16 Jul 2020

Are you helping or hindering the mental health and wellbeing of your pupils?

Ross McWilliam, MHFA National Trainer @RossMcWilliamUK
Are you helping or hindering the mental health and wellbeing of your pupils?

It’s an interesting question that I often ask myself as I visit schools each year. It seems like mental health has exploded overnight; we have cohorts of children who are suffering from mild and serious mental health issues with 1 in 10 primary pupils, and 1 in 7 secondary pupils, and nearly 50% of all 14-year olds experiencing mental health issues (Mental Health Foundation). This has seen an influx of ‘professionals’ who are addressing these issues. But are the proposed solutions appropriate, and worse still, could they be potentially damaging?

Let’s be frank, no amount of short-term training is going to make anyone a Child Psychologist. This is an expert position that has many years of very specific educational experience attached to the role. Surely, mental health practitioners should see their role as complementary to any established mental health expertise. With this in mind, I do think that with training, this new wave of mental health practitioner can be a very effective support to pupils and the school community.

Firstly, I do believe you must have worked in education, with a variety of pupils, schools, and challenges, to get a real understanding of need. Having worked in nearly 1500 schools over 30 years, ranging from primary, secondary, post 16 and high tariff special educational need (SEN) and emotional behavioural difficulties (EBD), I feel even that I am still scratching the surface of identifying need and signposting solutions. Secondly, to keep the delivery contemporary, an updated specific mental health and wellbeing qualification is also a must.

Secondly, I do believe that ALL school staff can make a positive impact on the mental health of pupils. Often the first point of contact at school may be the site manager, cooking or cleaning staff, or general administration personnel. The role of these staff should not be overlooked as they can provide opportunities for pupils to talk about various things that may be upsetting them.

Thirdly, the identification of need or difference is really important. Rather than asking pupils, “what’s the problem?” we should be starting conversations with lines such as “are you ok…you look a little different today…how’s your weekend been….you don’t seem your usual self this morning? Then leave time for the pupil to fill in the gaps. There is a temptation to start loading words and scenarios into the pupil, but try and hold back and leave the classic ‘pregnant pause’ to allow pupils to respond. These conversations might be even more appropriate on a Friday or Monday (pre and post weekend).

Classic warning signs might be obvious such as a bad temper and clear anger. However, a child who is disengaged, and almost reticent to speak, may actually be in need of support. Equally, an overly happy child might be masking a mental health issue…its complicated! Generally speaking, when children prefer not to mix with others, this can be a sign that something may be amiss.

There is then a temptation to pick a strategy out that suits that pupil, or worse still, a generic strategy of one size fits all. Before strategies are used, I am a firm believer that an understanding of a child’s background is essential. This is the basis upon which to build a trusting relationship, and it shows your interest in the child.

Strategies can be really useful, especially if there is a menu of appropriate strategy choices. This allows ownership by the pupil and there can be a greater chance that the pupil then employs this strategy to help themselves. I usually ask the pupils about how they are feeling, and often use paper and pens to facilitate responses.

I can then introduce a few breathing techniques which can be seen as quick wins to initially calm the situation. I like to write down, or draw issues and solutions whilst doing the breathing as it can often bring a sense of calmness to proceedings. I do like to break problems, or challenges, down to bite size bits that can be seen as more achievable. I also like to use visualisation techniques and aspects of Solution Focused Therapy to envision solutions. This creates a situation where it can appear, we are talking about a third person and the attention can be switched off the pupil.

At each session, whether it is formal or spontaneous, there should always be some kind of summary and mini action plan. This helps both you and the pupil the next time you meet ie both being nicely accountable.

I have a whole range of strategies that can be found on my YouTube Channel Ross McWilliam under Katy Cupsworth book images.

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