also need an understanding of their specific experiences and sensitivities. For instance, in the London Borough of Ealing, the focus of the Stella project is LGBT young people and self-harm. We know there are increased rates of self-harm and suicide among LGBT young people and our training helps participants come to an understanding of what factors might influence that.

How does it work?

In Ealing, as in all the other Stella regions, three full days (or equivalent) of face-to-face training are funded. The timing, content and focus of the training is decided in collaboration with professionals in local schools and health services. A training programme is then put together for frontline health and education staff.

This usually aligns with local transformation plans and draws on the knowledge and experience of local partners, such as CAMHS practitioners and clinical psychologists as well as school leaders and parents. As with all our training, it is free at the point of delivery. A registered charity, CWMT works by raising funds from a variety of sources, including donations from schools with the financial means, so that it can provide free training where it is needed.

As well as the face-to-face training, each region benefits from:

  • Funding to support the sourcing or development of appropriate resources. These are then adapted and shared across the project and beyond.
  • Support from a CWMT researcher to evaluate the impact of the work and help write a case study.
  • Free access to online resources and e-learning developed during the project.
  • Free places at national or local conferences.
  • Access to a series of podcasts, each recorded with a field expert, focusing on the mental health needs of a specific group of young people (see further information, below).

Who is it for?

While teaching staff are at the heart of the project, it is also targeted at support staff, school nurses, counsellors, educational psychologists and SENCOs. Outside the school environment, there is involvement from foster carers, social workers, police officers and youth workers, and health professionals from CAMHS and paediatric hospitals.

How will the project be evaluated and continued?

Participants are asked to complete questionnaires before and after training. These will generate quantitative data on participants’ knowledge of the challenges faced by vulnerable children and young people; their willingness to act in order to support them; and their confidence in providing this support. They will collect comprehensive socio-demographic data.

Around 10 per cent of participants will also be contacted by phone to discuss their experience. This qualitative data will be used to generate an online case study database to inform future projects.

One of the key features of Stella is its focus on sustainability and leaving a lasting legacy. When the project ends, we will have resources and examples of good practice to share. Representatives of all 10 regions will be invited to a London event on March 21 to talk about their experience. We are interested to hear from anyone who has something to contribute to the conversation.

Case study – looked after children

In the London Borough of Havering the Stella project is focusing on looked after children, and young people who are in contact, or at risk of being in contact, with the youth justice system. The project has linked with some existing local work and CWMT trainers have so far successfully run one secondary and one primary event.

The training explored the specific needs of looked after children, particularly around attachment. It looked at their need for a secure base and safe places, and the ways in which school might become a more safe place. Trainers use a whole-school approach and concrete examples so that everyone is clear on safe people, safe places and safe policy.

CWMT trainer, Ian McDonald, explained: “You can tell a young person about safe places and safe people but they are still not necessarily able to access them. In these sessions we spent time working out how to explain to young people the steps they need to take in accessing safe people and places – taking them through what actually happens, so it becomes a real possibility for them, not just an abstract idea.”

Case study – autism

A high proportion of children with autistic spectrum conditions (ASC) experience mental health difficulties, particularly anxiety. Dr Fiona Knott of the Autism Centre at the University of Reading has trained groups of parents and professionals from Somerset, Durham and Berkshire. The parents and professionals are working together to offer workshops for parents and carers of children with ASC about managing anxiety.

  • Clare Stafford is CEO of the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust. Visit www.cwmt.org.uk

Mental health podcasts

The first in the series of CWMT mental health podcasts will feature Dr Mina Fazel talking about the needs of refugee children. This will be available this month (March) on the CWMT website.

Dr Fazel, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Oxford University Hospitals, said: “What these kids need, and the way we can help them, is much more available in the context of a school. It is where the most positive impact takes place.

“We have found that the most important thing wasn’t things that had happened around getting (refugee) status, or counselling even, but when they went up in assembly and they said something that made everyone laugh and they actually felt accepted by their peer group. Or when a kid in school came up and invited them to join them in football practice.”



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