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There are no magic fix-alls to maintaining good mental health and wellbeing in pupils, but these cheap and easily implemented practices can make all the difference, says Susan Strachan...
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Students’ mental health is extremely topical at the moment, continuing to hit the headlines. We recently held a mental health awareness week in our school, just as I’m sure it is a hotly discussed topic up and down the country.
We need to make sure that students are able to cope, and ensure that their mental health is not adversely affected by external circumstances that can often be avoided or that can seem trivial to teachers and outsiders (but which, to that teenager, feel like the some of the most important things they have faced).
We have all experienced that internal voice that talks to us, repetitively, preying on fears, stresses, anxieties and worries, and which doesn’t seem to go away. But as we have grown up, we have hopefully managed to navigate the issues, silence the voice, or at least become more able to rationalise it.
For teenagers, issues around friendships, hormones, home life, navigating the day to day pressures of growing up and becoming more independent, all while being stuck in a ‘no man’s land’ between childhood and adulthood, can at times seem insurmountable and incredibly difficult.
But as teachers and support staff in school there are several things that we can do to relieve this burden and ensure that the students in our care are supported and listened to.
So, how can we help?
The suggestions and strategies that I suggest below are not new and don’t necessarily have a ‘wow’ factor – they are simple, common sense ideas that can work in ensuring that students who are facing, or have faced, mental health issues have someone they can talk to.
Pastoral support is absolutely key to ensuring that students have access to guidance and support. Having an individual that the student is able to speak to in confidence is essential – whether that’s a tutor, a mentor paid specifically to be a student wellbeing officer, a head of year or deputy head of year, a head of house or a teacher.
It doesn’t matter so much where that pastoral support comes from, as long as students are aware of to whom they need to go in order to get the support and guidance they need and deserve.
In schools, time is often pressured and hard to find, but if a student is distressed or upset then the best thing anyone can give is a bit of time to sit down with them and listen.
It’s not always easy in the insanity of a school day when everyone is busy and under pressure, and it can feel frustrating to have to take the time out when your to-do list is lurking ominously in the background, but finding a moment to speak to a student who is on the edge is one of the biggest things you can do. And it can really make a difference.
Whether this is in classes, during tutor time, in student support or just from simply from seeing pupils around the school, it’s important to know your students.
Try to see breaktime and lunchtime duties less as a ‘must-do’ inconvenience, and more of an opportunity to get to know the students a little better.
If you have a designated area you will quickly know who ‘hangs around’ in that spot, and it creates the perfect opportunity to have a chat and find out more about these particular pupils.
In tutor time, greet the students by name every day and make an effort to ask them on a Monday what they got up to at the weekend or holidays. These dialogues aren’t time consuming and they make everyone’s day a little bit nicer.
I know that from these conversations I can ascertain whether a student has had a good or bad weekend and if they are likely to need a little pep talk or a reminder that they can pop and see me if they need to, or what more often happens, that they can have a chat with me in tutor time to let me know what’s on their mind.
In class, speak to the students when appropriate.
I teach English, which lends itself to asking students what they enjoy and why when they’re doing speeches or other written work, or what makes them really angry or upset. And this can be a good way to understand where they are coming from.
This links in really nicely to knowing your students.
Have you spotted a drop in output from a previously conscientious student? Have you noticed a change in their demeanour, or spotted an aura of unhappiness about them?
Are you aware of something that has happened in a pupil’s life that could potentially make them feel upset, depressed, uncertain? Or, is there a sense that something has changed or is different?
As I mentioned above, it’s important that you know your students pretty well in order to notice these changes. But if you do spot something that strikes you as unusual, a quick conversation to ‘check in’ can be transformative.
The student may or may not open up to you, but they will know that someone cares, and that can have a catalytic effect. This could mean that they then speak to friends or family, because they know that someone has seen that something is not quite right with them.
I know from experience that this does happen, and it does help.
Have an on-site professional counsellor to help students who have complex issues and problems with which they are finding it difficult to cope.
There are certain circumstances that students have to deal with that should, or even must, involve other people, and a counsellor is a good professional way to go about getting these more-complex issues dealt with.
On a wider scale, schools should make sure that they are open and honest and communicate effectively with the other professionals who can help students.
There are organisations (again, that are also stretched for capacity) to which students could and should be referred. By ensuring that we communicate effectively as a school we can help students together.
Make sure that information about a student is communicated as and when it is relevant, and to whom it is relevant.
This can be a note in the system on a student’s file that goes to all members of staff who have contact with that student. This means that all relevant people are informed, and are therefore able to support them appropriately.
As I said at the top of this list of strategies, these are not wow-factor ideas, but common sense practices that are cheaply and easily implemented.
Dweck, in her research paper Academic Tenacity, states: “Addressing the psychology of the student is critical and can galvanise students to seize the opportunities for learning that exist in their school environment.”
This supports the idea that student’s psychological wellbeing and mental health, if looked after and positive, will help them to have better academic opportunities and allow the students to get more out of school.
So, as well as the fact that we are human beings working to help other humans develop and grow, the idea of students doing better, and being academically better, really is a huge positive.
Susan Strachan is a teacher and KS4 leader. You can find her at susansenglish.wordpress.com and follow her on Twitter at @SusanSEnglish.
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