Child Mental Health – Observations from a teacher at a specialist SEN school

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I started working at Market Field School as an LSA when I was 17 with no awareness of what I was walking in to. I had no knowledge of SEND and the only experience I had of  ‘mental health difficulties’ were my own.

Just under 11 years on and I am still here. I am now a qualified teacher with 4 years teaching experience and I am part way through a Masters in SEND leadership. I also run an organisation that looks to challenge people’s perceptions towards children with special educational needs and mental health difficulties (the multi-schools council).

Since joining a school with fewer than 100 pupils, we are now pushing 300 and are based in a purpose built building. The growth highlights the special place that Market Field School has within our community and the type of provision it provides. Market Field School offers some fantastic support, we have a Head of Wellbeing who works across the whole school to ensure needs are being meet and is supported by intervention work and fantastic class teams made up of LSA’s and teachers. The school provides support for families, 1:1 work such as drawing and talking and hosts anxiety groups.

"More children are being diagnosed with specific needs but the service providing those assessments has shrunk – you can work out the problem. This is part of why I am so driven towards changing attitudes and perceptions across education, as the school environment is everything!"

Kierran Pearce

Working across education I have certainly seen an increase in the numbers of children suffering with mental health difficulties. Some will put this down to increased awareness others will blame influences such as social media. The multi-schools council has gone about it from a different angle and one that we believe should be adopted by all – we ask the children.

Pupil Voice on: mental health 

In 2018 we published a document titled Pupil Voice on: Mental Health that was produced in collaboration with children all across Essex. The idea being that the document could help schools improve their mental health provision but also provides a guide for the work of the MSC in the coming years.

Document recommendations 

  • For every school in Essex to have pupil mental health ambassadors that have been trained to provide peer to peer support
  • For a programme to be developed and commissioned with our local authority based on ‘Building resilience’ that can be delivered as part of the curriculum across schools in Essex.
  • For the government to put out recommendations to schools around increased breaks, creation of ‘break out’ rooms and more hands on activities linked to sport and wellbeing
  • Staff in all schools and those on teacher training courses to be heavily trained around understanding and supporting mental health difficulties ‘Health hubs’ replicating those in place for children with autism but will include a more intense intervention based around the ‘building resilience’ model we hope to develop in our curriculum
  • Increased collaboration between schools with increased mental health forums to share good practice/build better support networks for young people

Many of these recommendations are in progress and in particular the ambassador programme. In September 2018 the multi-schools council hosted training for schools who engaged across the Essex area. We have since visited these schools and picked up on the good practice. As a basic guideline the most effective schools had;

  • Positive staff - pupil relationships
  • Safe environments, they could be anywhere, but
    have been made into therapeutic spaces
  • Peer to peer support (very effective)
  • Staff who are free to simply listen to children
  • Worry boxes to help address concerns at an early

Building resilience 

For me, none of that is rocket science! What we are now doing is taking that information and placing it in to a resilience programme that will be available to all schools from September 2019. The children have told us that resilience plays a massive role in our discussions towards mental health.

We believe that as schools we have a duty, a responsibility, to prepare our young people for the outside world. A world that will throw up difficulties and challenges. I believe we are now facing so many problems due to the fact we have missed this within our education system. We have developed a curriculum where we are preparing children for the job of ‘life’ without giving them the ‘tools’ to manage it. It’s like sending a builder on site without a hammer, telling a footballer how to play football without letting them kick a ball, or sending a doctor into surgery without the equipment needed.

Alongside resilience – self-esteem. I see examples day after day of what our education system has done to some of our most disadvantaged youngsters. The children I work with all have a SEND and a majority have started their lives in mainstream education. Their experiences have shaped the way they view their own ability and often this is negatively as they have been the child placed in the corner, put in the corridor, sent home to mum or dad – the effect this has on self-esteem is massive and generates all kinds of problems linked to mental health. So part of our programme also has a big chunk of self-esteem work.

Ultimately we should never ignore what the children tell us. The evidence and facts are there and a change is needed. The multi-schools council won’t do that alone but if you work in education and have read this blog ask yourself these two questions;

  1. Have I asked the children how they feel?
  2. How will this affect their well-being?

This should underpin everything! 

About the author 

Kierran Pearce is a teacher at Marketfield School in Essex who also runs an organisation called the Multi-schools Council which aims to change negative perceptions about people with specialist educational needs and disabilities.