At a recent talk by leading educationalist and SEN expert Barry Carpenter, it was driven home to me how much has changed in the last few decades when it comes to the subject of mental health in schools. Thirty years ago, when Barry went to his headteacher with concerns about a child with severe mental health issues, he was told quite simply: “It’s none of our business as teachers”.
In today’s classroom, mental health issues are very much part of the teacher’s business. According to recent research by the NAHT and mental health charity Place2Be, pupils’ mental health is now among the chief concerns of headteachers. Other statistics support this. The percentage of children experiencing mental health issues has doubled in the last ten years and it is now thought that, on average, three children in every classroom have a diagnosable mental health issue.
What’s more, it is well established that most adolescent and adult mental illness can be traced back to childhood so the early identification of wellbeing and emotional issues in children is crucial.
New Code of Practice
It is therefore no surprise that the new Special Educational Needs and Disability Code of Practice places mental health well within the teacher’s jurisdiction. With ‘social, emotional and mental health difficulties’ now defined as one of the four broad areas of need and support, the wellbeing of every single child in the class has become part of the teacher’s responsibility. Teachers are now required to educate the whole child.
Quite how many teachers are fully aware of this recent development is unclear but, regardless of how widespread awareness of the new code of practice is, there is an obvious increasing need by schools to identify quickly and early those children with emotional and wellbeing issues.
However, teachers have not been trained in children’s mental health in the same way they have in, say, literacy and numeracy, even though it’s much more important. As Catherine Roche, Chief Executive of Place2Be, points out: “…teachers are not counsellors, and sometimes schools need professional support to make sure that problems in childhood don’t spiral into bigger mental health issues later in life.”
But with declining support from services such as CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) due to diminishing council budgets, the onus is more and more on schools who are working hard with minimal resources to support those pupils affected by mental health issues.
When dealing with children’s mental health, there are a number of options that schools can explore. These can range from low-level interventions such as resilience workshops or activity-based courses in building confidence and self-esteem, for example, to a more in-depth approach that involves on-site group counselling sessions or specialist referral.
Deciding which way to go and where to direct limited resources can be made easier through use of appropriate screeners that can help teachers identify those pupils at risk and what type of intervention would be most appropriate.
When pupils with mental health issues are identified early and receive the expert emotional support that they need, the benefits are felt throughout the entire classroom. Overall disruption is reduced – and the achievement of all increased as a result.