Leading on mental and emotional wellbeing

9th February 2018 at 00:00
Knowing how best to support pupils’ emotional and mental health needs is a vital element of the middle leader’s role.

Whether you are a seasoned middle leader or one term into the job, it won’t have escaped your notice that supporting pupil wellbeing is currently a major concern for leadership teams across the country. Take a glance at recent reports around children’s mental health and you will understand why.

In October, children’s helpline Childline revealed that more than one-fifth (22 per cent) of the almost 300,000 children who it counselled in 2016-17 were primarily concerned about their mental and emotional health – an increase of 8 per cent on the previous year.

And in June 2017, Tes revealed that growing numbers of pupils are risking their lives making what look like suicide attempts in a bid to gain access to oversubscribed Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services.

In case you needed any further convincing that wellbeing deserves your attention, the government unveiled a new Green Paper in December 2017, which encourages every school to appoint a senior lead on mental health and to offer mental health awareness training to all teachers.

So, wellbeing is firmly on the agenda. But how can you make sure you are implementing practices that will really support pupils and won’t just pay lip service? We asked established senior leaders to share their advice on how to lead well on wellbeing.

Make the issue visible

“I don’t think it can be overemphasised how important it is for senior leaders to be actively and visibly engaged with student wellbeing,” says Fionnuala Kennedy, deputy head (pastoral) at Wimbledon High School in London. “It cannot be at the centre of a school’s ethos if the senior leadership team (SLT) is ‘too busy’ looking at ‘more important’ things.”

The SLT needs to lead by example, and this is particularly important when implementing new wellbeing strategies, says Katy Hodges, assistant head for inclusion at Westfield School in Sheffield. “Senior leaders taking an active role sets an example,” she explains. “Leaders must clearly and authentically give voice to their values.”

And, she adds, the role that the SLT plays in supporting wellbeing is not the only contribution that has to be visible; the hard work of all staff needs shouting about, too.

“Supporting the wellbeing of students in a large secondary school takes the efforts, patience and determination of a team of people, so it’s also about senior leaders recognising, supporting, sharing and celebrating the contributions that individuals make,” Hodges says.

Take a whole-school view

All teachers have a role to play in supporting mental health but, for Amanda Reedman, assistant head at Elmbridge Primary School in Gloucester, improving wellbeing provision has to start with the SLT, because it is in the best position to take an overarching view of the issue. “With the best will in the world, teachers are already trying to juggle everything and often have so much going on. You need that distance from the classroom that allows you to take in a whole-school view,” she says.

Taking such an approach is crucial, agrees Kennedy. She believes that, in order to make wellbeing support effective, you need to make it part of your school’s fabric.

“Build it into every aspect of school life,” she says. “Build it into your appraisal system, put it on to your lesson observation forms, create a properly frameworked pastoral programme which sits at the heart of your strategic objectives. And, most importantly of all, let the students tell you what it is that will help them the most.”

Shift your school’s culture

Taking the kind of holistic approach that Kennedy describes may require a change in your school’s overall culture.

For example, her school realised that to get pupils to actively engage with wellbeing support, staff needed to create a culture where talking openly about problems was encouraged. “It’s good to have school counsellors and to offer help in picking up the pieces, but it’s far better to be proactive and encourage a talking environment where students know they can get help quickly,” she explains.

Francesca Jenkins, assistant head at St Joseph’s Catholic Primary School in Oxford, also advocates shifting school culture, but towards valuing creative opportunities that will help children to feel emotionally supported.

“We offer Forest School, rock band and ceramics to name just a few, and each of these provides the children with a little escape from the pressures of daily life,” Jenkins says.

Reedman’s team, meanwhile, has had success with introducing a culture of mindfulness practice across the whole school. Pupils learn relaxation techniques and simple massage strategies in lessons. “We need to build [mindfulness] habits with our children now,” she says. “Whether or not they’re doing it at home, we can build opportunities into the school day.”

Look after teachers’ wellbeing

Reedman points out that changing school culture to be more wellbeing focused will be impossible if teachers are themselves feeling overworked, stressed and anxious. This is a crucial piece of advice: in order to protect pupil wellbeing, senior leaders need to look after teacher wellbeing first.

“If you’re feeling low, then you’ll find it hard to support the children,” says Reedman. “A good rule of thumb is that what we’re doing for children, we need to do for adults, too. This sends the message that wellbeing matters for everyone.”

Kate Townshend is a freelance writer

 

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