Amid the huge media coverage last week about testing regimes for primary school children and the rise of anxiety in our young people, the news that the government had axed its mental health champion, Natasha Devon, went largely unnoticed. Natasha, founder of the Self-Esteem Team, had publicly linked “a rigorous culture of testing and academic pressure” with detrimental effects on the mental health of young people. After saying this, she admitted she was no longer authorised to speak on behalf of the government on mental health issues.
Natasha’s departure is a missed opportunity on many levels. She is a vigorous and credible campaigner on the subject of mental health. Natasha is young, vibrant and opinionated. She has the capacity to speak to young people without patronising them, and can also inform the Whitehall crowd about the experiences and pressures associated with being a young person in 2016 in ways that they understand.
Seize the opportunity
However, the greater disappointment is the missed opportunity to establish an expectation that education has a role to play in promoting and sustaining positive mental health, particularly for pupils with special educational needs and disability.
The current SEND Code of Practice puts mental health on the education map for the first time, through the category of social, emotional and mental health needs. Teachers, along with the government, now have a responsibility to make the emotional and mental welfare of children and young people part of our core business.
So, what can we do to start making our schools and settings places where mental and emotional wellbeing is supported and developed, for pupils with and without SEND?
- Celebrate successes… …even the tiny ones.
- Address anxiety Work with children and young people to identify their anxiety triggers. Talk anxieties through and ask them, “What is the worst thing that will happen?” Remind them that educational failures are not life-threatening.
- Build in regular time for talk Pupils need opportunities for talk that is relaxed and low-demand, and provides a space for reflection. We all need time to process what is happening to us, to make sense of our experiences and feelings. Schools need to provide some designated time for this to stop young people suffering from emotional burnout.
- Use positive language This does not mean praising pupils for no reason, but using positive language that promotes confidence and a “can do” attitude. The word “yet” is very powerful as it implies that something can be achieved in time.
- Model being calm and in control Try not to transmit pressure and stress. We need to minimise the language of educational catastrophe and stop telling children and young people that the future of our institutions rests on their exam performance; this responsibility is too much for them.
I hope that we can seize this opportunity to put positive mental and emotional wellbeing at the heart of our education pedagogy and practice, and continue the great work that Natasha started.
Sarah Wild is headteacher of Limpsfield Grange School in Surrey