Leading emotionally healthy schools

Supporting the mental health and wellbeing of primary age children has long been a burning issue for Dr Andy Hodgkinson. In this Best Practice Network blog to mark World Mental Health Day Andy reflects on the pressures children are under and ways in which school leaders can help.

Children today have burdens unknown to the 1970s generation, says Dr Andy Hodgkinson, a former primary executive head and now a lead facilitator on the National Professional Qualification for Middle Leadership (NPQML) with Outstanding Leaders Partnership.

“Global warming, cyber bullying, social media, testing, identity and sexuality - children are dealing with these things on a daily basis. The world that our young people are growing up in is massively different from my childhood experiences,” he says.

“The Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition (CYPMHC) says that at least three young people in every class had a behavioural or emotional difficulty, and almost half of young people with fewer than 5 GCSEs graded A* to C said they ‘always or often’ feel down or depressed compared to 30 per cent of young people who are more qualified. According to Future in Mind, over half of all mental ill health starts before the age of 14 and 75 per cent by the age of 18. Children with emotional problems are more likely to do poorly at school and twice as likely to have marked difficulties in reading, spelling and maths.”

Schools should make mental health and wellbeing - of children and staff - central to their purpose but they need to access resources and networks to make a real difference, he says.

“When I was chair of East Cheshire Association of Primary Headteachers we developed an emotionally healthy school strategy so one of my big passions is supporting schools to really consider what they are doing to help give children the best chances in life,” he says. “Preparing them to be resilient and consider their mental health is an important thing for us as school leaders to be doing.”

Andy says that schools can start to make an impact on pupil mental health and wellbeing in a range of ways:

1 Question your vision. “Michael Reece and John White talk about what are schools for? They have a simple vision: a school is to equip a child to lead a life that is personally flourishing and help others to do so. I think we need to make sure that mental health and wellbeing of children and staff needs to sit at the centre of our purpose - the ‘why’ - and that we challenge ourselves about how this is this shaped within the vision in our schools. What are we doing to support the training and CPD for staff to work with children with mental health issues.”

2 Audit and measure impact. “How are we measuring the impact of what we are doing - is it evidence based? Cheshire East schools have been encouraged to take an audit using the AcSEED model to look at that balance between attainment and wellbeing. It asks them to look at the strengths and assets in their schools that already support wellbeing and to identify the people they can use to support the wellbeing of children and adults in their schools.”

3 Reach out for support. “There is a lot of support and advice out there to help you support the training and development of staff to tackle these issues, including the CHPMHC, MindEd and Young Minds. MindEd offers free online CPD units for staff as well as resources for children and families. Find out what your local public health professionals can offer and take to Twitter and follow key accounts that focus on this area, including mental health educator Pooky Knightsmith @PookyH and the National Carnegie Centre of Excellence for Mental Health in Schools @SchoolMHealth.”

4 Make it part of classroom practice. “Start with the children you are in front of. My journey started as a teacher with the realisation that some children struggle with their daily lives and my job to relate to them and support them in the classroom. A school that is compassionate and caring will listen to its stakeholders and if something you care about who might be line managing you. Encouraging children to have a resilient, growth mindset will help. It comes back to the central vision of the school - one of the starting questions should be what types of children do you want leaving your school at the end their time with you.”

Dr Andy Hodgkinson is an NPQML lead facilitator with Outstanding Leaders Partnership and a Simon Industrial Fellow at the University of Manchester.