It could be argued that putting more than 1,000 young people who are coping with myriad emotional and developmental changes into a confined space is a recipe for disaster. And yet, in almost every secondary school in the country, this is what we do for the vast majority of the year.
Many of our pupils manage to cope with this experience – though few escape completely unscathed – but, for some, it can be too much and those pupils desperately need our help.
As teachers, we cannot ignore the fact that, at some point in a young person’s journey through secondary school, things will not be OK. If they can’t talk to their parents, often the best people to support them will be their peers or their teacher, as they are the ones who see the student daily.
So, how can we best offer that support in a way that empowers the young person while ensuring that they get the help they need?
I would argue that we should meticulously plan, put into action and maintain safe spaces in our schools. A safe space in school is one where a young person has some control over what happens next; where, for a few moments, they can press “pause” and gather their emotions; somewhere they feel less threatened and overwhelmed by what is happening; a place where, if they want to talk to someone without fear of being judged or exposed, they can.
What should this look like? I believe pop-up safe spaces can easily operate at lunch, in classrooms, using trained peers and teaching staff. They should have a range of purposes depending on the needs in your school community. Here are a few suggestions I have seen trialled out effectively in my 20 years of teaching.
The anti-bullying room
This is where students can come and talk about experiences of bullying or even just a breakdown in friendship communication. Reports can be filed and investigated by staff, and day-to-day peer mentoring and signposting can take place by trained anti-bullying mentors from the student body. Restorative sessions can take place here, too.
The wellbeing room
This is where students can come to talk about personal issues that they are facing with a trained “wellbeing ambassador” (some schools source an ambassador through the charity Relate), who will listen without judgement and signpost support in and outside of the school. This is an effective space to direct a young person to if they are facing complex mental wellbeing challenges that could be a safeguarding concern – as long as staff or ambassadors manning the room are trained in the school’s safeguarding procedure.
The ‘Q’ zone
This is where students who are feeling anxious or vulnerable can go – often it will be students who find the business of secondary school social life all too much and they can quietly sit here and chill out. Access to this space should be by invitation or referral-only from staff and peer mentors, keeping it as safe as possible. Various calming activities can take place here, from mindfulness colouring-in, journal writing, chess and board games to playing Minecraft in “creative” mode. Often, this space will be inhabited by young people with autism spectrum condition.
The gay/straight alliance space
In our school, this was a student-led movement where the goal was to make the school community safe by challenging homophobia and homophobic language. This can be a great space for breaking down barriers and encouraging a school community to become more supportive, while also creating a culture of respect, so students can feel safe and free to concentrate at school.
The young carers' space
This is where young carers can gather, find support from staff and solidarity with other young carers as they cope with the demands of their caring responsibilities. Sometimes a sympathetic or supportive chat can make a huge difference to the young carer. Sometimes they don’t need to chat; they just need a simple acknowledgement that they are doing an amazing job. It also enables schools to be more vigilant and help track the wellbeing of their young carers and spot any warning signs or concerning trends.
The Year 7-only playground
This is a safe space for the transition year as the young 11- and 12-year olds find their feet and confidence at secondary school. Here, they can feel free to continue with their Year 6 “play” mindset without fear of ridicule from the older students.
These are just suggestions: you should assess the needs of your student body and respond accordingly, pulling in volunteers and external agencies where appropriate, but also giving power to students where possible.
I have found it extremely useful to take an area of the school, ideally a corridor of classrooms, and name it the wellbeing zone for the lunch period, arranging the pop-ups in each classroom in that area.
The location of the wellbeing zone matters. It is important that it is seen as something separate from the special educational needs and disability space because we need to recognise that having a mental wellbeing challenge does not always equate with a learning need. It needs to be destigmatised in schools and given its own signposting and space. Otherwise many of the young people who are facing challenges won’t visit as they don’t see themselves as having a learning need.
These rooms need to be consistently open – every lunchtime, and with a trained staff member and peers in the rooms ready to listen and support.
You may argue that such public notice of needing support would put pupils off visiting. But I have seen that the only thing stopping young people from using these spaces is trust and not knowing what will happen when they come in to the room.
I urge student ambassadors and staff to give assemblies talking about these rooms – removing the mystique of what they are here for and what will happen. They must also give the young person, on entry, a warm welcome, invite them in and quickly settle them down to see whether they need support and, if so, what kind.
What is vital is that these spaces deliver on their promise. If this consistency can be achieved, the reputation and trust of these rooms and the people in them will be gained and the young people will use them.
I have seen how effective pop-up safe spaces can be. The school becomes calmer, as those in need of support get it and feel protected. Many behavioural problems happen at lunchtimes because there are no safe spaces for young people to go to when they are feeling emotionally vulnerable.
And there is a knock-on impact in class. This calming time spent feeling valued, supported and recognised will help settle the student for afternoon activities and can also help the student to remain focused in the morning, as they know they have somewhere to go to at lunch.
You will really start to see the effects after five years, when the Year 7s who arrive see it actively happening and then, by the time they get to Year 11, it is embedded into their school culture.
Some will visit the zone regularly. Others may use only one of the rooms once or twice in their school years. Others may never use it.
What is important is that they all know that it is there for them should they need it.
Clare Erasmus is head of faculty and head of mental wellbeing at Brighton Hill School in Basingstoke