Struggling under the emotional weight

4th May 2012 at 01:00
Helping pupils with their problems can affect teachers' own well-being, research claims. Adi Bloom reports

Looking after pupils' emotional health and well-being can often prove detrimental to teachers' own mental health, new research has found.

Academics from the University of Bristol interviewed heads, teachers and teaching assistants from eight secondary schools across the country. Their aim was to determine to what degree teachers were willing to take on responsibility for pupils' emotional welfare.

In 2001, the Labour government outlined the need for schools to take a role in promoting mental health for pupils and supporting those with emotional difficulties. Since that time, the academics say, "a plethora of initiatives and guidance documents" relating to children's emotional health have been introduced into schools.

However, the researchers say, almost no one has bothered to ask the teachers what they make of all of this - so that is what they set out to do.

Most of the staff members questioned by the Bristol academics insisted that it is impossible to overlook pupils' emotional health when working in a school. "You could argue we're not social workers, and just shut the door to it and push it out," one year head says. "You do sort of pull yourself up a bit and think, 'Gosh, why am I willing to do this?'

"But ... it's part of growing up, part of education, isn't it? Learning about yourself and discovering yourself."

Indeed, pupils' well-being was seen not merely as part of the growing-up process, but as inseparable from education and results. "If (pupils) are too busy thinking, 'Oh God, am I going to get my money taken off me at lunchtime?', how are they supposed to concentrate on lessons?" a teaching assistant asks.

But emotional health is not only vital for pupils' own learning; it affects that of their classmates, too. "Good behaviour and being nice to one another is part and parcel of their mental health," one school's learning support manager says.

"It would be a complete and utter disaster if schools saw the word 'health' and thought, 'Oh, that's PSHE, isn't it?'" adds a PSHE coordinator. "I much prefer it to be a whole-school thing. I think it's all about caring for people."

These responses, the academics say, suggest that pupils' emotional health is "bound up with the core aims and activities of schools". However, this belief is not shared by all members of staff. One teaching assistant says of her colleagues: "They just don't get it, you know. The emotional health stuff ... They fail to get the importance of that."

One reason for this unwillingness to appreciate the importance of emotional health is the concern that any attention paid to it will be time away from pupils' - more important - academic work. "Some staff think that, when you take them out from a lesson to do this talking, you're actually stopping them from learning," says a special educational needs coordinator.

Other staff express this differently. "Some don't feel they're qualified, don't feel comfortable, perhaps, talking about some of the needs that might come up," says an assistant principal. "Some staff have said, 'I trained to be a history teacher. I don't feel that I'm familiar enough with this.'"

And while attention to mental well-being may improve academic standards in the long term, in the short term, many teachers simply feel overburdened.

Indeed, looking after pupils' mental health can prove detrimental to teachers' own emotional well-being. "You feel drained by constantly giving out and constantly managing situations," says a Year 8 head. "And you've got this core of people ... putting all their baggage into your classroom, and you're caught up in it."

This, the researchers suggest, can prove problematic. "Just as the staff ... identify student behaviour as a key cause of stress," they say, "so students report that teachers can be a significant source of emotional distress for them, suggesting something of a vicious circle, where emotionally distressed individuals behave in increasingly negative ways towards each other."


Kidger, J. Gunnell, D. Biddle, L. Campbell R. and Donovan J. "Part and Parcel of Teaching? Secondary school staff's views on supporting student emotional health and well-being" (2010). British Educational Research Journal.


School of Social and Community Medicine, University of Bristol.


Teachers need more training if they are to deal with pupils' emotional distress on a regular basis, academics have found.

Researchers from the University of Bristol questioned teachers about their work supporting and looking after pupils' mental health. There was a general consensus that support systems to help teachers deal with emotional health simply do not exist.

"My sister's a nurse, and they very often have ... sessions where they have time to talk and share other things, but teachers don't have that," a learning support manager says. "Also, it's seen as a weakness ... I'm not managing here - I've got these emotional issues that I'm not dealing with."

And a learning mentor suggests: "We have inspections quite regularly ... you know you have to do your lesson plan, your action plan, your target plan, your XYZ plan ... I think that teachers could do with support on an emotional level."

All interviewees felt strongly that the situation would be improved with proper instruction, both during their initial training and throughout their careers.

"Improving formal and regular support for all teachers and changing the dominant culture among school staff to one that is more accepting of the need to seek help and support also emerged as important issues," the academics conclude.

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