THE BLOG

How Schools Can Help in the Fight For Children's Mental Health

17/02/2016 11:31 GMT | Updated 16/02/2017 10:12 GMT

Today's children face pressures that were unimaginable just a decade ago. They live in a world where the challenges of adulthood are thrust upon them at an ever increasing rate and at an earlier age. The expectations of them often become disproportionate to their age and their ability to cope. Inevitably, the pressure builds to unmanageable levels. Every school community needs to find their own model for acknowledging, understanding and improving young people's mental health, and at Thomas's Clapham we're always looking for the best ways to support our children and develop resilience.

These are some of the things we've done to work towards a better understanding of mental health in our community. Although we're an independent school, the majority of the things we've done haven't cost us anything extra (or have cost very little), but are making a big impact.

Make a statement.

The stigma attached to mental ill health is one of the greatest barriers to getting people to talk about it. By connecting with Place2Be as our supported charity, we're showing our community how important mental health is to us, and that it shouldn't be hidden from view. Over the year we're running lots of fundraising events for Place2Be - and each one is an opportunity to talk about mental health.

The more you notice, the more chance you have.

The pastoral skills of class teachers should be at the heart of every school community, and the relationships they have with children are key. Weekly meetings to discuss concerns as raised by pupils, teachers, the school nurse and parents are an essential part of ensuring a network of understanding and support. This prevents children from becoming invisible and 'fighting their own fight'. We've also recently brought support in-house with the introduction of a new school counsellor. For schools who don't have access to this provision, there are some brilliant training courses available to skill-up existing staff members.

Education is key - but find the right programmes for your school.

There are many programmes available that schools can adopt to help educate children on mental health and wellbeing, but no one program will suit all schools. As an independent school, the challenges faced by our children are different, but can be just as overwhelming. Two years ago, we designed our own bespoke Inspiring Living curriculum to replace PSHCE. As part of Inspiring Living, children explore mental health and link it to issues like online bullying, gender and sexuality, and controlling emotions. Next half term, we'll be holding our first Inspiring Living Week - a festival of workshops, speakers and whole-school events, many of which focus on mental health and wellbeing.

There are lots of wonderful charities who help to guide schools and provide resources for educating about children's mental health. Place2Be have given us support and guidance and have come into school to work with children and staff, and can help schools to make the first step to approaching mental health education.

Not everything needs to link directly to mental health. At our school, Philosophy for Children (P4C) has helped children to become flexible thinkers, and to see beyond black and white outcomes. This approach helps children understand the inevitable ambiguities of life, and encourages them to consider problems from different perspectives when they occur. Outdoor Learning is also a key part of our commitment to developing resilience and self-confidence. Children run, get wet, get muddy and fall over - and they learn to pick themselves up and carry on.

Over time, with this exposure and understanding, children will begin to develop a robust inner template that is optimistic, realistic and positive. Children can then face their world with their eyes wide open, full of understanding rather than fear.

Think like your children.

We need to recognise how emotionally demanding children's lives can be. Schools need to continually reflect and look for opportunities to lower the levels of emotional upheaval that are created by children's bursting diaries and busy lives. Simple ideas have worked wonders for us, such as 'Calm Week', where we have no homework or clubs. This has helped children and families to make the most of their extra time together and remember what it is like to simply be a child.

We regularly practise mindfulness in school and encourage children to do the same at home. Even simple techniques such as breathing exercises can make a big difference. Recently, one of our Year 6 girls who panicked in an exam used breathing techniques to calm herself down enough to continue. We want our whole community to understand and practise it, so also run mindfulness courses for staff and parents.

It is our job to think like children, not their job to think like us. They don't have the same life experiences to draw upon to make sense of it all. Valuing individuality, creating a sense of belonging, promoting and modelling a growth mindset, and celebrating the joys of being a child are central to this. As adults, there is no option for pessimism when we may be a child's only hope of optimism.