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Children’s Mental Health — Ideas to Support Wellbeing in Schools

NHS Digital (2021): Mental Health of children and Young People in England reports that —

"Rates of probable mental health problems in children aged 6 to 16 have increased to one in six."

This is a huge rise from one in nine in 2017 and equates to five children in every classroom.

Whilst the last couple of years have exacerbated mental health problems for some, it has eased them for others. Although no two experiences will be the same, children’s mental health and wellbeing have been particularly affected by social and physical separation from family and friends, school closures, restrictions on activities and a complete upheaval of the familiar structures and routines that had previously shaped their lives.

For children to thrive and grow into successful, independent adults, it is essential that there is a focus on mental health and wellbeing. Good mental wellbeing not only helps when coping with stressful events and recovering from illness but also means children are more likely to be engaged in lessons, be better behaved and more able to make progress.

However, "Referrals to child mental health services are at record highs" (UK Parliament Post — Children’s mental health and the COVID-19 pandemic) and it’s now more important than ever that we do everything we can to help boost children’s mental health and wellbeing.

Every child has the right to feel happy, safe, respected, included and understood and the whole school community plays a valuable role in ensuring this, by following school policies and procedures. However, there are many additional ways that promoting positive mental health can be intrinsically woven into everyday school life.

Taking account of individual children’s needs and finding the time to plan and provide for these complementary contributions can be challenging but is necessary and can make a life changing difference to that child.

Read on to find out more about how this can be done…

Promoting Positive Mental Wellbeing in Schools — 7 Simple Steps to get you started

Step 1: Build Connections

The rapport that is built between the teacher and their pupils in school is not only an essential part of effective teaching and learning but it also opens a vital channel of communication for protecting children’s emotional and mental health. Giving a child your time and full attention tells them they matter. Nurturing opportunities for children to make connections with the adults and their peers will help them feel happier and more secure.

Opportunities to build connections in school:

  • Greet children individually and by name whenever possible.
  • Have a class Worry Box or Ask it Basket — these are containers into which children can write down and post their worries or questions — either with or without their name. As well as providing a physical way of sharing and getting rid of worries it helps the teacher monitor the wellbeing of the pupils in their care and could lead to class circle time discussions or individual follow up chats with children.
  • If you need to talk to a child’s parent/carer after school, support the reconnection between the child and their adult before talking to them yourself, so the child is not left waiting for that special moment.
  • Be a good role model. Share your own experiences and feelings and never forget the importance of having a sense of humour and the life enhancing magic of laughter!
  • Take time to talk and actively listen to your pupils. Be interested, ask questions and try to see things from their perspective.
  • It is just as important to support children in building effective relationships with their peers. One way this can be done is by making sure lessons have regular opportunities for children to contribute and discuss things together, alongside adult-led learning.

Step 2: Take Notice

Encouraging children to be in the present and take notice of what is happening in the world around them can be very grounding and help to diffuse big emotions or worries. It also has a calming effect, increases self-awareness and promotes positive behaviour change.

5 ways to stop and take notice:

  • Name 5 things you can see / hear / feel / smell.
  • Look at things from a different angle: look up, look down, reflections in water, shapes, colours or shadows.
  • Make a paper frame and take a closer look at specific spaces around you.
  • Take your shoes and socks off and feel the ground beneath your feet. Close your eyes and concentrate on the textures and sensations.
  • Pay attention to your breathing and how your body feels. Try meditation or yoga.

These actions and ideas need only take a few minutes and could be timetabled into the day, used as brain breaks, as and when needed or introduced to help calm and refocus individual pupils.

Step 3: Go Outside

There are so many opportunities to take curriculum-based learning outside the four walls of a classroom. The elevating popularity of initiatives such as Forest Schools and Nature Friendly Schools has helped increase recognition of the merits of outdoor learning but, despite this support, outdoor leaning is often underused.

Energy and excitement can be injected into so many activities, across all subject areas, just by taking them outside. This might include a maths lesson on coordinates which involves making and following maps, making 2D rope shapes, measuring the circumference of trees to calculate their approximate age, creating shadow drawings using leaves and exploring how this changes over time, or promoting reading for pleasure by providing pupils with must-have reads to share and explore in outdoor reading dens or acting out scenes in an impromptu outdoor theatre!

The internet is also full of ideas and inspiration to get you started, with sites such as Learning Through Landscapes and The Woodland Trust— which offer free curriculum-led outdoor lesson ideas.

As well as the mood enhancing and physical stress-releasing benefits of spending time outdoors, being in the natural environment can help improve focus, boost energy and enhance creativity. It also allows children who struggle with the more formal constraints of a classroom the freedom to move and speak in a bigger / louder way and give them a chance to shine.

Step 4: Be Active

Exercise can reduce anxiety and negative mood and improve self-esteem and cognitive function, as well as providing many physical health-related benefits.

Promoting a healthy lifestyle and increasing opportunities for physical activity can take on many forms. In addition to PE lessons, sports clubs and playtimes, children would also benefit from taking part in a range of healthy lifestyle experiences which are relevant, realistic and enjoyable. This might include a healthy eating cooking challenge, ‘daily mile’ activity or walk/cycle to school initiative.

The benefits of physical activity will follow a child through their growing years all the way to adulthood, so start engaging your children in regular exercise as soon as you can!

Step 5: Let’s Read

It’s well known that a love of reading can help pupils do well in all subjects at school, but it can also be life-enhancing by helping children (and adults!) lead happy and healthy lives. Being able to self-soothe with a book at bedtime can provide all children with an accessible way to reduce anxiety and set up good habits for life.

"Children who engage with reading are three times more likely to have high levels of mental wellbeing than those who do not." (National Literacy Trust, September 2018.)

Losing yourself in a good book has been shown to greatly reduce levels of stress. Research by Dr David Lewis showed that reading as little as six minutes a day can reduce stress levels by 60% by lowering the heart rate, easing muscle tension and altering a state of mind. Other benefits of reading include improved brain connectivity, heightened empathy and increased confidence. More than just working out what is written on a page, reading is about listening and understanding, encouraging children to make sense of how they’re feeling, expressing their thoughts and emotions and exploring new challenges through the safe medium of a story. Reading for pleasure could also be promoted through starting a lunchtime or after school Book Club or setting up a library box for use at playtimes.

The first step to promoting mental health and wellbeing is for schools to consider the importance of having a well-stocked, diverse, inclusive library collection.

Find inspiration for stocking your school and class libraries from these must-have collections — from enticing reluctant readers to providing challenge for the more able and everything in between!

These book collections are also perfect as a class reader, a focus for circle time or for sharing in assemblies:

  • Diversity in Fiction: 3 primary school collections for KS1LKS2 and UKS2 of diverse and inclusive books, with characters, authors and storylines that reflect and celebrate the diverse society we live in.

Step 6: Give to Others

Helping others can also benefit our own mental health and wellbeing. For example, it can reduce stress as well as improve mood, self-esteem and happiness. There are so many ways children can help others as part of everyday school life. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Be part of the School Council or ECO Council.
  • Set up a buddy system for playtimes, where pupils befriend others or set up games to play.
  • Team two classes up together to give opportunities for older children to share books with younger pupils.
  • Nurture positive peer review, where pupils are encouraged to comment on good practice / work. For example, written feedback on a sticky note attached a piece of artwork or splitting the class into groups for a PE or drama lesson, so each child gets to perform in front of their peers and provide positive feedback on the performance of others.
  • Build a sense of excitement, community and interdependence by allocating classroom jobs by pulling names out of a hat.

Step 7: Practice Self-Kindness

Practicing kindness towards yourself is just as important as being kind to others and has a positive impact upon mental wellbeing. Some of the many benefits include enhanced self-worth, reduced anxiety and stress and increased motivation, happiness and resilience. It also promotes a growth mindset by helping pupils look for the positives and use experiences and outcomes to plan next steps in a positive way.

As well as helping pupils recognise their individual strengths and abilities, teachers can model self-compassion by talking through their own experiences. Helping children recognise that every mistake is actually an important part of the learning process and opportunity to gain knowledge, acquire skill and improve, is also a very powerful mindset to promote. Don’t forget that to be able to look after others you need to be in a good place yourself — the practical tips listed above are just as important for you as they are for the children in your care. TES provide resources for whole school wellbeing including wellbeing surveys, training, webinars, guides and time-saving products.

Top Tips for Supporting Children’s Mental Wellbeing

Understanding the difference between wellbeing, mental health and physical health

Wellbeing — "The state of doing or being well in life" (Oxford Dictionary.) Wellbeing can be both positive or negative and refers to a state of being or ‘wellness’ and ability to live as close as possible to the way we want. Emotions, relationships, health, environment and productivity can influence this.

Mental Health — refers to the balance between emotional and mental wellness and illness. Part of mental health is how well your mind processes and understands information and experiences and recognises the signs and symptoms that can cause significant distress, resulting in a mental health problem.

Physical Health — involves doing things that are good for your body, such as eating nutritious foods, exercising, brushing your teeth and getting enough sleep. It's also about understanding how what you eat and what you do affects your body.

Whilst intrinsically linked and often affected by the other, these are concepts in their own right and each plays an important part in a child’s ability to flourish and reach their full potential.

Recognising signs of good mental health and wellbeing

Children with good mental health and wellbeing will think and feel positively about themselves and the world around them. It affects emotions and how children cope with life’s stresses and challenges.

Look out for children who:

  • are happy and enjoy life
  • feel and talk about themselves positively most of the time
  • form successful relationships with adults and their peers
  • show high levels of engagement in self-chosen and directed activities
  • learn well and make good progress
  • are willing to try new tasks or happy to take part in challenging activities
  • keep calm and are kind to themselves if things don’t go the way they expect
  • can ‘bounce back’ after a difficult situation
  • manage their feelings and stay in control if they are feeling sad, worried, angry or excited.

Recognising signs of poor mental health and wellbeing

Any uncharacteristic change in behaviour is always worth investigating. Identifying the root cause of disruptive behaviours and helping to resolve problems should also always be a priority.

Look out for children who:

  • suddenly become attention seeking or clingy
  • lose interest in the things they usually like doing
  • become reluctant to talk
  • find it difficult to concentrate, remember things or get easily confused
  • become easily overwhelmed by big emotions, such as anger, excitement or fear
  • display extreme changes in mood — highs or lows
  • withdraw from friends and / or adults
  • show low energy or significant tiredness
  • have a decrease in attainment
  • excessively worry
  • display changes in appetite — excessive or reduced eating
  • exhibit long-lasting sadness or irritability.

Measuring a child’s wellbeing

As well as tracking observable factors (such as rates of absence), it’s important that all members of staff feel confident in recognising possible signs of poor mental wellbeing, are timely in sharing concerns with appropriate members of staff and work with the child to ensure they get the support they need.

If you’re worried about a child’s mental wellbeing, try to open channels of communication so they have the opportunity to share how they are feeling. This could be a conversation or less direct form of communication, such as incorporating puppets, drawing and drama to help children to express themselves more openly. Sharing stories which explore issues related to wellbeing, such as coping with change, managing emotions or self-esteem, are also a very effective way of inspiring and supporting children and helping them to overcome worries. As well as raising awareness and starting conversations, books can play a powerful role in helping overcome a variety of challenges.

Supporting children’s mental wellbeing in school

Being proactive in building good mental and physical health for all children is just as important as helping those who are already showing signs that they are struggling.

"Early childhood experiences have been found to have a lasting impact upon a child’s mental wellbeing. Initiating improvements in the mental wellbeing of this age group may thus deliver tangible improvement across their whole life course." Public Health England — Measuring Mental Wellbeing in Children and Young People

Schools not only provide important education related to physical and mental wellbeing as an integral part of the curriculum, they also play a vital role in providing a safe and supportive environment for building life skills such as resilience, decision-making, problem solving, self-awareness and empathy. When children develop these coping skills it can also boost their self-esteem, confidence and ability to settle themselves, feel calm and engage positively in their education, optimising their readiness to learn. Practicing a holistic approach and considering health and wellbeing as part of everyday school life, rather than just a discrete subject, will help children deal with the daily ups and downs of life. Having a set of class rules, (that the children have had input in creating) and helping pupils understand school reward and consequence systems is a good place to start. It is also important to make sure all young people know how and where to find support, including knowing who their trusted adults are at home and school.

Linking into the PSHE curriculum is a valuable way of promoting pupil wellbeing.

These KS1 PSHE book collections cover a range of topics and represent the most popular book packs for this important area of the curriculum.

Sport and leisure, keeping safe and understanding money are the most popular topics in the KS2 PSHE curriculum. These book collections are designed to be practical and appealing and are packed with useful and enticing books.

Download your FREE Wellbeing Pack for Primary Schools from Badger Learninghere. This useful pack contains flexible PSHE lesson plans and calming activities, for Year 1 to Year 6, as well as helpful guidance from experienced PSHE teachers and consultants.

Your school might also choose to celebrate and support national awareness days and weeks such as Children’s Mental Health Week in early February, Stress Awareness Month in April, Mental Health Day at the beginning of October or Anti-Bullying Week in November.

You may wish to set up a reading group for wellbeing at lunchtimes or as an intervention with a small group of children you’ve identified as needing some support. This FREE Book Talk* download from Badger Learning introduces the practice of shared reading which can help to spark important conversations related to themes in the book and the children’s own experiences, thoughts and feelings.

Supporting children’s mental wellbeing outside of school

Schools have an important part to play in supporting the mental health and wellbeing of their pupils by developing links with parents / carers at home. Often, even a small change can go a long way in helping somebody feel better.

Download this FREE Mood Boosting Bingo Game from Badger Learning — Fun for all the Family!

A useful sheet that can easily be sent home electronically to parents, included in a newsletter, shared in school or printed and popped into book bags. This fun game is packed with feel-good activity ideas which will boost wellbeing for all the family. Children could complete a line each week or do these over a holiday, there are lots of accessible and varied activities and starting one in class could create excitement and open up discussion. Download your copy here

An important message to share with parents: Don’t worry if you or your child are feeling down, we can’t always be upbeat and rain can quickly turn to sunshine. However, if low mood persists and you are concerned you can seek advice from your GP or visit the Place2Be or Young Minds websites.

It is more important than ever to take action towards promoting children’s mental wellbeing. Just one small change in the way you work to meet these needs can make a significant and long-lasting impact in the life of a child in your care, helping them live happy and healthy lives.

Training & Resources:

The DfE are offering a senior member of staff in every school the opportunity to get a grant for training to help lead, develop or introduce a whole school approach to mental health and wellbeing in their setting.

MindEd is a portal that provides free, online eLearning to help adults identify and support children with mental health issues.

YoungMinds are a mental health charity for children, young people and their parents, providing resources aimed at both primary pupils and secondary students.

Primary Resources:

Feeling good: promoting children’s mental health are activity sheets aimed at children aged 4 to 7 produced by the Centre for Mental Health.

5 Steps to Mental Health and Wellbeing is a framework by the Evidence Based Practice Unity at the Anna Freud Centre, that will help you to support staff, lead change, and engage with parents, carers and the community so that you can meet your pupils' and students' needs.

The National Literacy Trust have worked with children’s mental health charity, Place2Be, to develop a series of free wellbeing-themed teaching resources for primary schools, secondary schools and parents.

Secondary Resources:

What’s on your mind is a resource pack that includes a video along with downloadable lesson plans to help teachers introduce the subject of emotional wellbeing and mental health. It is produced by the Scottish anti-stigma programme ‘See Me’.

Time to change provides a collection of resources including videos, lessons, assemblies, and toolkits for teachers to reduce the stigma and discrimination faced by people with mental health problems.

Place2Be provides has a collection of mental health resources and also an online children’s mental health training course offered free to qualified teachers and school-based staff in the UK.

Further Reading:

‘Keeping children safe in education’ DfE 2014

‘Supporting pupils at school with medical conditions.’ DfE 2014

‘Relationships and sex education.’

‘Promoting the health and wellbeing of looked after children.’ DfE 2015

‘Mental health and behaviour in schools.’ DfE 2018

‘Counselling in schools.’ DfE 2015

‘Preventing and tackling bullying’ DfE 2017

‘The Statutory Guidance for RSE and Health Education.’ DfE 2020

National Literacy Trust: Wellbeing research.

NHS Digital (2021): 'Mental Health of Children and Young People in England 2021'. Available here

*The Reader: Shared Reading Evidence Base.

Children's Mental Health — Ideas to Support Wellbeing in Schools

Children’s Mental Health — Ideas to Support Wellbeing in Schools

NHS Digital (2021): Mental Health of children and Young People in England reports that — “Rate..

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