Dr Pooky Knightsmith is director of the Children, Young People and Schools Programme at the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust and has been a governor at four schools. In this article, she outlines the governing board's vital role in supporting pupil and staff mental health and wellbeing.
The first step should be to adopt whole-school policies and procedures that help staff recognise and respond to mental health and emotional wellbeing issues and self-harm incidents. You may choose to make these part of your safeguarding or child protection policy or to adopt a stand-alone policy.
Policies and procedures that you develop should:
be relevant to the needs of your pupils and the local community
be practical and easy to understand, including in times of crisis
be a living document responsive to the changing needs of staff and pupils
be clearly communicated to staff, governors/trustees, parents and pupils
include a named member of staff to whom concerns should be referred
contain details of local and national sources of support and further information
contain guidance on handling mental health disclosures from pupils
It is well worth asking staff, governors/trustees and parents for input about local services and support as this knowledge is often fragmented.
Questions for governors/trustees to ask:
- Is our school a listening school?
- How aware is the school community of the importance of promoting good mental health?
- Do we have a mental health policy?
- Is mental health a part of our curriculum?
- Have staff been trained to recognise and respond to mental health issues?
- Do staff know who to refer mental health concerns on to?
- Have we usefully pooled our knowledge of local support and services?
- Have we considered how best to work with parents and the wider community?
- Are we meeting the emotional wellbeing needs of staff?
A skills-based PSHE curriculum is a great vehicle for promoting emotional wellbeing and enabling pupils to seek appropriate support when needed for themselves or a friend. It’s never too early to start this work, although the age and stage of pupils must be considered to ensure the curriculum is pitched at the right level and the content is relevant. Involving pupils in the development and/or delivery of the curriculum to their younger peers is an excellent way to establish this key area.
Skills that promote resilience and wellbeing include communication, problem solving, healthy coping – including help-seeking – and understanding emotions. Ideally schools should build on these skills from EYFS right through school and college. As pupils grow older and become more at risk of specific issues such as anxiety, depression or self-harm, topics offered should specifically improve skills and knowledge in these areas.
Teachers will need training and guidance to improve their confidence and ability to teach about difficult topics safely and sensitively. This training should include guidance on issues such as:
working with vulnerable pupils
creating a safe environment through appropriate use of ground rules
understanding, communicating and adhering to the school’s safeguarding policy
following up concerns appropriately
striking the right balance between openness and confidentiality
It is important to bring parents and other staff on board
Involving parents and staff
It is important to bring parents and other staff on board. If they are given relevant information and sources of support, parents will be able to support and extend what is being taught at school. They may also need to understand why it is important that pupils cover these topics and reassurance that these issues are being tackled safely.
Informing all staff of the issues that may be coming up in PSHE allows them to support and prepare pupils at risk appropriately; some pupils may have live issues that are not common knowledge. It is also helpful to give staff an opportunity to extend their own knowledge about appropriate responses to any disclosures that may arise in response to lesson content. This may appear to be just an extension to the work of the safeguarding team, but like that area it should be the responsibility of all.
One of the most important ways to promote positive mental health in both staff and students is to work towards a listening culture. This means creating an environment where pupils and staff feel able to voice concerns about themselves and others safe in the knowledge that they will be listened to and receive support rather than judgment. This looks different from school to school but signs I often notice that indicate a listening school which places a high value on pupil and staff wellbeing are:
staff and pupils have developed the skills needed to be active listeners
pupils can name a trusted adult they could talk to at school
staff feel able to discuss pupil wellbeing as well as attainment and behaviour
staff and pupils take a zero tolerance approach to bullying and banter
staff and pupils do not feel ashamed to ask for help or support
sources of support are clearly signposted verbally, visually and online