Mental health: Moving from reactive to proactive support

Written by: Ben Levinson | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

We consistently talk about proactive, positive solutions for pupils’ physical health. So why can’t we do the same when it comes to their mental health? Headteacher Ben Levinson looks at how schools can ensure a positive focus on mental health

It’s 3:30pm on Tuesday. Time for your weekly senior leadership team meeting, and this week you are talking all things physical health. What do you envision the topics of discussion will be?

Perhaps you will focus on the impact of lockdowns on pupils’ nutritional health – and you will look at changing your catering provider. You might take a deep dive into your current PE curriculum and set targets for having outstanding PE lessons. Perhaps discussions on PE budgets lead to debates about whether you can bring in some energetic new coaches to teach break-dancing to your otherwise disinterested year 6 pupils.

What’s the common theme here? Positivity, in my opinion.

Physical education has historically taken the route of constructive solutions. We talk about prevention, and we talk about positive approaches to tackling challenging issues, because as teachers we are problem-solvers by nature. Many of us would feel confident in offering suggestions to help the situation.

However, could the same be said of our approach to mental health.

Far too often our response to mental health is reactive. We support our students – and staff too – once a problem is already embedded and the individual is already suffering. We talk about counselling, and CAMHS involvement – but could more have been done, earlier?

Whether it is lack of support, funding, training, or just being at a loss as to knowing what solutions could help, there is a gap.

My school has been working hard to try and fill this gap and I would like to share what we are doing to make changes.

How did we get here?

Narratives around mental health often focus on reaching out for help and challenging mental health stigmas.

Mental health is an ailment to be fixed, rather than a fundamental part of being human. How then, might we work to flip the narrative?

At Kensington Primary School in east London, we ensure that a promotion of mental wellbeing permeates the curriculum and is a vital part of our school values. We have taken advantage of some brilliant guidance from Public Health England and the Department for Education in the guidance document Promoting children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing (PHE & DfE, 2015), which highlights eight key areas to concentrate on if we are to create a positive mental health culture. Here are some of our key takeaways from our experience in applying this advice.

Permeating the curriculum

We make mental wellbeing the utmost priority when we plan our curriculum. In literacy, we will encourage our staff to talk about the emotional wellbeing of characters in books. In science, the functioning of the mind is treated with the same level of importance as the functioning of the body. In our history lessons, we will cover the emotional impact of world events on historical figures.

Mental health permeates our lives deeply so our teaching should reflect that. Making mental health something that is commonly spoken about removes the negative connotations. Students are more willing to share their feelings before they escalate into something that requires more intensive support.

Removing stress

It goes beyond the content of our lesson planning though. We consider the wellbeing of staff and students when we plan our assessments, too.

We know all too well that excessive assessment, both for students and staff, make individuals feel like a cog in the machine. So, we limit assessments. We focus on formative assessment that our staff carry out in the day-to-day classroom environment.

In addition, we do not do book scrutiny, learning walks or lesson observations and instead trust that our staff know what they are doing, because this promotes a safe, welcoming space where staff feel valued.

Knowing the red flags

When we create a whole-school environment that respects emotional wellbeing, we help develop emotionally literate pupils who are better prepared to articulate what they are feeling. Equally, staff who are regularly talking about emotional wellbeing are far more likely to feel able to discuss more low-level struggles before they escalate.

We accept we cannot prevent all mental health issues and crises will happen. Instead, our focus is to spot the red flags which may signal that a staff member or a student is struggling before the problem is exacerbated.

At the heart of this ambition are strong relationships across teams and between senior leaders. It might be that the EYFS lead has started biting their nails again. Perhaps the science lead has not been sharing all their exciting Pinterest ideas in the staffroom at lunch like usual. Maybe the usually beautiful displays over in year 4 are looking a bit worse for wear.

These red flags come up for pupils, too. Perhaps pupils are struggling with their behaviour more than usual or are not reacting well to a change in the teaching assistants in their class. Perhaps a child that took real pride in their handwriting does not seem all that bothered any more.

These could be isolated issues or signs that someone is struggling so we should not be afraid to engage in a supportive way.

BEST PRACTICE FOCUS: Pupil wellbeing and issues of mental health: In this practical guide, Dr Pooky Knightsmith offers a range of practical advice to help support children and young people with their mental health. Topics include spotting the signs of early mental health problems and how teachers and school staff can and should intervene safely and effectively. You can download the free, seven-page pdf by clicking here.

Mental health leads

Children’s mental health is only lightly touched upon in teacher training so we could all do with brushing up. But we only have so much time in our school day. I advocate that schools appoint a specific mental health lead; in the same way we have a literacy or PE lead.

The government has recognised this as a priority too. It wants every school to have a designated mental health lead by 2025 and has earmarked funding which aims to increase the number of such mental health leads in schools (DfE, 2021).

Recently, a member of our team signed up to train with the Carnegie Centre of Excellence for Mental Health in Schools at Leeds Beckett University’s Carnegie School of Education. Mental health leads can make sure the curriculum stays focused on emotional wellbeing and suggest ways to adjust our operations at crunch times, like the idea of redeploying teaching assistants when national exams are coming up to support staff and students.

They act as a checkpoint and keep us firmly on track with our strategy for supporting mental health proactively, not reactively.

With an ethos of support, our school community can talk openly about what they find hard so we can help them before it gets worse.

  • Ben Levinson is the headteacher at Kensington Primary School in London, part of the Tapscott Learning Trust. Follow @LearnTapscott

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