Author, mental health coach and former educator, Andrew Cowley, shares impactful strategies and practices that you can introduce to support wellbeing in your classroom and promote a culture of positive mental health.
The World Health Organisation marks World Mental Health Day each 10th October. The theme for 2022, determined by the World Federation for Mental Health is 'Make mental health and wellbeing for all a global priority' which acknowledges that mental health should be treated on a par with physical health. Good mental health enables us to manage the stresses of day-to-day life, helps us all to work productively and enables all of us to contribute positively to our communities. When someone suffers from poor mental health, it impacts the life of the individual concerned, but there can also be impacts felt in families, workplaces and communities. As individuals and as a society we need to do as much as we can to prevent mental ill-health by reducing and controlling risk factors, enhancing the protective factors and by enabling a culture where positive mental health is promoted and celebrated.
Schools will have noticed an increase in mental health disorders in schools, the 2020 data from the NHS into the Mental Health of Children identifying that one in six (16%) of children aged 5-16 had a probable mental disorder, an increase from one in nine (10.8%) in 2017. The return to schools after the lockdowns in September 2020 and then after March 2021 has also shown an increase in parental and child anxiety, often manifesting itself in issues around separation and attachment, behaviour, attendance, socialisation and friendship issues. Schools are now undertaking training to appoint a Designated Mental Health Leader, identified in the green paper dated December 2017, a role now given greater focus as we continue to emerge from the pandemic but also deal with the challenges of the cost of living crisis and the impact this is having on schools, families and the broader community.
There is much that primary schools can do to mark World Mental Health Day. There are some valuable and professionally produced resources, particularly around assemblies and lesson plans to support schools in promoting the day. The #HelloYellow resources produced by Young Minds are especially attractive and useful. World Mental Health Day can provide a launchpad for a school’s mental health programme for the year ahead.
So that the day has a lasting impact, mental health needs to be embedded firmly in the culture, ethos and values of the school. By all means, use some of the free online resources and activities available, but ensure there is a longer lasting impact on our young people by working on embedding the ‘bigger picture’ around mental health and wellbeing.
What does the ‘big picture’ look like? Where there is positive mental health and wellbeing, there are positive relationships, a sense of feeling valued and confidence, the ability to develop individual potential. Positive wellbeing can enable healthier relationships to flourish, actions such as meaningful kindness and gratitude to thrive as well as make all of us, including the children, more productive and creative. Relationships is the key word here; relationships bring with them trust, kindness, empathy, the ability to work in a team, the ability to know when someone needs time to themselves. If we are considering how our young people contribute to the wellbeing of their communities, relationships need to be at the heart of this.
Positive relationships aren’t instantaneous. They will require nurturing, an awareness of how young people and adults respond to words, actions and other stimuli. Schools need also to consider positive language and the impact this can have on the culture within the school community. All the activities suggested below relate to developing a ‘culture of noticing’ around mental health, a culture that is shared by staff, children and families and in which appropriate language around mental health is used.
Effective and impactful activities on World Mental Health Day are those that will have a lasting impact. Leaders need to consider how to ensure that whichever activities are carried out on World Mental Health Day itself do not remain stand alone lessons and assemblies but are followed up in the following weeks and months. This will help to facilitate a positive shared language around mental health.
Mental health often has negative connotations because of stigma, stereotypes and language around mental ill-health. However if we think like we do about physical health, we can change the direction of conversation. In schools we promote good physical health when we teach about nutrition, balanced diet, the need for exercise and how viruses and bacteria spread and can be mitigated. We also teach what to do if we have poor physical health in teaching about when to go to the doctor and about medicines. If we parallel our conversations about physical health with those about mental health, we can celebrate good mental health and wellbeing and the factors that promote it in the physical and natural environment. World Mental Health Day is the ideal opportunity to use the words mental health in a positive way, and not to shy away from the matter.
If schools are going to do one activity for the day which will have a lasting impact, the class flags described by Adrian Bethune in his book Wellbeing in the Primary Classroom are an excellent starting point. With an emphasis on the role of the individual within a team, the values and qualities every child can bring to a class, class flags create a visual reference for the ethos and culture within a class. Each child contributes their own section which can then be joined into a rectangle, the flag itself, which can remain a permanent focal point for the rest of the school year. As a whole school activity, they promote a sense of belonging and purpose within the whole school community.
This is an exercise for teachers to do to understand the relationship structure in their classrooms. By considering the interactions within the classroom, verbal or otherwise, it can build a picture of who speaks to others, who may be more introverted, if anyone is more dominant than others, if anyone influences others in any particular way. The arrows show the direction of interventions and the thickness and colour are a qualitative measure of the value of those interactions. This is an excellent exercise to carry out with support staff and alongside the SENDCO and Designated Mental Health Leader too. This will help enable class teachers to know their class in a way that goes beyond their academic data but to see if they are isolated, ‘hidden’ or ‘hiding’ because if they are, these are the children who may require some form of intervention as a support. The children who don’t have an arrow back to them, or few arrows at all, are indicators of concern, or maybe of not knowing enough about them.
As an aside, a sociogram is also a useful tool to use for analysis of staff interactions too. Senior leaders may wish to do this to consider the balance of relationships within the workplace, especially if this has been raised as a concern by staff.
Talking is one of the most effective ways of dealing positively with mental health and promoting affirmative language around the topic. Talking also requires empathetic, active and effective listening. A starting point would be to help children identify trusted adults they could talk to if they had a concern, typically choosing five adults, written onto the outline of a hand. A class may all choose the same five adults, but given the nature of relationships within a school, individual children may recall positive interactions from the past; the teaching assistant from Year 1, the midday supervisor that is on the rota each alternative week. Trusted individuals might be the key when a child raises a concern, and can alert others so that the need can be addressed promptly.
Setting up talking circles is another cost effective action. Whole class circle time has its uses, but also its limitations because of the scale involved, but small circles or 3-4 children, with a set of established rules and expectations, can allow a voice for the quiet and a safe, trusting space to share matters that need a listening ear. Training around the talking circles can also encourage children to share if they have a concern about their peers. For more detail about talking circles, the work of Sue Roffey is worth exploring.
A worry box is a simple tool schools can put in place, but adults need to show that they are taken seriously. They may be opened and read by the class teacher, but equally the pastoral staff or senior leaders may do so. Routine and expectation give value to the worry boxes, the main expectation from the pupils being that they are being listened to. This should be a whole school initiative rather than a ‘pick and choose’ activity for classes. An assembly, on World Mental Health Day or at another time, is an effective way to launch these, especially if staff are present too.
The emotional check-in is a simple way for the children to communicate their feelings visually. Some schools have an emotional check-in board, where children place their name next to an emoji or in a coloured circle (matching the colours of The Colour Monster by Anna Llenas) to show how they are feeling in the morning. They may change this during the day. Schools with sufficient resources may also consider an online version. Again there is importance in adults looking at this and looking at changes in children’s patterns which could be indicative of an aspect requiring support.
World Mental Health Day allows the opportunity to promote a positive culture around mental health. This whole process will take time, but the ideas mentioned above represent simple yet consistent ways of helping that culture grow, a culture that will in time help schools develop their curriculum commitment to mental health.
Andrew Cowley is an experienced former primary school teacher and deputy headteacher. He coaches for the Carnegie Centre of Excellence for Mental Health in Schools as part of the Designated Mental Health Leaders programme and also for the School Mental Health Award. Andrew is the author of The Wellbeing Toolkit and The Wellbeing Curriculum both published by Bloomsbury Education.
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