A Whole School Approach to Mental Health: A Case Study

Case Study Summary – To provide a holistic approach to the wellbeing of pupils, staff and the academy community by understanding being healthy as strongly encompassing emotional and mental as well as, and with equal importance to physical wellbeing. This case study examines the impact of whole organisation training by Team Mental Health and embedded in the every-day ‘workings’ of the academy; the overall impact, challenges, solutions, quick wins and the positive impact of a whole organisation approach.

Introduction – Our Academy opened in September 2015 as a brand new establishment building year on year and starting with Nursery and Reception children only. Without a historical context, an Ofsted report or data that demonstrated a ‘successful’ setting, we were the ‘school of choice’ for very few families in our earliest days. The initial constitution and demographic of our academy meant in the very beginning that we were initially home to a disproportionate amount of very high need families and children and that emotional and mental wellbeing, physical needs and deprivation were very much on the agenda for us on a daily basis. There were some ‘quick fixes’ available to us to address the physical aspects and issues with which we and our children and families were faced; health referrals and signposting to relevant organisations to support financially and physically. This was in some ways true of emotional and mental wellbeing also. However, as humans we are naturally equipped with the desire and propensity to support one another proactively and in a sustained manner. These were ‘our’ children and families, and our investment in them meant that we required a more holistic and effective approach on a daily basis to supporting positive mental health across our organisation.

All staff underwent training with Team Mental Health which we hope demonstrated to them our absolute commitment to promoting positive mental health throughout our academy; staff at all levels have had the training. Whilst we had always committed to ensuring the wellbeing of our pupils and staff, this training very much focused all of us upon mental health and emotional wellbeing. It ensured we had practical advice and tips for spotting difficulties and warning signs in our young people and colleagues and that this was grounded in some contextual information which shed a little light on how some (but not all) these difficulties may have developed initially. Knowing for instance about early brain development and how this can be heavily impacted by neglect or challenges with attachment etc was really useful. Additionally, being able to extend so many of the key messages and ideas to staff and parents as adults meant that our aim from the outset was to safeguard and promote the positive mental health of ‘all’ individuals’ within our organisation regardless of age, gender, role or background. We had a whole organisation approach because the difficulties didn’t discriminate based on any of this criteria. We are promoting positive mental health for our ‘whole’ organisation and the Team Mental Health training has given us an excellent ‘toolkit’ in order to do this.

How it works in practice – With so many young people going through primary and into secondary education without the capacity or strategies to understand their own feeling and emotions, let alone to discuss them openly as a ‘matter or course’, our aim has and continues to be to equip our children with the understanding, opportunity and language to ‘talk about’ their feelings and emotions. By making these discussions ‘the norm’ and providing daily opportunities for them to happen as well as embracing ad-hoc discussions, mental health and wellbeing is an integral part of daily life at the academy and stigma begins to be removed.

Each day children come to school and place a name peg on a feelings chart. The feelings are quite basic – we have just used the characters from ‘Inside Out’ as an accessible way of children recognising, naming and flagging up to someone else how they are feeling. This costs pennies but is really effective in detecting any issues on a daily basis. It also shows us very easily if there are any patterns in how a child is feeling. During the registration process children are invited informally to talk 1:1 with a staff member if they have highlighted for instance that they are sad or worried. A dialogue is also created ‘between’ children, who when recognising that that a friend/peer is perhaps not feeling their best will ask – ‘Are you OK?’ or ‘Why are you sad/ worried?’. This kind of dialogue is invaluable because it happens in spite and not because of teachers and other adults. This means that there are great discussions about emotional health and wellbeing happening at all levels within our academy. It means that they are normal and ‘OK’.

Children know that if they can speak to their teacher or TA but they are also fully aware that the academy has appointed someone just for them and for this purpose. Our Pastoral Mentor is dedicated to working with children who are struggling for a variety of reasons and in a variety of ways. This mentor works with groups and individuals, responding directly to need through a variety of targeted group or individual sessions. They are highlighted either by the teacher or by approaching the mentor themselves and saying they ‘need to talk’ or ‘have a worry’. Increasingly when a child has a particular anxiety or worry or indeed if they have been struggling with their emotions in response to something that is happening at home/ school, they will actively seek out help. It is normal to them. It is OK. Equipping children with language and strategies to work through their feelings and to unashamedly ask for support like they would do for a cut knee or a broken arm is key to ensuring positive mental health and wellbeing within and beyond our organisation.

On a regular basis we talk directly or use media such as twitter to communicate to parents and families of our children, that positive mental and emotional health have absolute parity and importance to physical health and wellbeing. We communicate how we use time in class through PSHE, circle time and beyond to discuss and work through feelings and emotions. So much of it is about equipping children with the correct language and confidence to allow them to talk meaningfully.

During the course of each day, time is given to reflection and meditation. Not loads of time, but what is workable and appropriate in the course of a day in the classroom. That said, where there are particular worries or issues to work through or if someone in class is really struggling one day, more time may be dedicated or that class/ individual may access the Pastoral Mentor. This daily dialogue has become the language of wellbeing in our academy. It does not just apply to our children but to our staff, parents and families.

There are times of course where despite all of these measures we still identify a need that requires a third party agency involvement. The training we received through Team Mental Health has given us the grounded understanding, language, background information and confidence to refer to services when required. Our whole organisation approach to promoting and supporting positive mental health in all stakeholders means however that we are not wholly reliant on heavily stretched outside services for support. We are robust and can be relied upon to recognise and support positive mental health for everyone associated with our organisation. On walking around the academy the messages are consistent, strong, comforting and uplifting. ‘You are strong’ ‘You can do this’ and ‘If you are struggling (we all struggle sometimes) there are mechanisms to ask for help’.

Challenges and Solutions – It is so important to communicate with and engage the adults in this process too, for it is here where many of the stereotypes and much of the stigma exists. Ensuring that the messages we are living and breathing within our organisation permeate and support the ‘home environment’ too can be challenging but in our experience parents and families appreciate this dialogue. They are after all dealing with the same issues and emotions at home in many cases.

Time is another challenge. The curriculum is so crammed and there are so many expectations of education that allocating time for promoting positive mental health can sometimes feel like stress in itself. It is worth it though, and it takes very little time to realise that if you don’t recognise the importance of allocating time and resource to emotional health and wellbeing you are likely creating a bigger ‘problem’ or ‘challenge’ for later on. Impact of a ‘Whole Organisation Approach’

Training all staff and ensuring that we have a consistent and robust approach to promoting positive mental health for everyone within and associated with our academy has been key to us moving forward in this area. We have regular comments from children and families we have supported about how invaluable this approach has been and we feel equipped to support as well as to know when it is appropriate to refer to external services and how to do this effectively. During our recent Ofsted inspection where we were graded ‘Good’ overall, the area of ‘Personal Development and Welfare’ was graded ‘Outstanding’ with a great many references to our work around promoting positive mental health for all.

There are so many benefits of this approach which was prompted and formalised following our Team Mental Health organisation-wide training, not least that our academy is buzzing with happiness the majority of the time. Moreover there is active daily dialogue amongst all stakeholders, even our very youngest children about feelings, emotions and support required. It’s normal, regular, integral. It doesn’t take over. It doesn’t require masses of resources or oodles of cash. It just requires us to tap into the information from the training and into our basic human instincts to support and care for one another and ourselves.

When our children move on to secondary education and beyond they will have the language and confidence to draw upon should they need to ask for help, but they will also be able to reflect, consider and discuss their own and others feelings, without stigma and knowing it is normal and OK to do so. It is so important that secondary schools and establishments pick up the baton with equal commitment and vigour.

Louise Byrne, Associate Principal Inspire Academy