Tech helps teachers to spot pupils’ mental health issues

22nd April 2016 at 00:00
New online ‘screening’ tests pick up the warning signs

Schools are using new online technology as an early warning system to check if pupils are at risk of mental health issues, self-harm, drug abuse or other dangerous behaviour.

Regular computer tests allow teachers to “screen” pupils and track “hard data” on their psychological health, which will help to prevent “pastoral-care car crashes”.

Renowned public school Harrow is the latest school to adopt the method. Pupils have to sit two online assessments a year, based on the kind of psychometric testing that is often used to assess job applicants in business.

The assessments measure how children steer their way through day-to-day social, emotional and environmental challenges. If a pupil’s data suggests that they are at risk of failing to cope, teachers create tailored “action plans” which can be shared among staff across the school. Teachers can also compare data and patterns of responses from groups of pupils in different parts of the school – for example, year groups or boarding houses. And the approach allows staff to see if a pupil is most at risk in the school environment or in the outside world.

News of Harrow’s pilot project, carried out in three of its houses this year, came as the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference of elite private schools revealed that it was developing a new pastoral care qualification for teachers to help children deal with anxiety and other mental health issues.

Early intervention

There are rising concerns of a “mental health crisis” among pupils in state and independent schools, with unions and experts blaming everything from over-testing to over-exposure to the internet. Harrow is one of 13 schools, both primary and secondary, that are now running the mental health early warning system – known as AS (Affective Social) Tracking. Nine more schools are expected to launch pilots in September.

Peter Bieneman, senior master and director of boarding at Harrow, said: “When we were debriefed on the first set of results, one of our house masters said it was as if she knew the individuals she was describing – yet she had never met them, only seen their data.

“It enables us to work out, with even more certainty, which boys need help and where to focus in that boy’s life.”

Mary Bousted, general secretary of the ATL teaching union, which has highlighted child mental health problems, supports the idea of tracking pupils’ mental health in a more systematic way.

“I don’t think that just relying on ‘Do they seem OK?’ is good enough any more,” she said. “If schools leave things to chance they are likely to miss [a children’s problems].

“This system wouldn’t catch anyone who really wants to hide their issues, but it is another tool in a school’s armoury.” Typically, the early warning system finds that around 10 per cent of pupils need extra support.

Chris Jeffery, headmaster of the Grange School in Cheshire and chair of the HMC wellbeing working group, whose school is also trialling the technique, said he wanted to see if the system worked in a day school, as well as a boarding school.

Natasha Devon, the government’s mental health champion, said that the method was an “interesting experiment”. But she stressed that all pupils should be taught “mind-nurturing survival skills”.

The system was developed by cognitive scientist Simon Walker and his wife Jo, a former deputy head and local authority adviser on behavioural, emotional and social difficulties. It was based on research that involved 15,000 pupils. Dr Walker said that the system was about being “more efficient” in assessing pupils and that hard data helped schools in convincing parents to support them in assisting an at-risk child.

“Schools will say it’s reducing the number of pastoral car crashes,” said Dr Walker, who will deliver a presentation about the system at an HMC conference on mental health in schools next Thursday.


The wrong message

Cognitive psychologist Dr Simon Walker told TES that a key issue related to pupils’ mental health was that messages “broadcast” to children in school were sometimes not tailored to their specific psychological needs.

For example, a hard-hitting assembly on how pupils need to up their work rate before exams might have a negative effect on high-performing perfectionists at risk of anxiety. “For this sort of person, it might be more appropriate to talk about failing being OK,” he said.

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