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Creating a Culture of Caring: Primary Schools Have a Key Role to Play in Supporting our Children's Emotional Health

03/03/2016 15:02 GMT | Updated 04/03/2017 10:12 GMT

The Huffington Post's Young Minds Matter series is generating conversation on a critically important crisis: the epidemic of poor mental health amongst children in the UK. Given the amount of time our children spend in the care of teachers and support staff it is essential that we ask 'what role do our schools have to play in supporting the emotional health of our children?'

Until recently initiatives aimed at improving the emotional wellbeing of pupils in schools were viewed as nice add-ons to more mainstream teaching practices. Nowadays, there is increasing evidence that schools matter greatly in terms of children's emotional health, and that improving wellbeing can actually contribute to improving academic achievement too. In other words, support for emotional health in schools is gradually being recognised as less of a handy extra and more of an essential pursuit.

Practitioners, policy makers and researchers are latching onto their favourite programmes to prevent emotional difficulties or to support social and emotional learning. Some are mindfulness supporters, others are fans of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. The list of options goes on, and whilst there are studies showing promising positive effects of these programmes when they are carefully controlled and implemented by experts, there are fewer examples of discrete, school-based interventions for primary school children which can easily be rolled out across schools to show sustained effects on wellbeing.

A new report from the Public Policy Institute for Wales highlights the need for schools to rethink how they support the emotional health of children in primary schools. It argues that the extent to which an initiative is related to the functioning of the whole school community needs to be considered. Supporting young people's emotional health effectively in schools requires thinking and practice that treat the task as complex. As well as careful planning of exactly how new activities will be implemented, the report argues for the embedding of approaches to social and emotional learning within wider school systems and the broader approach to teaching and learning across the curriculum.

Two recent trials of the highly acclaimed PATHS (Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies) programme have arrived at disappointing conclusions in large numbers of UK schools. One found no evidence of sustained effects on behaviour or well-being and another showed a somewhat mixed pattern sometimes in favour of the PATHS schools but sometimes in favour of the 'usual practice' schools. Implementation appears to be an issue here. There are a range of factors that could influence when, and in what contexts, programmes to support emotional health are likely to be most successful. The fundamental point is that it is challenging to effectively roll out and scale up even theoretically sound and well-researched programmes to large numbers of schools facing the everyday constraints and pressures of contemporary education.

Overall, research shows that school-based activities have a big role to play supporting the emotional health of primary school aged children. Whilst discrete programmes to prevent emotional difficulties or support social and emotional learning may be successful in some schools, no single programme is going to be the magic wand for all children in all schools. Rather what is needed now is a new coordinated approach which combines different areas of activities and integrates all policies, staff and external professionals.

Such a challenge will have practitioners, policy makers and researchers scratching their heads across the UK. There is no established evidence base that can inform schools how to execute what is required. The report calls for exploratory work led by schools, experts and policy makers working together to develop a framework that could inform activity across school systems in the UK. The task at hand may seem great but the drive to support the mental health of our youngsters ought to be greater.

The Public Policy Institute for Wales worked with Professor Robin Banerjee and Professor Colleen McLaughlin from the University of Sussex to provide a synthesis of research and policy evaluations relating to school-based strategies to promote emotional health resilience among primary school pupils. The report makes a series of recommendations for Welsh Government policy regarding a national strategy in this area. To read the full report or the summary report, visit www.ppiw.org.uk