I sometimes worry that I cause more harm than good where students’ poor mental health is concerned. The role of teacher is not the same as healer. While I don’t want to pathologise the everyday stresses and strains we all feel – and we need to feel if we are going to effectively cope with adult life – I don’t want to ignore or belittle a young person who is doing their best but struggling nonetheless.
And nor should we. Thanks to the SEND Code of Practice, the social, emotional and mental health (SEMH) of students is part of the responsibilities of teachers. So, frankly, we need to stop arguing about where our teaching responsibilities begin or end and start working out how to respond to student mental ill-health in the classroom.
For starters, we can reflect on what we know about resilience. It’s all very well to have a motivational poster up, but how do we actually respond to student failure? When someone fails to wait before shouting out their answer, do we demand to know, “Why is it always you?” Are some kinds of failures more acceptable than others?
What about the use of shame? Shame and guilt can send children into a spiral of self-hatred, causing them to behave in predictable ways. Understanding behaviour as communication is one thing, but do we make it harder for some children to behave well at school?
Do we understand the pernicious effects of bullying, and recognise it when it happens in our classes? Or do we brush it off with a glib “boys will be boys” or “girls will be girls”?
Are we aware that two of the biggest risk factors for poor mental health are being female and being bullied? And that two of the big risk factors for being bullied are being female and having a special educational need or disability?
We need to consider how safe children feel both in class and in the wider school. After all, there’s not a lot of point in children sharing their innermost feelings in the classroom, but being anything but safe from ridicule when they step out of the door.
Helping to improve student mental health isn’t the sort of thing you can design a one-off intervention for, or even a six-week therapeutic course. Instead, it comes down to the thoughtful creation of a school-wide, and, in today’s atmosphere of relentless pressure on young people to perform in all sorts of ways so that the adults can look good, a system-wide culture of respect.
Old fashioned, I know, but really, we need to be the grown-ups here and be firm, fair and kind so that everyone can learn.
Nancy Gedge is a consultant teacher for the Driver Youth Trust, working with schools and teachers on SEND. She is the author of Inclusion for Primary School Teachers. She tweets @nancygedge