Children’s mental health and wellbeing: time to hit the reset button

Researchers estimate that one in eight 5 to 19-year-olds have at least one mental health disorder[1]. These children are more likely than others to have special educational needs[2], and to have played truant or been excluded from school[3].

When we emerge from the Covid-19 crisis, the world will be a different place for these children. There is growing acceptance that following lockdown, the ‘new normal’ could further expose the fragilities and inequalities facing young people’s mental health and well-being. Children need schools to support their emotional health more than ever.

As pupils, parents and teachers consider a return to school, recovery planning will necessarily focus on closing the attainment gap, delivering the curriculum differently, and staff wellbeing and development.

But school leaders and staff will be aware that everyone returning to school will be in a different place to where they were before lockdown, both academically and emotionally. Schools must take this opportunity to make wellbeing a priority and lay a strong foundation of support that responds to these changing needs.

Teachers are the most common source of support for children and young people with mental health difficulties[4]. They know the importance of seeing mental health and wellbeing not as an additional responsibility, but as a key component to be embedded and implemented in all their work. Putting wellbeing first, can help the whole school community recover, address inequalities, and allow pupils to thrive as they become active citizens in our rapidly changing society.

A whole-school approach to mental health and wellbeing is central to achieving these aims.

It provides a framework that supports schools to create sustainable and manageable responses to the emotional wellbeing and mental health needs of both students and staff. It recognises the contribution of parents, families and the wider school community, including the external services and provision that support schools in their duty of care to children and young people[5].

There is clear evidence[6] that embedding a whole-school approach to mental health and wellbeing in the culture and ethos of a school has positive impacts on:

  • Academic learning, motivation, and a sense of commitment.
  • Staff wellbeing, including levels of sickness and absence, and improved teaching ability and performance.
  • Pupil wellbeing including happiness, a sense of purpose, connectedness and meaning.
  • The social and emotional skills and attitudes that promote learning.
  • The prevention and reduction of mental health problems.
  • Improving school behaviour, including bullying, exclusions and absence.
  • Reductions in risky behaviour.

These benefits relate closely to important themes in the new Ofsted Inspection Framework[7], including, quality of education, behaviour and attitudes, personal development, and leadership and management. We can reason that embedding a whole-school approach has the potential to support schools to evidence their progress during inspections.

If we think about this from a child development perspective, there is a resonance with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Teachers and schools leaders will be more than familiar with this five stage model and the symbiotic relationship between deficiency needs and growth needs. We must acknowledge mental health and wellbeing as a key contributor to children and young people’s developmental potential, and something that must be addressed if they are to “become the most that they can be”.

As well as calling for schools to adopt a whole-school approach, the Schools Wellbeing Partnership and Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition wants policymakers to:

  • Align action on behaviour with that of mental health and wellbeing in schools.
  • Develop a clear and coherent long-term strategy on mental health and wellbeing in schools, with a focus on early intervention and prevention, and backed up with adequate resources and clear accountability.
  • Promote workforce development by improving staff wellbeing, training, recruitment and retention

Children and young people are only able to be resilient, innovative and demonstrate good citizenship if firstly their emotional safety, sense of belonging and self-esteem are secured.

Therefore, we must see this crisis as an opportunity to hit the reset button on what we think is possible to achieve for children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing, by working across and in partnership with school communities.

Pam Shaw is Co-ordinator for the Schools Wellbeing Partnership

The Schools Wellbeing Partnership is a national network of nearly 50 member organisations from the education, health and wellbeing, and children’s sectors, hosted by the National Children’s Bureau. Our vision is for wellbeing and good mental health to become a strategic priority, embedded into the culture and ethos of every school.

As schools begin to plan their recovery from this crisis, the Schools Wellbeing Partnership is keen to understand the needs of education settings around wellbeing. Sign up to our schools forum to share your experiences and hear from others about how they are prioritising mental health.

Schools can take action to improve their mental health provision for all pupils and staff by completing the Wellbeing Award for Schools, developed by the National Children’s Bureau and Optimus Education.

[1] Kessler RC, Amminger GP, Aguilar-Gaxiola S, Alonso J, Lee S, Ustün TB. ‘Age of onset of mental disorders: a review of recent literature’ Current Opinion Psychiatry (2007) 20 (4): 359-64