Perspective of a therapist in a specialist SEN school

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Perspective of a therapist in a specialist SEN school

With an ever-growing body of evidence suggesting high and increasing levels of mental health difficulties in children, alongside the significant majority of children with clinical levels of mental health need not being seen by mental health services, schools are under increasing pressure to provide mental health support themselves.

The importance of schools in a child’s mental health

Research also shows that parents contact teachers more than any other professional about their child’s mental health difficulties. From this it becomes clear that providing mental health support in schools is crucial, with schools becoming the frontline provider ofmental health support for many children.

Having worked at Abingdon House School, a school for children with special education needs aged 5-17, for over 6 years I have become increasingly aware of the power of supporting mental health in schools, particularly in special needs populations where mental health difficulties are even more prevalent. This increasing awareness has resulted in a personal journey of development, from my initial training as a Speech and Language Therapist to my current role as Head of Mental Health and Wellbeing. This journey has led me to undertake training in Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and other interventions such as Drawing and Talking so that I can help to provide much needed support for our children.

As a school we take our role in supporting mental health and wellbeing very seriously, believing that promoting and supporting positive mental health should underpin everything we do. We know that good mental health is the foundation of learning and social development. We are incredibly fortunate to have an amazing team supporting wellbeing including: two Heads of Wellbeing, a behaviour team, occupational therapists, speech and language therapists, a physiotherapist and classes supported by LSAs and teaching assistants.

So what do we do to support mental health and wellbeing?

Universal support

The majority of our work goes into promoting and supporting positive mental health and wellbeing at the whole school level. In a climate of increasing mental health challenges, it is important for us that these problems are not hidden from our pupils, but that rather they are given the tools to cope with challenges they may face. This universal approach is fundamental in supporting the wellbeing of all of our pupils, providing them with protective skills and strategies to help them to manage their own mental health. The foundation of our whole school support is the Zones of Regulation® programme.

This programme gives our pupils the skills to manage and regulate their sensory and emotional needs. Staff and pupils alike use the Zones of Regulation® to talk about how they are feeling and what they need to support their emotions, demonstrating to pupils that everyone experiences a range of feelings and providing adult role models for managing challenging emotions. Also fundamental to our whole-school provision is the PATHS® programme for schools, which teaches pupils important skills such as self-control, emotional awareness and interpersonal problem-solving skills. Our thrice-weekly Wellbeing Mornings, attended by all staff and pupils, provide an opportunity for the whole school to engage in activities to support mental health and wellbeing. Across the school children engage in their choice of activity, from yoga to boxing, mindfulness to walking or tea and chat, supporting pupils and staff in starting the day mentally and physically ready for learning.

Targeted in-school mental health support

We are in the fortunate position of having staff onsite who are able to deliver targeted interventions to pupils exhibiting or at risk of mental health difficulties. Drawing and talking is an intervention that is accessible to many of our pupils and is one where we have seen positive impacts. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy is also available and appeals to many of our pupils for its practical and systematic nature. Recently we have started a Multi Family Group, giving us an opportunity to work more closely with parents/carers to support their children’s wellbeing as well as creating a smaller, supportive community within our wider school community.

Supporting staff

With teacher retention an issue across the country and stress playing a big role in teacher dropout, alongside the knowledge that staff and pupil wellbeing are closely interlinked, at Abingdon House School we place a significant emphasis on supporting staff wellbeing. An important aspect of our staff wellbeing programme is the comprehensive training provided to staff relating to mental health. This includes training in how to support children with mental health difficulties, what mental health difficulties look like, procedures for accessing support for pupils and staff and training days focused on strategies for supporting our own mental health, for example mindfulness training. All staff have also undertaken attachment training, which is crucial in supporting us to become an attachment-friendly school. We acknowledge the impact that encountering mental health difficulties in children can have on staff and therefore offer opportunities to debrief with colleagues as well as access to external mental health services and support. Other ways that we support staff wellbeing include: staff unsung hero awards, wellbeing surveys, afterschool pilates sessions, termly staff parties and other opportunities for staff to get-together outside of school hours, for example staff quiz and pizza nights.

Whilst we know that we are nowhere near the end of our journey into supporting mental health and wellbeing, we hope that the support we provide offers our children, families and staff a starting point from which to develop positive mental health and wellbeing and achieve their full potential.

About the author

Rachel Cullen is a speach and language therapist as well as head mental health and wellbeing at Abingdon House