Child mental health: 5 ways schools can support parents

With students at home, it is more difficult for teachers to spot mental health issues – but they can help parents

Ceri Stokes

Child mental health: How schools can support parents in the coronavirus lockdown

This second lockdown seems to have impacted students’ wellbeing considerably more than the first (schools are not counting the one in November). It is hard to say exactly why, but there are a number of potential factors:

  • The weather and the fact that you cannot go out for a walk after lessons without taking a torch.
  • The fact that the workload seems much tougher, with clear expectations of screen time in all year groups, and we have the uncertainty of what “no exams” actually means for GCSE and A-level students.
  • The obvious fact that Covid-19 numbers are growing and therefore more families will have been touched by this disease and will be dealing with loss.
  • The fact that we have all been here before and it feels like Groundhog Day. The small novelty factor has long gone and challenges to grow beards or change you hair colour, the things pupils couldn’t do at school, don’t seem to be exciting or enough any more.

Whatever it is, the mood is a little darker this time, but we find ourselves again trying to support students without face-to-face contact.

Again we're unable to pick up on the smaller signs that can build up to being a bigger mental health concern. Parents and friends, therefore, play an important role.

Mental health: Supporting parents in identifying concerns

So where do schools fit into this? As leaders, we need to protect staff wellbeing. We cannot expect them to take on the responsibility of supporting entire families, but it is hard when parents ask for help.

And we really do want them to communicate with us, especially as we can address the possible pressure or have links to professionals who can help provide the answers that we cannot. This is the key message, though. That we are only teachers and not the experts.

So what can we do? We can be proactive, sharing good, healthy habits, through newsletters and communications, or setting PSHE work that can be accessed by the whole family.

Here are five points that can help provide additional support.

  1. Set work that involves the family

Schools should consider, when they are setting work for the child, that parents could also be participating and learning. Does the work encourage the child with their own wellbeing but also enable the family to support each other?

One example I have seen in a primary school is a 30-minute session called “Helping hands”, where the child has to help someone else and send in a photo every now and again.

Examples include helping mum with the gardening, making scones for the isolating next-door neighbour, making cards for the local elderly care home and litter picking on walks.

2. Share healthy habits

Consider sharing healthy habits through newsletters and communications. Things like sleeping routines, eating together, walking; but also tips on giving the child space.

It’s a difficult balance, but the child cannot be smothered, as this would be just as unhealthy as being left alone. Ensuring that a child has someone they can talk to when they want is key. This adult could be someone in the wider family, an uncle or aunt.

3. Signpost useful information

Suggesting some websites for parents and children to discuss together can help. There is some great information for the child, the parents and even friends on websites like Young Minds and Mind

4. Make sure parents get their own support

In identifying mental health concerns in their children, some parents will feel like failures and will struggle to deal with this. They may feel judged or concerned that their child will get a label. 

Encouraging the parent to get support themselves is often something we forget as teachers, because we are focused on the child.

Some parents will see the school or the teacher as their own support system and can spend time offloading and communicating. Although we will listen and want to help, we need to look after the wellbeing of our staff.

5. Know when to raise the alarm

If things get very serious then schools need to know when to suggest that professionals get involved.

School leaders need to be aware of the thresholds and when to make referrals to doctors, child and adolescent mental health services or social services. There are a wealth of other services as well, and it can be overwhelming. The experience and knowledge of the safeguarding lead and pastoral staff will be key here.

Ceri Stokes is assistant head (DSL) at Kimbolton School in Cambridgeshire. She tweets @CeriStokes

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