For the last 20 years of my career, I have asked children and adolescents in Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services the question: “When did it all start?”
Anecdotally, it seems more and more that they cite secondary transfer as the tipping point.
Heads and teachers are mindful of these challenges. For example, when my last child left primary school, there were eight different events in the last half-term to mark the pupils leaving the school. They put on a play. They ran mini-businesses every day after school to raise money for their leaving activities. They had a whole-school assembly where they shared memories of their time together. They had a picnic in the local park with the Reception class. They had a whole-school “banquet”. And, on the final day, there was a church service where each child was personally presented with a Bible.
Joy and celebration
So, what do I think of this, from a mental health perspective?
When I look at these events, I can applaud three aspects that I think are important for mental health. Firstly, the transition is marked, and the children are given an opportunity to express their feelings about it. Secondly, there is joy and celebration associated with it, because I don’t think you need to be a psychologist to recognise that these are important in life. Thirdly, it gives them opportunities in the creative arts and to hone their commercial skills. All of these are extremely important for wellbeing.
On the other hand, I think those post-half-term weeks lacked other elements that we know are good for mental health. Celebration and joy are important, but so are routine and consistency. We all know how quickly excited children can turn into emotional, over-wrought children after Christmas or a birthday party.
Routine and consistency help children feel mentally and physically safe and contained; they allow emotions to stay in check. There was also little in the way of exercise or connection to nature: These are factors that are protective of mental health in the long term.
I don’t have a problem with any of those events in isolation, but I do with the combination of the events in total. It is the encouragement of excess that I worry about: excess of emotion, excess of eating, excess of stimulation. None of these is great for mental health.
Spiralling to excess
Regular readers of this column will know that I am an advocate for a balanced approach, in terms of feelings, thoughts and behaviour. These, I believe, are the cornerstones of creating good mental health. It is when each or all of these three elements spiral to excess that we have problems.
So, let’s look at the transition events in terms of behaviour – for example, eating behaviour. All of these events, except the church ceremony, involved foods generally discouraged in school, including sweets, cakes and crisps.
Given binge-eating is a key component in both obesity (around a third of obese people meet the criteria for binge-eating disorder) and bulimia, I don’t think it’s helpful to have schools reinforce and normalise a pattern of behaviour that promotes restriction of food items (sweets, cakes) most of the time, and then periods of overeating them. Psychologically and physically, the evidence points to a more balanced approach, where these foods are part of everyday eating, but never eaten to excess.
I also think that this was too much emotion: there was an expectation of involvement in thank yous and goodbyes. There is a fine line between giving a child an opportunity to express emotion, on the one hand, and pushing a child to express emotion on the other.
As a parent, it was a bit like watching the film Steel Magnolias. If you have ever seen the film, it is a crescendo of emotion. Watching the film, I didn’t feel like I was being told a story – I felt as if the film-makers were throwing everything at it to make me cry.
And these events from school made me feel the same. Our children were singing emotional songs about growing up, as photos of them as four-year-olds were projected overhead. As parents, we joked about tissues and waterproof mascara and, indeed, there was barely a dry eye in the house.
A bigger deal than it needs to be
As a psychologist, I am of course in favour of expressing emotions. Identifying and communicating emotions provides important cathartic functions. Having another human being hear and understand them is the magic wand of mental wellbeing.
However, there are also times where expressing emotions can be unhelpful. Too much expression can hinder positive action, create sentimentality or tip into self-indulgence. Sometimes we should keep a lid on our emotions – when they are too strong or out of proportion, or because we are tired or over-wrought. We can be guilty of making something into a bigger deal than it needs to be.
And that brings me to the third important element to mental health: thoughts. Children are given the message that leaving Year 6 is a really big deal and a big loss. The start of Year 7 can only be an anti-climax after that.
Instead, we should be saying that this is a change, but it’s also a continuation and extension of their school career. They may have feelings about leaving (or they may not). And, if they do, here are some opportunities to express those feelings.
If I was designing a transition based on psychological theory, I would work on reducing the difference: making that last half term in primary a bit more like secondary school (different teachers for each lesson; carrying your books around; navigating transport systems), and the first term at secondary a bit more like primary (using one classroom; fewer teachers).
I wonder if schools, in planning the year ahead, should just try to rein it in a bit, for the sake of emotional equilibrium and a balanced life.
Dr Tara Porter is a clinical psychologist at the Royal Free London NHS Trust and Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families, as well as Tes' mental health columnist. The views expressed are her own