“I want us to put wellbeing at the centre of everything we do in schools.”
These words uttered at the conference of the NAHT school leaders’ union in London ahead of World Mental Health Day (on Sunday 10 October) weren’t the words of a headteacher or even a MAT CEO, but came from the very top of the education food chain: the education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi.
For a while now sector leaders have called for mental health and wellbeing to be at the forefront of provision, and Thomas Arnold Primary School in Dagenham, East London, has been leading the way.
“It’s been a six- or seven-year-long journey for us and has really grown since then,” says acting headteacher Holly Pottle.
“When we first started out, it was very much [looking into] 'how can you give a child a consequence if that child cannot control their behaviour because they're in so much stress all the time?',” Pottle says.
“We've had to really change the mindset of staff and understand that behaviour is always an expression of how they're feeling or something that's going on. And that’s a consistent approach from everyone that runs right from the senior leadership team to the office staff and to the learning support staff.”
Why mental health training in schools is vital for 'levelling up'
Key among the approaches that staff and students are trained on is understanding and developing strategies to help children regulate their emotions. This includes work such as body-mapping to help pupils recognise the feelings within their body associated with different emotions, so that, in moments of heightened stress, young people can be more attuned with understanding what is happening and utilise strategies for managing those emotions.
“[If a child is in state of stress] and I come into a classroom and say, ‘Today you're going to be learning about long division,’ and in their head they're thinking ‘I don't feel safe' or ‘Is my mum OK at home, and is there going to be dinner on the table when I get home tonight?’ or ‘Is mum or dad going to be really angry when I walk through the door tonight? Will there be someone to greet me when I go home?’...Those feelings are going to make blocks preventing them from being able to learn, being in that constant state of stress,” says Pottle.
“Even as adults, we know if there's something that's worrying us, that plays on our mind before anything else. So for these children, it just makes learning impossible.”
Kim Golding, a clinical psychologist, author and DDP consultant and trainer, explains why this ability to regulate one’s emotions is vital for learning to take place: “Basic biology means that if we don't have regulated nervous systems in the children and in the adults educating those children, then learning isn't going to happen.
“We know how the nervous system works, and it doesn't work well for learning under stress and under conditions of feeling unsafe, so the absolute priority always has to be safety first. Once we can help staff and children have regulated nervous systems and the children can access the relationships that they need for support, then everyone's brain can start thinking and then learning can happen.”
While it is hugely positive that Mr Zahawi acknowledges that mental health must be better understood and support has to be provided where needed, for Pottle, there is a significant disconnect in the narrative around levelling up if it fails to actively prioritise mental health and wellbeing in schools to ensure that all pupils are in a position where they are able and ready to learn.
“How can we focus on academics,” asks Pottle, “when we really need to be focusing on these children's mental wellbeing so they can actually access learning in the classroom? Because if they can't access it, we can throw all the money we want at them levelling up but it's not going to happen.”
Golding agrees and says it’s futile thinking about 'catching up' and strategies to achieve this if we’re not thinking about how all pupils can feel safe in school. “We can have gross assumptions about what children need, but if we don't actually take into account the children's individual needs, and what their nervous system needs in order to regulate so that they can be in a position to reflect and to pay attention and to concentrate, and all of those things, if we don't understand those fundamentals and we just make broad generalisations, such as 'all children should sit rows and face forward [in classrooms]’, then we are going to get it really wrong for a large percentage of those children.”
In this podcast, sponsored by Thrive, Pottle goes on to outline some of the strategies and tools that her school has in place to ensure that mental wellbeing is prioritised just as much as academic success, and she explains the tangible effect this is having on wellbeing, behaviour and exclusions. Golding also discusses examples of best practice that she has seen and would encourage schools to adopt in order to promote a whole-school culture of positive mental health.