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7 Ways to Boost Mental Health and Wellbeing for Everyone in your School

It’s tough at the top but how can leaders create a school environment that’s beneficial for everyone’s mental health, including their own, asks Dr Margot Sunderland. Here’s how...

  • 7 Ways to Boost Mental Health and Wellbeing for Everyone in your School

No doubt about it – senior leadership is a difficult job. Yes, no one said it was going to be easy, and challenges come in all shapes and sizes – but there aren’t many tougher than ensuring the school is a mentally healthy environment in which to teach, learn and prosper.

And there’s your own mental wellbeing to consider.

Again, no easy task – the Education Support Partnership’s Teacher Wellbeing Index 2018 reported a dramatic increase in the mental health problems of headteachers, with 45% of senior leaders feeling stressed most or all of the time.

You play a vital role in creating a happy, nurturing learning space for staff and pupils, so it’s crucial that you know how to improve and maintain mental health, both for your own sake and that of others. So here are some tips to help you.

1 | Consider therapy or counselling

How can you support teachers and pupils if your own mental health is poor? You must prioritise your own psychological support.

Counselling sessions where you can off-load, weep and rage to a trained professional will reduce your toxic stress – both improving your own state of mind and ensuring that you can support others’ mental health.

2 | Valued teachers

Make sure your teachers feel appreciated for their contribution to the school. Research proves feeling valued contributes to good mental health, while shame triggers the same reaction in the body as a physical injury.

A practical way to show teachers you value them is to reward their successes and issue commendations to senior staff. Knowing that your hard work matters and is appreciated is a morale boost for anyone.

3 | Help ‘lone’ teachers

If teachers don’t have regular access to a teaching assistant, this can mean they are a ‘single parent’ of as many as 30 children.

Teaching solo is isolating. Loneliness triggers the panic/grief system in the brain which can lead to panic attacks.

To help these ‘lone teachers’ feel supported and emotionally regulated by other teachers, organise regular talk-time groups where staff feel comfortable enough to discuss feelings of impotence, loneliness, abandonment and lack of recognition.

You can also seek creative solutions to improve staff-pupil ratios by recruiting volunteers or teaching apprentices. Another idea is advertising for teaching assistants – volunteer parent or grandparent helpers – who have proved to be a warm, empathic and calming presence for teachers and pupils.

4 | Bring down toxic stress

A quick ‘there-there’ chat in the corridor before a teacher’s next lesson won’t be sufficient to reduce toxic stress levels.

It’s important to ensure staff have daily access to an oxytocin (anti-stress neurochemical) releasing environment on a daily basis, with time to use it built into the school timetable.

Provide them with ‘reflect and restore rooms’ – they aren’t expensive to set up. Include the following elements to trigger oxytocin and opioids (euphoria-inducing enkephalins and endorphins): warm lights (uplighters); colours; soothing music; lovely smells; comforting fabric; external warmth (such as electric blankets); an open fire DVD.

Also remember children with troubled home lives may not arrive at school in an emotional state conducive to learning. There are many fun and easy ways to reduce the toxic stress levels of vulnerable pupils.

The following interventions – best implemented at the beginning of the school day – support learning and protect against toxic stress-induced physical and mental illness: accompanied drumming; tai chi; mindfulness; meditation rooms; sensory play; spending time with animals or outside.

5 | Emotionally-available adults

Social buffering – daily and easy access to at least one specific emotionally available adult – is a key factor in preventing mental ill-health in children.

Ensure all vulnerable pupils have a designated adult in whom to confide and that they know where and when to find that member of staff. If the child doesn’t take to the designated adult, an alternative person should be found.

6 | Reduce exam stress

To reduce exam stress – particularly around pressure points such as SATs – you must emphasise to pupils that their self-worth and the worth of others can’t be measured by test results.

This needs to be communicated throughout the whole school so that all pupils receive this message. Individual children should be formally valued for their own special qualities and strengths – such as kindness, generosity, perseverance and explorative drive.

7 | Positive discipline

As we know, discipline such as isolation rooms don’t work and instead tend to harm pupils with mental health problems or a high adverse childhood experience (ACE) score.

Countless research shows that isolation, sensory deprivation and feeling shamed is detrimental to mental and physical health.

In contrast, using disciplinary methods such as restorative conversations is highly effective in decreasing behavioural problems and exclusions, as well as developing pro-social skills and the lifelong ability to manage stress.

The outside

These tips will help you improve the wellbeing and morale at your school – but the responsibility for mental health should not rest solely on your shoulders.

If schools are to become mentally healthy places for teachers and children, the value of wellbeing has to be recognised at the top of the education sector, with the DfE, Ofsted and the regional schools commissioners balancing the importance of outcomes and emotional wellbeing.

There needs to be national recognition of the importance of monitoring the mental health culture of every school. Governing bodies, trust boards and directors should make staff and pupil wellbeing key performance indicators for schools.

Dr Margot Sunderland is director of The Centre for Child Mental Health (CCMH), a not-for-profit organisation that provides mental health training in schools, and co-director of Trauma Informed Schools UK.

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