Seven magic mental health questions every teacher should know

21st August 2017 at 13:25
The strategic use of these 'magic questions' can pull pupils out of a depression or anxiety 'thought bog', writes mental health expert Natasha Devon

Listening. It seems like such a simple concept. Yet during a period of unprecedented teacher workload, making the requisite time to be there for your pupils and listen to their concerns is becoming ever-more challenging.

If you do manage to ring-fence a corner of your day for some one-on-one time, the danger is that you’ll end up having the same conversations over and over again, leaving you wondering if you’re making any discernible impact. I hear this all the time from teachers whose training in pastoral support has emphasised the importance of nonjudgmental listening, but who have found themselves in a Groundhog Day-style situation, with their pupils never seeming to come any closer to resolving their dilemmas.

It should be noted, of course, that simply by being someone whom your pupils can trust and rely upon, you are making a crucial difference. It can be frustrating when you find yourself offering the same reassurances on repeat, but sometimes it’s the 47,000th time we hear something that it actually sinks in.

Having said that, during my decade visiting schools and having these types of dialogues with young people, there are some "magic questions" that I have stumbled upon. In my experience, the strategic use of these questions during emotional chats can pull pupils out of a depression or anxiety "thought bog" and allow them to start thinking more positively.

So, in my ongoing quest to make my columns extra "tip-py" this month, here are some of those magic questions:

1. What would you like to happen?

This question forces the person being asked to stop dwelling on the problem and start thinking of potential solutions. Encourage them to articulate these solutions, however unlikely they consider the possibility of them becoming a reality – it might be that you can help them to formulate a plan to get there.

2. OK, what out of that list do you have the power to change?

We have a tendency, as humans, to collect problems. Rather than considering each challenge individually, we allow them to spiral into one giant, insurmountable uber-dilemma. You’ve probably had a conversation with a friend along the lines of:

  • "How are you?"
  • "Not great. My boss is being a nightmare, the dog has fleas, I think Jake has an allergy to something, plus I have a huge pile of paperwork to complete, the front porch is crumbling around my ears and then there’s the whole Brexit/Trump stuff, the destruction of Planet Earth and our inevitable demise as a species..."

In the example above, clearly the first thing to do is to divide the problems into those which they have control over, then put them in order of urgency. You can do the same with any sorts of worries, and often just the act of making an emotional to-do list makes life seem brighter and more manageable.

3. Who can help you with that?

We can’t solve everything by ourselves, but we can assemble a crack team to help us shoulder our emotional burdens. This question can also prevent a situation whereby an expectation is placed on you to provide a solution to every single one of your pupils’ anxieties.

4. How much of your time are you spending thinking about that?

Sometimes we have a vague sense of unease and our brain wants to attribute it to something tangible. So, in response to the question "What’s wrong?" we simply reply with a fear that seems logical, in the absence of any notion of what’s really bothering us. The above question is a good way of distinguishing the former from the latter.

5. What’s the worst that can happen?

If we try and ignore our fears, our brain shouts them louder. If we articulate them, often they seem really, really silly.

NB: In any given situation, probably the worst that can happen is you can die. But, in the vast majority of cases, it’s highly unlikely.

6. Now, crucially, what is the best that can happen?

The worst-case scenario is what our minds tend to fixate on, in an attempt to prepare us so we are never caught off-guard. Yet it’s important to remember that the worst consequence is only one of a range of possible outcomes.

7. What advice would you give to a friend who came to you with this dilemma?

Usually, we are so much harder on ourselves than we are on other people. Our inner monologue consists of the sort of bullying language we’d be disciplined for if we hurled it in the direction of someone else. Taking time to consider how we’d advise a friend is what can allow us to cut ourselves some much-needed slack. 

Natasha Devon MBE is the former government mental health champion. She is a writer and campaigner, and visits an average of three schools per week all over the UK. She tweets as @_natashadevon. Find out more about her work here

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