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Teachers: guard your wellbeing first to support students' mental health 

24/04/2015

Teachers and education professionals must look after their own mental wellbeing before they can support vulnerable students.

Research published in the last few weeks found that almost 90% of teachers said staff have had to provide more support for pupils with mental health issues over the past two years. In addition, 43% had been finding it harder to access services for pupils with mental illness.

The pressure of inspections, exam results and increased workloads means that teachers are even less likely to have the capacity to attend to the individual needs of more challenging children. Perhaps it should be no surprise then that nearly four in ten qualifying teachers quit the classroom after just one year.

At Place2Be, our experience of providing mental health services to school communities for the past 20 years has reinforced the importance of supporting teachers' own mental health. When you feel stressed, panicky, or drained, the chances are that you won't be at your most resilient. This not only reduces your ability to build a positive relationship with your class, but also can potentially reinforce the negative experiences that some children may have had with other adults in their lives.

Looking after your own mental health should not be seen as a luxury, or a tick box exercise to please HR. It's extremely important that teachers, particularly those who are new to the profession, recognise that there will be times when they need to take a step back and look after themselves first and foremost. Knowing that you are not alone in facing times like these, or feelings of stress, can help to increase confidence in your role as well as fostering an important sense of self-worth. Resources such as the Teacher Support Network provide an invaluable outlet for this.

Once you've looked after your own wellbeing, you'll be much better placed to support that of your pupils. Most core teacher training contains little practical advice on how to manage children's emotional and behavioural issues in the classroom. Not only are these issues distressing for the child involved, but they can also be incredibly disruptive for the whole class - which ultimately has a knock on effect on learning.

During our training for teachers and other school staff, we focus on practical strategies and solutions for dealing with challenging behaviour, underpinned by the experience of our team of 235 school-based clinicians and counsellors. We encourage teachers to look behind the behaviour, to start to understand how a child who is 'acting out' or misbehaving in class might simply be expressing a perfectly rational reaction to difficult circumstances at home.

For instance, one teacher described a Year 6 boy's need to always be close to her, and to receive clarification and reinforcement multiple times for even small tasks. After training, she came to realise he was unconsciously putting her in the role of mother, perhaps in part because his relationship with his own mum was extremely intense as an only child. This knowledge enabled the teacher to be more aware of her own behaviour and boundaries, and also to find ways to boost his confidence and skills before he moved on to secondary school.

Another 23 yearold NQT commented that a better understanding of what could lie behind pupils' behaviour helped him make sense of his pupils' behaviour: "I started to notice a lot more and it made more sense, so if for example, a child kept going into my cupboard and taking my things it became apparent he wasn't just doing it to annoy me. It was because taking something of mine gave him an attachment to me in some way. I know that home life wasn't great. All the behaviours in the class seem to make more sense as a result of what I'd learnt."

Every child and class are different, but there are a few ways that teachers can help to promote good mental health and wellbeing:

  1. Try to prioritise time to attend to the emotional needs of children in the same way as time is set aside for other areas of their learning. This includes teachers setting aside time for planning and thinking about individuals and the class.
  2. Use music and "Brain breaks" to support children's self-care methods and ability to engage with learning. This is especially useful for certain personality types or those with concentration issues.
  3. Use drama to explore emotional wellbeing and other issues: using relevant scenarios and exploring options such as "what happens next" or "how does this character feel/think" etc.
  4. Introduce a 'worry box' or 'worry tree' to allow children to inform adults if they have something on their mind, or if they are feeling distressed.

Lastly, make sure you do the equivalent of these activities for yourself. When do you get a 'brain break'? Where is your 'worry box'? Take the time even in a very small way to focus on how you are feeling either in response to a class or an individual within it. Make lists. Express frustrations. Become more aware of how you are feeling in the moment. Find colleagues who you can trust as well as use more formal lines of support in school. Make sure that you have a place to think and reflect: that may be a healthier way of supporting yourself than going down the pub, although that may be important to do as well!

For more information about Place2Be's training for school staff and teachers, visit our training page

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This blog was written by David Exall who is head trainer at Place2Be, it originally appeared on Teacher Support Network.  

The blog was written in a personal capacity and does not necessarily reflect the view of the organisation.

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