I want to start this post by stating that teachers are not mental health practitioners and neither should they attempt to be. Should we have a broad understanding of child and adolescent mental health? A resounding yes! However, our role is to signpost towards the qualified professionals first. This will ensure that families can get the help and support needed to manage any mental health problems.
There is a growing expectation that schools need to support adolescent mental health and well-being. As an experienced leader with a particular emphasis on pastoral care, I feel a sense of this responsibility and have actively taken steps to a) build my own knowledge base, and b) create a school environment where students feel that we care about their health and well-being. The rest of this post seeks to explain how I’ve gone about these two things and share some tools with teachers to support their practice in areas of child mental health and well-being.
One of the ways we seek to embed a culture of health and well-being in my school is through monitoring the student population and gathering relevant data. It becomes very difficult to take appropriate action without sufficient information, particularly when dealing with hundreds of school pupils. During the pandemic, when schools were shut, I became particularly concerned about the loss of our primary data source – actually seeing the pupils in person. As a result, I developed a well-being check-in form – a quick tool designed to get a snapshot of the levels of student well-being. You can find it here. You’re most welcome.
Using it formatively
Formative assessment should become formative action. By this, I mean that any data gathered on students should initiate a response from school staff.
Once we receive students’ well-being check ins,we work busily to triage responses using a traffic light system to indicate the urgency of support required. Heads of Year and counsellors attend to the most pressing needs, form tutors support those with an amber or green code.
As the pastoral lead, I look at larger, macrotrends across all year groups. Interestingly, from our last well-being check-in, student levels of anxiety appeared to be high. This led to me questioning the data:
Do students really know what anxiety is?
Did they understand the question?
Did they invert the likert scale, so that they interpreted 4 as a healthy level of anxiety?
If students are so anxious, what is causing such high levels?
Where do we go from here?
Having discussed the high levels of anxiety as a team, we decided on the following courses of action. 1) Get clear on our goals when trying to address levels of anxiety. This was perhaps the most important thing as this prevented us from haphazardly throwing things at the issue hoping something might stick. 2) carefully plan interventions that would support the development of adolescent health and well-being.
It would be too long to list every intervention here, but in summary, our interventions nestle under two categories:
myths versus reality
empowerment and development of resilience
Concerning myths versus reality
We sought to educate students on what anxiety really is. With the ubiquity of social media platforms such as TikTok and Instagram promoting fortune cookie mental health advice there are many misconceptions and false information about the reality of mental health issues. We utilised Google classroom to share accurate information on what anxiety is. We also invited our Counselling team into assemblies to educate students about the topic. Although these are far from a panacea, they are concrete steps towards challenging unhelpful myths.
Empowerment and development of resilience
This was perhaps the most important focus of the entire project. Living with a mental health condition can be extremely challenging, causing great difficulty for the everyday lived experiences of those suffering with conditions. We thought if we could shift the mindset slightly so that students see anxiety (of a healthy level) as a performance enhancer, perhaps this could lower the negative preoccupation with this condition. According to Harvard psychologists Robert. M Yerkes and John Dillingham, moderate levels of anxiety improve performance in humans and animals. This reframing could serve as a means of empowering students to harness mild anxiety for positive ends.
With all being said, our role is not to stand in the place of mental health practitioners. There will be students who genuinely suffer from such high levels of anxiety to the extent that it becomes a disorder. Where teachers identify concerning levels of anxiety, they should signpost the families of such young people in order to access CAMHS, Counsellors and other services that can both accurately diagnose and then offer the appropriate treatment.
If you are concerned about the mental health of a young person, speak with your DSL or DDSL at the earliest chance.