How teachers can make a difference to children's mental health

On World Mental Health Day, one psychologist explains why the evaluation of mental health in schools is critical – and how we can give teachers the tools to do it

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As we mark another World Mental Health Day, the time has never been more right to shine a light on the issue of children’s mental health.

The picture is worrying. On average, two or more children in every primary school class will have a diagnosable mental health condition – and one child in eight will have one or more mental health conditions at any time.

Yet, only around one quarter of children and young people experiencing mental health problems are seen by specialist mental health services. With half of all diagnosable mental health disorders established by the age of 14, when children are in an educational setting, it is critical that schools and colleges are equipped to monitor student wellbeing and provide support where needed.

Structured support

The good news is that there is help available. Today sees the launch of the first ever practical and comprehensive guide to mental health for schools and colleges. Commissioned by Public Health England and developed as a collaboration between the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families, the Child Outcome Research Consortium and Common Room, the guide is an invaluable resource for all teachers to feel empowered with a framework to understand and deal with mental health issues among students in a structured way.

The toolkit outlines three key steps for monitoring mental wellbeing: 1) taking a snapshot of well-being across pupils, 2) identifying those who might benefit from additional support and 3) evaluating the effectiveness of that support. It provides a range of wellbeing tools that schools and colleges can choose from and practical guidance co-produced with young people about how to introduce these tools in education settings.

Schools and colleges frequently report concerns about the mental health difficulties faced by their students and the potential for this to undermine their ability to make the most of their academic years. Research evidence highlights the potential for behavioural difficulties to undermine academic attainment and also the relationship between poor mental health and poor attendance.

Taking the first step

So how can this toolkit help your school or college? You could start by selecting year groups to complete one of the summarised wellbeing instruments as part of a year-on-year "temperature check" on the strengths and needs of the students, and use the results to identify what the key needs are and what kinds of support might address those needs.  Implementing an evaluation framework as outlined in the toolkit means that schools and colleges are able to objectively assess the relative success of the approaches taken and adjust practice based on this feedback. 

Primary and secondary schools up and down the country have already been using some of the surveys contained within the toolkit to build their knowledge of the mental health needs among their students, and have begun setting up special responses based on their findings. For example, Cheltenham College are using a brief wellbeing survey, which is reviewed and discussed by the school’s welfare management team in order to ensure the most appropriate support is provided for students.

Schools have the power to make a real difference to children’s mental health – we hope this toolkit helps teachers to take that crucial first step in supporting their students and their mental health needs. 

Dr Jessica Deighton is deputy director of the Evidence-Based Practice Unit at the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families

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