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Pupil anxiety – 3 strategies for supporting your cohorts’ mental health

Illustration of lonely teenage girl shown isolated from her school peers

Rachel Bostwick examines the three key strategies that helped one school zero in on their students’ mental health needs

Rachel Bostwick
by Rachel Bostwick
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Students struggling with anxiety and unhealthy coping mechanisms. Disordered eating. Self-harm. Students exhibiting problems interacting socially.

All of these were observed by staff at St Michael’s Church of England High School in the West Midlands in the aftermath of the pandemic, so naturally, they wanted to help students navigate their emotions. Yet as the school engagement development manager and senior mental health lead, Kerry Whitehouse, explains, “Even though we had good mental health support systems in place, we felt we were swimming against the tide.”

The school responded by putting in place three key strategies, which have since proved critical in identifying and addressing issues with student anxiety, and done much to improve wellbeing across the board.

1. Understand the issues

Students were invited to attend a series of focus groups hosted by pastoral staff, in which they could share their experiences and talk about how they were feeling. This immediately gave staff a clearer picture of the specific issues students were struggling with.

The informal format of the sessions enabled staff to uncover key triggers for student anxiety, which included maintaining friendships, readjusting to being in social situations, and exam pressure – knowledge that went on to inform decisions on what actions were needed.

At the same time, ‘wellbeing checks’ were introduced to give students opportunities to informally chat with staff about anxiety and any other wellbeing concerns, and find out about support strategies and coping mechanisms where necessary. “Regular face-to-face contact between staff and students was essential to breaking down taboos and normalising communication around anxiety,” recalls Kerry.

The dates and outcomes of all such meetings are recorded centrally, so as to prevent any student from falling through the net and ensure they get the help they need. Kerry continues: “The measures we’ve put in place have flagged issues that might otherwise have remained hidden, helping us to quickly provide additional support, such as bespoke interventions, or referrals to local mental health services, where appropriate.”

2. Take action

The school’s pastoral team worked closely with SLT to design a COVID recovery PSHE curriculum focused on student wellbeing and emotional resilience. One key change was to introduce lessons on wellbeing and emotional resilience sooner, at the start of Y7 rather than Y8, so that students could develop the emotional literacy they needed to communicate how they were feeling at an earlier stage.

Students at the school run some lessons, assemblies and even dedicated events themselves, in which they will share effective strategies for managing anxiety and other wellbeing issues with peers. Teams of young people at the school have additionally received training from local mental health professionals before being appointed as Wellbeing Champions.

3. Upskill staff

Key to creating a culture of positive mental health at St Michael’s was appropriate staff training. Kerry herself attended an advanced mental health lead training course provided by the Carnegie School of Education at Leeds Beckett University from November 2021 to March 2022. This gave Kerry the skills and confidence to work alongside colleagues in shaping, changing and implementing the school’s wellbeing efforts.

“The knowledge and skills I gained from the training was so relevant to what we wanted to achieve,” Kerry says. “It’s helped to refine and expand what we’re doing as a school, to the point where I now attend strategic meetings at LA level to discuss and share examples of best practice in supporting student wellbeing.”

Rachel Bostwick is a consultant at the Carnegie School of Education, Leeds Beckett University, and co-author with Jonathan Glazzard of Positive Mental Health – A Whole School Approach (£15.99, Critical Publishing)

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