BLOG: Young people and mental health

Pam Mills

It seems there isn’t a day that goes by when mental health in young people isn’t mentioned.

This is both good and bad. Good that we are giving this growing problem the air time it deserves but bad because it’s scary and the figures seem to be getting worse.

Young Minds, a leading UK charity, report that one in ten children have a diagnosable mental health disorder – that’s roughly three children in every classroom.  The Office for National Statistics reported that in 2016 almost one in four children and young people showed some evidence of mental ill health (including anxiety and depression.)  And perhaps most alarmingly of all, the ONS stated that in 2015, suicide was the most common form of death for both boys (17 per cent of all boys) and girls (11 per cent) aged between five and 19.

The world our young people are growing up in is hugely different from our own childhood experience. In 2018, children are arguably suffering burdens that were unknown to our generation; social media, cyber-bullying, greater spotlights on identity and sexuality, global warming and Brexit to name a few.  By talking to teachers and Heads, Researchers at the University of Bath have even identified ‘the curse of perfectionism.’ Children will not put their hand up to answer a question in case they get it wrong. Kids don’t like to admit they don’t understand something, because they are afraid they might look ‘silly.’  With this in mind, as a teacher and mother of two young boys, I jumped at the opportunity to attend a one-day national conference in April this year ‘Supporting Student Wellbeing in Independent Schools’.

The conference brought together expert speakers and delegates from the world of education and mental health science. Dr Sile McDaid, Consultant Child & Adolescent Psychiatrist from Team Mental Health shared her thoughts on the root causes of anxiety:  parental pressure, social media and exams. Dr Lucy Foulkes, a Lecturer from the University of York, presented the latest research on brain development in adolescence and the positive effects of teaching mindfulness in schools. A case-study from St Paul’s School was showcased after recently being shortlisted for the ‘Wellbeing Initiative of the Year 2018’ award. The aim of the conference was clear; to explore new and tailored strategies for schools to ensure as educators, we are doing all we can to support mental health difficulties in our schools. 

Fortunately, there is quite a bit that can be done.  I, personally, can’t change government policy but I can influence the lives of my own children, their friends and the children I have the privilege to teach on a daily basis.   The onset of mental illness is usually during childhood so as educators we must be more preventative and reduce the risk of it starting in the first place; we must address emotional as well as academic intelligence. 

At Marlborough House we run a Character Education programme and it is increasingly at the forefront of our teaching practise as we deliver an ‘education for life’.   Each term we have a series of ‘learning virtues’ that are explored and developed in lessons. Children as young as five learn what ‘gratitude’ is.  Seven year olds learn the skills of ‘collaboration’ and see the impact it has on their learning and happiness. We teach children how to think and how to feel on a near daily basis through assemblies, PSHE lessons, form times and an extensive range of extracurricular activities. We educate them in the benefits of a growth mindset and every day, to those children who say ‘I can’t do it’, we say ‘yet!’ 

It’s not just about academic success at Marlborough House School. In lessons, alongside academic learning objectives, a learning virtue is given equal prominence.  The magic word ‘resilience’ is used across the school as children are taught explicitly that making mistakes makes them stronger and better learners.  The children in my classroom delight when I tell them stories of how I failed at weekly spelling tests in my own school days and delight in recognition that somehow, I made it as a teacher!   And, yes, on occasion I get calculations wrong in Maths and frequently little hands shoot up to correct me.  My response is always thankful, never embarrassed, as I proudly announce to the children that ‘I will learn from that.’

How else do children at Marlborough House have the opportunity to become healthy young adults?  Well, we know that preventative action is better than a reactive response.  We front-load our children with knowledge about interpreting how they feel and who they can speak to.  We offer an independent listening service which provides children with outside help should speaking to someone closer be too hard.  In assembly, children take a moment to sit still for a few minutes and think about someone or something to be grateful for, and this September, Pre-Prep launched the Monday morning ‘Walk to Talk’ initiative; an opportunity before lessons start for children to get some fresh air and exercise whilst sharing their weekend news with friends in different year groups.  My colleagues and I relish ‘Free Your Mind Friday’ when calming music is played throughout the Pre-Prep building (often by our own pupils and parents) as we arrive in school silently with an opportunity to reflect on the week that was.  Some children can often be seen doing Yoga; a wondrous life skill of which consistent practice has been proven to lead to significant increases in serotonin levels – the happy hormones.  What better way to start the school day!

Positivity radiates from the walls of classrooms and corridors as the children’s happiness is put at the forefront of the school day.  Middle and Senior School children can visit ‘The Harbour’; (a calm room with a view and some very comfy sofas) if they need some time out to talk, reflect and ask for help, and ‘Monday Mindfulness’ always takes the top spot in the first Prep School assembly of the week.  In Pre-Prep, a ‘Pets as Therapy’ volunteer regularly visits our school to hear the children read.  We know that her special dog is warmly received as a non-judgemental listener and offers comfort to children who may be finding reading difficult or stressful.  Outdoor learning opportunities are plentiful and the children are able to go outside and explore our Forest School woodlands and grounds throughout the week.  Our recent whole school Outdoor Learning Day was another reminder of the positive effects being in the great outdoors can have on children.  We are one big community where children from older year groups regularly hear our youngest read.  We watch each other’s school plays and concerts.  We support, and we feel supported. 

This is not meant to be an exhaustive list as there is of course so much more we could do, but I believe Marlborough House is certainly playing its part in promoting positive mental health in young people, not just as a standalone initiative tacked on to the curriculum, but as an integrated part of our daily lives at school. 

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