It is widely established that health and emotional wellbeing influence cognitive development and learning (Public Health England, 2014); with healthy – or good – mental wellbeing, young people are more likely to succeed academically.
What is ‘wellbeing’?
Mental health is often referred to as emotional wellbeing, and it is about how we feel and think, as well as our ability to deal with the ups and downs of life.
If we have good emotional wellbeing we are able to:
- Feel good about ourselves
- Build and maintain good relationships with others
- Feel productive and contribute to society
- Cope with uncertainty
- Manage daily stresses
Emotional wellbeing is changeable and will fluctuate over time depending upon the circumstances in our lives at that time; we may feel unhappy or angry if something negative happens, happy and excited when something positive happens, or anxious and tense if something is causing us to worry. These are all normal reactions, which usually pass over time. These feelings can affect anyone, both adults and young people.
What can affect the emotional wellbeing of children and young people?
There are various factors which may have a negative impact upon a young person’s wellbeing; however this does not always mean that they will be susceptible to mental health difficulties. Some of the contributing factors can include:
- Having a long-term physical illness
- Having a parent who has had mental health problems, problems with alcohol or been in trouble with the law
- Experiencing the death of someone close to them
- Having parents who separate or divorce
- Having been bullied or physically or sexually abused
- Living in poverty or being homeless
- Experiencing discrimination, perhaps because of race, sexuality or religion
- Acting as a carer for a relative, taking on adult responsibilities
- Having long-standing educational difficulties
Other factors which may contribute to poor emotional wellbeing include:
- Not getting enough sleep
- Problems with family or friends, such as arguments or feeling left out
- Struggling with school work
- Exam stress
- Peer pressure
- Lack of self-confidence and self-esteem
- Not getting enough exercise
- Not eating a balanced and healthy diet
Kate talks about the impact of peer pressure:
How can I support a pupil experiencing difficulties with their emotional wellbeing?
You’re not expected to become a mental health expert. However, as a teacher you are in an opportune position to notice changes in a pupil’s wellbeing, due to the significant amount of time pupils spend at school.
The first step to supporting a young person is to notice changes in their emotional wellbeing, which could indicate that they are struggling; these changes can include:
- A change in mood, such as appearing sad or down
- Withdrawal from friends and teachers, or mood swings (lasting at least two weeks or more)
- Experiencing intense feelings, such as overwhelming fear for no obvious reason, which interferes with daily activities
- Changes to behaviour or personality, such as frequent fighting or wanting to harm others
- Difficulty concentrating – this may affect their school work, the grades they achieve and the effort they put in to learning
- Weight loss with no clear explanation, the use of laxatives or frequent vomiting
- Physical symptoms. Compared with adults, children with a mental health condition might develop headaches and stomach aches rather than show signs of sadness or anxiety
- Physical harm. Sometimes a mental health condition leads to self-injury, also called self-harm. This is the act of deliberately harming your own body. Children with a mental health condition also might develop suicidal thoughts or attempt suicide
- Substance abuse. Some young people use drugs or alcohol to try to cope with their feelings
What can I do next?
- Learn about and look after your own mental health and wellbeing; ask for help – it’s hard to support others if you’re not feeling 100% yourself
- Talk about mental health in the classroom – in a non-stigmatising way
- Demonstrate good habits – sharing with your pupils and colleagues the ways that you look after your mental health will promote healthy habits within the whole school, but most importantly with the pupils.
If you are concerned about the wellbeing of a pupil there are a number of different ways you can support them.
Listen and offer support – it may be helpful to take the young person to one side and ‘check-in’ to see if they are feeling okay. You’re not expected to know all the answers or provide solutions, sometimes listening will be enough. They might have some solutions in mind that they think will help them, and it’s helpful to share them with someone else.
It’s important to ask the young person who they feel comfortable sharing this information with, and/or explaining your concerns about them if you perceive them to be at risk, therefore you will need to pass this information on in order to keep them and others safe.
How can we approach this as a school?
School wellbeing is not the responsibility of one teacher, and using a whole-school approach to these types of issues has proven to improve the mental wellbeing of students, and therefore improve school outcomes. Areas to consider are:
- Staff development, such as training to improve the understanding of staff wellbeing and how to apply this to the pupils’ wellbeing.
- Curriculum, teaching and learning to promote resilience and support social and emotional wellbeing in pupils
- Promote mental health in assemblies – i.e. plays/shared experiences/trainers
- Mental Health INSET days
- Creating a school ethos which promotes respect and values diversity
- Student participation to influence change within the school
- Targeted support and appropriate referral processes
- Strong links with parents and carers
- Identifying needs and monitoring impact of interventions
- Leadership and management to support this approach
A whole school approach to support the mental wellbeing of its pupils is backed by the government, and there are a number of websites supporting and promoting this approach, with relevant resources:
Kate describes what can help a young person to calm down at school: