Out of Character? – Promoting emotional health and resilience in school

One in ten children will suffer from a mental health disorder at some stage of their school career. That’s two or three in every class a teacher encounters. We can’t always prevent such occurrences: but by recognising the individual and helping them consciously to develop character (sometimes termed resilience or grit) we can give them, and us, the environment, tools and strategies to cope with the bad times and, in general, get through them.

The statistics on teenage mental illness aren’t new: as many as one in twelve children and young people self-harm; one in four adults will experience poor mental health; a victim of bullying is four times more likely to suffer depression at a later date.

The pastoral debate in the staff room is often about the steep rise in issues such as self-harm, eating disorders, anxiety and depression in our schools.  The importance of teaching good health and resilience isn’t lost on us either.  It is hardly ground-breaking to suggest that placing the emotional wellbeing of children at the heart of a school delivers the broad range of educational results which we all aim for.

The problem we face as a profession is (rightly or wrongly) that we feel poorly placed to deal with the reality of growing mental health problems, both in terms of our response to individuals and in terms of our strategic planning.  The great success of the True Grit Conference at King’s College School Wimbledon last March demonstrated how keenly those leading and managing pastoral care in our organisations feel that they need to provide more specialist and informed care for our students.  The impact that good mental health can have on both students and staff, on lesson preparation, delivery and, yes, on academic performance, has made it a focus for the Newcastle Royal Grammar School this year, as it has for many other schools too.

We instinctively know we need to get this right for our schools. What we need in schools now right now are the tools to effect real change - not just in systems, but in attitudes among students, parents and staff alike.

The paragraphs above outline the thinking behind the conference we hosted at Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School on 24th September 2014. The school’s Pastoral Director, Sue Baillie, and I had been galvanised – along with the entire school staff – by an address on a staff training day in January by Dick Moore of the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust.

As a staff we were all agreed. We wanted to do more to be proactive with students and parents alike about adolescent emotional wellbeing (and, arguably, the flipside, being approachable, confident and effective in dealing with the onset, even the first signs, of mental illness).

Staff confidence is a major factor and challenge in this area. There was a demand for training. We were delighted that, within a few months, we had more than a dozen (teachers and others, such as the school nurse) trained in Mental Health First Aid – that is, trained to deal with that first disclosure or discovery of a mental health crisis, actual or impending, in a student. Like physical First Aid, this is not about attempting to apply the emotional equivalent of sticking plaster, rather concerned with assessing the scale of the problem and the risks involved, and making well-informed decisions about what next steps to take.

In this context, that the hand wringing should stop and that what schools need is advice about how to support and act, the RGS hosted the Out of Character? Conference which brought together professionals to explore practical strategies for improving emotional wellbeing and resilience in our schools.  The emphasis of the day was very much on how to respond to issues, to explore what good support structures look like across the whole school and, at a clear individual level, how we support our students and staff too.

With speakers such as Dick Moore and Dr Nihara Krause offering a national perspective and specialists in the fields of school counselling, staff wellbeing, eating disorders, character education and self-harm running workshops to help develop better strategies, this important conference offered unparalleled opportunities for useful information-sharing and effective training relevant to teachers with a range of pastoral roles.

Details of the Conference are still on the school website.

Dr Bernard Trafford, Headmaster, and Sue Baillie, Pastoral Director, The Newcastle upon Tyne Royal Grammar School