On the back of winning the ISA Award for Excellence and Innovation in Mental Health and Wellbeing, Anne-Marie Coe, Assistant Head (Pastoral), was asked to write an article for the Mental Health issue of the ISA Journal.

‘Spaces to talk’ by Anne-Marie Coe

Mental Health and Wellbeing are hitting the media headlines on a regular basis and are now a fundamental part the RSE statutory guidelines. The pressures on schools to create a programme to support mental health and wellbeing are potentially overwhelming and can often be regarded as an unwelcome additional financial burden in these challenging times in the independent sector. This does not have to be the case and schools often have many strengths that can be drawn on when establishing a bespoke programme. I will endeavour, in this article, to set out some easy steps to follow with the key point of reference being the creation of ‘spaces to talk’.

At the core of the programme should be a whole school approach, supporting the school community, raising awareness about issues surrounding mental health and, most importantly, taking the stigma out of mental health. Pupils and staff need to feel comfortable and confident in understanding and talking about their feelings.

It is important to acknowledge that most children grow up mentally healthy, but surveys suggest that more children and young people have problems with their mental health today than 30 years ago. This can be attributed to changes in the way we live now and how that affects the experience of growing up. The sad reality is that mental health problems affect about one in ten children and young people. They include depression, anxiety and conduct disorder, and are often a direct response to what is happening in their lives. Sadder still, is that 70% of children and young people who experience a mental health problem have not had interventions at a sufficiently early age (as cited by the Mental Health Foundation).

In our role as educators, we are very keen to fix things, so what can we do to keep the children and young people in our care mentally well? The first step is to look after our own wellbeing which is easier said than done with the stresses and tribulations that we face in our profession and life itself. In times of emergency, we need to remember that we must have our oxygen mask firmly in place before assisting others! Our emotional health is all about how we think, feel and behave. It can affect our daily life, relationships and even physical health. It is our ability to enjoy life – attain a balance between life activities and efforts to achieve psychological resilience. We are role models and it is important to acknowledge that, as well as focussing on the learning and academic achievement of our pupils and students, we are also responsible for developing resilience so that they are able to grow into well-rounded, healthy adults, equipped with the skills to face life’s challenges.

The first step in developing or restructuring a wellbeing programme is to look at existing support frameworks such as; learning support, school nurses, pastoral team and school facilities. As well as the valuable skills and strengths that staff and existing provisions can provide, facilities on site can also support the programme with spaces for students to feel relaxed and take time out from the busier areas of the school at recreation.  Then, most importantly, consider the mental health and wellbeing needs of pupils and staff. Which issues are reoccurring and causing concern? Once this has been established a wellbeing programme structure can be created. A simple and easy-to-follow framework is all that is needed – it should be flexible and able adapt to the everchanging needs of the school community and the resources at its disposal.

The second step is to get everyone on board. This should be done through in-house training, presentations and assemblies, tutor time and linking in with existing pastoral support systems. Communication is key. When raising awareness there will be in the first phase an increased need for intervention and support. The programme will need to bring together pupils, staff and parents effectively so that support is fully coordinated.

The third step is to create a development plan. The programme needs direction and areas for future development, training and investment can be identified. This can also include contributions to the school mental health, bereavement and behaviour policies as well as to PSHEE and SRE schemes of work.

What does a wellbeing programme look like? One size does not fit all as schools and their needs vary greatly. However, here is an example of a basic format that could be used as a starting point.

  • The Wellbeing Programme is an additional support service provided by the School’s Pastoral Care Team.
  • The Wellbeing Programme aims to support pupils’ mental health and general wellbeing.
  • The support is provided through individual Wellbeing Advice Sessions, tutor time activities and through a programme of Wellbeing Workshops.
  • Workshops focus on pupils’ mental health and wellbeing issues noticed by teachers, parents/carers and pupils themselves.
  • Currently identified areas to explore include, anxiety, stress, depression, mental health awareness, harassment, antibullying and staying safe.
  • Workshops are delivered in form/teaching groups and last 40 minutes.
  • The aim of the Wellbeing Sessions is to encourage students’ academic, social, emotional and personal development and mirror the aims and outcomes of the Wellbeing Workshops.
  • The sessions offer a regular space and time to talk or think about worries or difficulties and help find effective solutions to these.
  • They help pupils explore their feelings and look at how they might want things to be different, by talking and using a range of activities; providing pupils with advice in how to achieve this.
  • They support pupils with developmental issues, resolving problems, stress, anxiety, improving relationships, making choices, coping with changes, gaining insight and understanding – growing as a person.
  • Wellbeing Sessions are delivered once a week and last 40 minutes. A pupil is offered a maximum of 4 sessions, which could be extended to 6 sessions if needed.
  • Referrals may be made by the pastoral team, teachers, parents, other colleagues or the pupil.
  • Pupils can only benefit if they want to attend wellbeing sessions.

The 3-year Development Plan builds on this provision.

  • Set up ‘The Listening Club’
  • Provide a Wellbeing Room at breaktime
  • Extend Wellbeing provision to include the Junior School
  • Offer a structured Staff Wellbeing Programme
  • Offer Wellbeing Information Sessions to parents
  • CPD for key staff

The Wellbeing Sessions are not counselling sessions but are specific wellbeing advice sessions tailored to the needs of the pupil. As a result of these sessions and through working together with the pupil and parent, a referral to specialised counselling services may be appropriate. In this instance we then work closely together with the services in question to ensure a continuity of support in school.

The Wellbeing Workshops are delivered in-house and provide pupils with a platform to learn more about and discuss issues they have highlighted themselves or which have been identified by staff and/or parents. The workshops are tailormade to reflect these needs.

The Listening Club is made up of voluntary peer mentors who have followed a bespoke training programme to develop their listening skills and peer support. They liaise with the pastoral team and are identifiable by a badge.

The Wellbeing Space is an area for pupils who benefit from being in smaller groups to chat together or with members of the listening club or do art therapy. When considering provision in a primary school a different format needs to be considered. Play and art therapy sessions either individually or in small groups are excellent ways for younger children to express and manage their feelings.

The importance of providing ‘spaces to talk’, both physical and virtual, where the school community feel listened to and understood, opening up to meaningful conversations about their lives and what might be troubling them, is immeasurable. They help to make unmanageable feelings become more manageable and provide a great sense of relief of being understood and no longer being alone with feelings of loss, anger or anxiety. They provide a support for learning, achieving and personal development and we need more of them!

Anne-Marie Coe has been a teacher for over 2O years at Our Lady of Sion School in Worthing. Prior to Sion, she taught MFL in secondary and higher education with focus on developing language specific business and engineering courses at HND and degree level. Since joining Sion, she has been Head of Faculty for Modern Languages and established a thriving and successful department, building links and exchanges with Sion Schools across the world; Senior Teacher with focus on pastoral care and, since 2016, Assistant Head Pastoral and deputy DSL during which time she has developed the Wellbeing Programme which has be recognised with an ISA Award for Excellence and Innovation in Mental Health and Wellbeing.