#ToYouFromTes: Raising wellbeing through activity

15th September 2017 at 00:00
Clare Erasmus reveals a new scheme that’s improving students’ mental health as well as their attendance

Stick around our school long enough, and you will see groups of teenagers completing creative and non-competitive, extracurricular tasks.

Initially, you might think they are simply attending a school club or taking part in a school trip. But if you look closer and talk to those involved, you will realise there is far more to it than first appears: these are structured intervention sessions with groups of students who are facing mental health challenges and who are at risk of becoming disengaged at school.

Students appreciate being listened to, not evaluated or judged, but simply understood from their own point of view rather than the teacher’s. Many young people find it awkward just sitting and talking to an adult so it is sometimes hard to achieve this within the confines of the school day.

We realised that to engage young people with mental health challenges, we had to find a way to make one-to-one sessions more informal and also ensure that we were really listening and empathising with what they were going through.

So we settled on the idea of extracurricular pop-up sessions where a variety of staff could volunteer to complete a creative task with these young people over a period of six weeks.

This would help teachers move out of their teaching roles and get on a level playing field with their students, engaging them in informal conversations while doing something creative and practical, listening with compassion and empathy at the same time.

It is all part of delivering an effective mental health and wellbeing support programme in our school that aims to be proactive and pre-emptive.

We successfully applied for funding from Surrey’s 2016-17 CAMHS Transformation Funding scheme to pilot our six-session pop-up projects. Here are two of the pop-ups we subsequently launched:

The Chef’s Challenge

Students cooked a different two-course meal each week, using recipes set by TV chef and School Diners founder Mark Lloyd, and then sat down together to eat, chat and celebrate each other’s efforts in preparing the meal. The process of cooking and sharing food bonded this group of staff and students and, as a result, the students revealed some very personal mental health stories. It was hard to resist the temptation to fix and give advice but it felt good to be able to listen, feel trusted and to know that communication channels were open which would enable us to help build their resilience.

The Bicycle Challenge

Old bicycles were donated and, under the guidance of two teachers who are enthusiastic bike engineers, pupils were taught how to remove worn bits and re-assemble new parts so they could cycle away with repaired bikes at the end. There was an incredible sense of achievement with this intervention. Students with an attendance below 55 per cent jumped up considerably. One student showed incredible vocational and leadership skills and has now become the student bike technician. We aim to run this intervention again in the new year.

The first few sessions were about building trust and getting involved but, as things progressed, the young people started to relax and began to reveal personal information about themselves, their home lives, their fears and struggles. This enabled adults to build a detailed breakdown about their physical health, attitudes to school, friendships, personal confidence, family relationships, values and communication skills. Some of these observations were new, but others re-enforced what we, as a school, had already discovered.

Based on self-reporting surveys from the 50 students who took part, all reported a marked improvement in self-worth, feeling useful, feeling more relaxed, being able to make clearer decisions and enjoyment of the school-based sessions. Staff were similarly enthusiastic. During the interventions, we also noted improved attendance and a reduction in detentions.

Did it sort out the difficulties they were facing? No. Were the interventions a success? Yes.

The mental health challenge does not go away nor does the adversity facing students in their personal lives but what has changed is their trust relationship with teachers and how they view themselves. They also have a greater awareness of their strengths and resources for coping.

Clare Erasmus is director of mental health and wellbeing at Unity Schools Trust, Surrey


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