Jonathan Wood, Head of Service for Place2Be Scotland, explores the importance of developing a greater understanding of mental health in schools.
Some six years ago, when Place2Be began working with one primary school in Glasgow, their Place2Be School Project Manager would visit every class teacher at the end of the school day and ask how their day had been. Inevitably, these teachers would be upset after only a short conversation. Not because they could not manage these classes – they had been doing it for years, and carrying the weight of their children’s more serious problems, but because nobody had given them the time to talk through some of the issues they were facing on a daily basis. These issues were not strictly to do with teaching. They concerned the mental health of some of their children.
At that time, teachers we spoke to said they had “no basic, common understanding” of why some children behaved so badly or were “out of control”. The strategies they had learnt at college and at work were often “seriously inadequate” for some of the disruptive behaviour. They were also aware that some of the “quietest, most withdrawn children came with a host of difficulties” which it was often impossible to respond to, because of the demands of the most disruptive pupils. Our experience supporting pupils, families and school staff in Scotland tells us this situation has not improved significantly.
The Scottish Association for Mental Health recently surveyed over 3,000 school staff and found that two thirds of teachers (66%) felt they lacked training in mental health to carry out their job properly, with only 12 per cent saying they had received enough training in issues such as self-harming and eating disorders. The majority (63%) of teachers said that mental health was not covered at all in detail in initial teacher education. Place2Be has developed a Mental Health Champions programme, validated by SCEL (Scottish College for Educational Leadership), for both school leaders and class teachers, to help address this issue.
However teacher education is not in itself sufficient. We already expect our teachers to deliver academic progress for all children, whatever their circumstances. Such training will not and should not turn teaching staff into mental health practitioners; rather it will begin to re-frame their understanding of children’s behaviour, so that distressed, withdrawn or traumatised children are not seen as “bad” or “impossible to reach”. It is also vital to acknowledge that schools already make a valuable difference when they offer a safe, warm and nurturing environment to their pupils.
Schools – Place2Be would argue both primary and secondary – also need professional mental health support on-site which forms part of a “whole school” approach to children’s mental health and emotional resilience; not only counselling services for children, but also for their parents: and a close-at-hand consultancy and mental health supervision opportunity for teaching and school staff who are on the front line. The daily impact of having to absorb and contain challenging and distressing behaviours without support undoubtedly contributes to teachers leaving the profession early.
One of the first Head Teachers in Scotland to bring Place2Be into her school spoke about the service providing her with “an extra lung”. It was possible, because of the introduction of a whole-school therapeutic service, for everyone to breathe again. It gave school staff the space to think and respond, rather than simply react, often with exclusions or sanctions, to the hidden distress of children in their care.
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