The secret of happiness

13th January 2006 at 00:00
Schools are being urged to boost children's mental and emotional well-being. But how? Reva Klein finds out

Research shows that up to 20 per cent of children experience some kind of mental health problem and in 7 to 10 per cent of cases they are moderate or severe - yet the education system has been slow in confronting this reality.

Promoting emotional health and well-being at school can seem like an airy-fairy and vague ideal. Particularly in secondary schools with upwards of 1,000 pupils and scores of teaching and non-teaching staff, the challenge of ensuring good mental health throughout is daunting.

But mental health now features in the new official Healthy Schools guidance as one of four key components. This should prompt senior managers to think about what creating a positive mental health environment means.

David Coulter, education policy adviser for the NSPCC, throws down the gauntlet. "It's important for schools to recognise that they have a responsibility to provide for children's social and emotional needs. It is intrinsic to their ability to learn."

Creating a climate of emotional health and well-being is particularly challenging when pupils have complex social problems.

"Teachers can feel overwhelmed in some schools by the enormity of the needs of their pupils and feel that they can't do anything about it," says Benita Refson, chief executive of The Place To Be, a charity that works closely with teachers to provide school-based counselling services, mainly in primaries.

"To address this, structures need to be put in place to help them. We spend a lot of time working first with teachers to increase their understanding of emotional health and well-being in order to bridge the gap between learning and emotional literacy".

Getting the balance right requires development work at all levels. Acland Burghley secondary in Camden, north London, became one of 30 schools in the country last September to be awarded lead practitioner status for equality and inclusion by the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust.

Headteacher Michael Shew, explains why: "Ours is a school where people are listened to and know that they'll be heard. It's a culture where the default position is that there's always someone to talk to.

"As well as being a school where children are encouraged to be open about their feelings and relationships, it's a place where staff talk to each other and know whom to refer children to."

Acland Burghley has a three-stage system to identify and address the needs of pupils.

The first stage is classroom-based and consists of recorded feedback on homework, behaviour and attendance in every class. Teachers indicate "praise", "warning" or "concern" on a whiteboard. Low-level disruptive behaviour warrants a warning; a second warning leads to a concern, which in turn leads to an end-of-day detention.

Weekly inclusion bulletins distributed to all staff record all concerns and praises, the latter feeding into a reward system.

Stage two involves support staff, including learning mentors, a part-time psychotherapist, learning support and development staff and Connexions advisers.

The third stage brings in external staff, such as educational and clinical psychologists, a behaviour support worker, an education social worker and an education welfare officer, all of whom write reports for each intervention they make. Some professionals from each group attend weekly inclusion meetings.

The gradations ensure that each step of the way, pupils are getting the attention appropriate to their needs. While sanctions are the last resort, the emphasis is on promoting children's self-esteem through praise and, where there are issues of concern, to make sure they get the right support.

The immense time and energy put into monitoring and the support services is seen as a necessity. According to lead learning mentor Rose Wade: "We need to get to the bottom of their emotional problems in order to understand the barriers to their learning and help to remove them."

Deputy headteacher Jerry Collins, who is in charge of equality and inclusion, involves the whole school in his work: "Our approach to inclusion involves all the staff, pupils and stakeholders. We do training with staff across the school at the beginning of each year on the social and emotional needs of pupils.

"This means that that they share a vision that school isn't all about achievement, that what we're doing to promote social and emotional well-being will have a big impact on improving behaviour and attainment."

However, unless staff buy into the approach, all the effort put into procedures and systems can be wasted.

The spiel you get from the cabin attendant when you're strapped inside a plane ready for take-off (in case of emergency, put your own oxygen mask on first) holds true for school staff, too: to look after your children, you need to look after yourself first. If you are in an emotional state, how can you give children what they need?

"You always have to start with the teachers when looking at promoting mental health in schools", says Carolyn Kerr, former headteacher of St John's primary in Islington, north London, and now a trustee of Young Minds, the children's mental health charity.

She says senior management should ensure that staff are able to talk with an external facilitator about their pupils and their interactions with them, "including the projections that ping-pong back and forth between children and teachers".

"It should be part of school culture to have a regular place for these important dialogues. Once you've looked at issues with a child or a class and analysed why things haven't worked, you can look at the emotional processes that have gone on and that are such an important part of the educational process," says Ms Kerr.

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