When I was asked to do a two hour presentation on this topic I knew it wouldn't be straight forward. Mental health is in itself a complex condition – we are all human and all complex in our physical and mental health. But as we want to build up and develop good habits to look after our physical bodies, then we also should want to do the same for our mental wellbeing. So I had to ask – what do mainstream class teachers need to know and what advice could I give them that they can implement in their classrooms?
There is so much written about the pressures and stresses on our children these days. There's the curriculum and testing regimes in our schools, family breakdown and of course – the great evil of our time – technology (well, some would believe it) and a 24/7 never switched off, never quiet world where news of disasters and death are available constantly and replicated in video games. Only yesterday this article was reported in the Guardian about how many children were needing mental health support.
No why we don't just ease off some of these pressures…you know…change things, switch things off, redesign schooling so there's breaks and less pressure…who knows? But the truth is, that all children are bombarded by pressures and events that seem to be leading to the biggest mental health crisis ever known.
Children with SEND, as usual, are not often considered in the first wave of action. Despite the fact that they have more chance of becoming mentally ill. As I have researched writing my course it hasn't been easy to find much that considers SEND children and their risk or treatment when they have mental illness. There's a few bits (and much more about autism than other SEND) but I have found what I could and thanks to charities such as Scope and the NAS as well as YoungMInds, as well as others – have put together a resource list that you can download below. (There is so much I am learning and dealing with practically in my day to day work that I couldn't put it all in this course. I have plenty to write about in other posts this coming year.)
When the risk is greater for our SEND children the reasons and identification become much more complex. There is no easy way for teachers to identify whether a primary child has a mental illness (and they cannot diagnose at all) – but there should be training and awareness so that SEND children can be identified as at risk and support and intervention given early enough. The complexity comes from the relationship between their SEND and their mental health. Children who
- have constant struggles,
- often fail,
- are punished regularly for poor behaviour,
- who are highly anxious most of the time,
- who are socially isolated,
- who can't do what everyone else seems to be able to do,
- who think and experience the world differently,
- who are taken out of the class for 'interventions and
- are made aware that they are different from everyone else;
will be more at risk from mental illness. And I haven't even touched on the complexities of the relationship between anxiety disorders, personality disorders, psychosis, depression and SEND conditions.
The key for me is for teaching staff to know their SEND children really, really well. Getting to know their strengths and interests and building a relationship through these. Making a lot of effort to understand how their condition affects them – because every child with autism, Down's Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, visual impairment, hearing impairment, ADHD is different. DO get some training on the condition but make sure you do not assume you know how the child is affected or how they feel about it. And please implement the support that is outlined on their EHCP if they have one. Unmet needs can be one of the biggest factors in poor mental health of primary children. My work with PRUs have shown that. Added to unmet needs is often rejection, exclusion, and being labelled as a troublemaker. (And we could learn a lot from the excellent mental wellbeing support strategies in PRUs!)
Resilience is talked about all the time these days. Whether it's 'character building' or 'growth mindset', 'learning power' or 'mindfulness'. All these things sound great except that teachers are bombarded with so much of it that it is easy to feel that children's whole survival in this life, depends on them. But we must also consider how we are using these themes with SEND children. Nancy Gedge wrote a thoughtful post on how Growth Mindset might actually be harming children with SEND .
So as I wrote my course I started with some facts and information that I thought the audience would need to know. I was told to assume that there would be a wide range of teachers there from SENCOs to supply teachers and NQTs and so the course has to cover some basic foundations. The most important parts of the session were the group discussions. These enabled those there to share their own experiences but also to challenge and think about their SEND pupils and their needs that could be quite different from the rest of the class. The sample case studies enabled teachers to really think about what information they needed to find out and consider before jumping to conclusions. We concluded that we just couldn't come to any conclusions and that training and knowing where to get help was very important. After that,I wanted to give the teachers there some ideas about how they could support general mental health and wellbeing in their classrooms with a few key ideas. Finally,I wanted teachers to remember to look after their own and their colleagues mental health. Which was a good opportunity to share the #teacher5aday twitter hashtag and Martyn Reah's blog www.martynreah.wordpress.com/2014/12/06/teacher5aday/
I didn't have the time to cover every idea, but these were things that were inclusive and in my experience, have enabled children with SEND to build up positive relationships and acceptance of their differences. These things will need continually supporting, especially as they move on to secondary school. But that is why I insisted that the secondary and primary MH sessions be separate. Once we hit puberty...well…that will have to wait for another blog post!
If you attended the course the handout is an attachment at the foot of this post. It will remain on the website for 2 weeks and then be taken down. The resource list will remain for others to download after that. If you did not attend the course and want to download the handout – please be aware that much of what was covered was verbal and these notes are just information we shared.
For the full handout go to my resource page