Pupil wellbeing: Supporting mental health through movement

Written by: Darryl Walsh | Published:

As part of our efforts to support the wellbeing of pupils during the pandemic, we should consider using movement and exercise. Darryl Walsh offers some practical advice


I might begin by talking about unprecedented times and the huge mental health crisis that children are facing – but you know all the facts, figures and statistics.

After working in primary education for 20 years it is clear to me that something needs to change. Teachers experience little or no preparation on issues of mental health and wellbeing during their training, with pastoral care workers often fire-fighting on a daily basis due to increased need for their support and referrals to CAMHS being turned down because there is simply not the capacity to meet the demand.

As a nation we are often guilty of being reactive in response to the needs of children, a kind of whack-a-mole approach, rather than being proactive.

So about three years ago I was pleased to speak to Dr Martin Yelling who wanted this to change, he wanted something that would be for all children, a toolkit that they could draw upon as they make the journey through childhood, supporting children to have the skills, knowledge and techniques to use when they need to.

This led to the creation of Stormbreak, a charity in England and Wales that aims to support children’s mental health through movement.

I believe that this is achievable, certainly not overnight, but over a sustained period of time where children experience positivity through movement and focus on mental health concepts such as resilience, self-worth, self-care, hope, optimism and relationships.

As a school leader, I was certainly guilty in the past of having special “wellbeing weeks”, before putting it back in the drawer and waiting another year before we would think about wellbeing again.

Mental health and wellbeing needs to be discussed, supported and developed daily, because we all have mental health. We need to start to allow children to understand what we mean by good mental health so that they can develop and maintain good habits.

Here are some approaches I would recommend to primary schools based on the work of Stormbreak.


Create an environment where mental health conversations through movement are the norm

Give regular opportunities for movement where children are encouraged to talk about their own and other’s mental and physical health and how movement can contribute to positive mental health.

Movement can be used to show how we move from one emotion to another, how we feel when we need to be resilient, or how we need to develop our ability to show ourselves self-care.

By doing this schools are able to start to “mainstream” these conversations so that discussing one's feelings becomes as normal as talking about a broken leg, paper cut or a child’s latest scab.

Why not try our Mood Shift (hope and optimism) activity to support your children to show them how it is normal to move from one emotion to another, allowing them to feel hopeful and optimistic even if the most challenging of times. (For all the videos referenced in this article, see further information)


Use movement that values the experience and process of movement rather than the outcome or performance

PE in schools can often be quite divisive – there are those children who love it and those who don’t. This can often put children off exercise and lead to bad habits and lack of movement.

As adults we often come back to exercise and realise the importance of movement not only for our physical health but also for our mental health and wellbeing.

But why should we wait until we are adults, why can’t we be taught the effectiveness of “movement” when we are children? Through shared participation, children can feel a sense of energy and engagement with the movement itself and begin to notice, name and reflect on how they feel during the activity.

We can support this by praising children’s participation and engagement in movement rather than the outcome or performance.

Mentally healthy movement isn’t about exercise, it is about creating opportunities for children to express themselves physically, being free to show their mood. More importantly, it offers the opportunity to notice, express and talk about what they are feeling and to make connections with others, while moving in activities that may be mindful, energising or gentle.


Celebrate engagement and interaction where engagement is simple, inclusive and accessible to all

There is of course a place for PE and the skills and specific movements that need to happen in order to be successful at and enjoy sport. However, even if this is not a child’s forte they should still understand that movement can be transformative and doesn’t have to be technical or overly complicated.

Engagement and participation should be encouraged and celebrated. Try to make movement fun for everyone, aiming to allow the children to experience the benefits of movement.

Try our Classroom Rockstars (self-worth) activity to see how much fun children can have by simply engaging with movement. The idea behind it is for the children to begin to develop a sense of self-worth, understanding that they all have a role to play.


Listen carefully to understand and validate

Effective listening is demonstrated through connection, empathy and understanding. Try to listen in order to understand and not necessarily to fix or problem-solve. Children need to develop the autonomy and skills to be able to resolve issues independently.

Through listening we truly hear children’s voices. Having these opportunities for movement built into everyday practice gives an opportunity for these conversations to happen. Our Monkey Chatter (relationships) video allows children to listen carefully and validate the feelings of their peers.


Conclusion

Movement and associated mental health conversations will help to reduce the stigma that surrounds mental health and ensure that talking about your emotions is as normal as mentioning a broken arm or a headache. Through regular “stormbreaks” – as we call them – a school can create a culture of connectedness and belonging, a culture where the values of trust, kindness and openness are at its core.

  • Darryl Walsh worked for 20 years in primary schools, including five years as a headteacher. He is now designated safeguarding lead and school operation lead at Stormbreak, a charity which aims to improve children’s mental health through movement. Visit www.stormbreak.org.uk


Further information & resources

To access the videos referenced in this article, visit

For more information on Stormbreak’s work, you can also visit:


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