With it being Mental Health Awareness week, I wanted to reflect on how teachers can support primary pupils’ mental health. 2020 and 2021 have been a particularly trying time for all of us in many ways, children and young people included.
Sometimes the significance of supporting pupils’ mental health can get lost amongst all the academic pressures placed on teachers. Even with the best of intentions, it does not always get the attention it deserves. Additionally, teachers are not often given the training that they need to be able to best support pupils with mental health needs.
How common are child mental health problems?
According to The Children’s Society, “1 in 6 children aged 5-16 are likely to have a mental health problem.” So, if you have a class of around 30 pupils, that means five of them may be struggling with mental health in some way. That’s just an average, so you may find more pupils within your class need extra support, especially when you consider the impact of COVID.
There are some common worries children have as they grow up, for example, starting school, moving to a new house, taking exams – as well as around negative experiences they may have had. This is why it’s important to talk to pupils if you notice they are showing signs of mental health issues. Not only will it help you better support them, but you may find there is a more serious cause that needs to be addressed.
Mental health and EdTech
Technology can often get bad press when it comes to mental health, with concerns about children having too much screen time, accessing inappropriate content, and so on. However, when used appropriately, technology can actually be beneficial to mental health.
Encouraging pupils to show their emotions with visual representations is really helpful for children – particularly in Early Years where they may not have the vocabulary to express this in words. EdTech can be used to give children easy access to these visual representations of emotions. Images are universal, which is key for helping children with EAL indicate their feelings and needs.
EdTech can also monitor wellbeing on a wider scale and alert educators to trending concerns. For example, solutions like NetSupport DNA have an in-built safeguarding module with tools such as keyword monitoring, risk tracking and opportunities for students to report their concerns. All this information enables you to support individuals, groups and even whole classes/cohorts.
Technology is a really great way to connect with people. For example, children can use tools like GoBubble (a safe social media platform for children) to connect with children from schools all around the world, which is not only beneficial for learning about different cultures and languages, but to encourage kindness in their interactions and a sense of community.
EdTech can give pupils an opportunity to have their voices heard, teach others new skills and share their proud moments. You can use tools like ReallySchool to boost confidence by sharing pupils’ achievements with their parents and awarding badges for their efforts. Reflecting on these positive aspects of their learning can give pupils a real sense of accomplishment.
Some children who are less confident in writing can use technology to share their learning and understanding in different ways, such as with picture collages, videos, animations and more. This removes some of the frustration of not being able to express what they want to with words.
Primary pupils’ mental health – How else can you help?
Here are three ideas I implemented into my teaching practice that I found had a positive impact on pupil wellbeing.
- Emotional literacy: Books are a great way to explore emotional literacy and work on reading comprehension simultaneously! For example, if you are asking your pupils about how characters in the book feel and how they know that, your pupils are demonstrating their understanding of the character’s feelings and their understanding of the text.
It’s also important to teach about empathy. By helping your pupils understand how others feel, they can think more carefully about how their actions affect others, focus more on being kind and also improve their social skills.
- Safe spaces: Having a safe space in your classroom where a pupil can go is a really great and simple way to support mental health. This is particularly useful if you have pupils with specific emotional, social and/or mental health needs. In my classroom, I set up a small tent in the corner with cushions inside and pupils knew they could go in there if needed. Additionally, a pupil going into the area signalled to an adult they are not okay, without them having to say so. An adult could then approach and see if they wanted to talk.
- It’s okay not to be okay: Sometimes when we try to focus on the positive, we can unintentionally gloss over everything else. There is nothing wrong with positivity as long as we show pupils it’s okay to feel a range of emotions and that we do not have to be happy all the time.
It’s about striking a balance. For example, I would dedicate time for pupils to talk about what they were proud of, to share kind messages with their peers and staff (called ‘tootles’!), take part in random acts of kindness and to learn about a growth mindset. Equally, I would plan circle times around key events I knew could make pupils anxious, giving them time to talk (e.g. transitioning to the junior school). I also introduced a ‘worry bin’ where pupils could write down worries and throw them away so they could express them without having to talk about them. (Note: If you do introduce a ‘worry bin’ keep a check on what goes in there to ensure there are no concerns that may need further investigation.)
Primary school teachers have a significant role to play in supporting primary pupils’ mental health and although the EdTech and other strategies in here are helpful for supporting mental health in general, it’s important to note that specific needs (such as bereavement) will require specific approaches. It may be worth speaking to your school about whether training is available to help you give more tailored support.
References and further reading
Mental Health Statistics 2021, The Children’s Society, viewed 10 May 2021 <https://www.childrenssociety.org.uk/what-we-do/our-work/well-being/mental-health-statistics>
Your Classroom’s Social Media 2021, GoBubble, viewed 12 May 2021 <https://gobubble.school/home >
NetSupport: NetSupport DNA
Mental Health Org: Mental Health Awareness Week
NSPCC: Children’s mental health