Why Supporting Positive Mental Health Is Good For Learning

What Is Mental Health and Wellbeing?                                                                       

As human beings we have a mind body connection, this means our mental, physical and social health are interlinked and affect each other. Positive wellbeing is when individuals have the psychological, physical or social skills to manage the challenges being asked. Therefore, if we want good health and wellbeing for our children and young people we need to ensure that they have the knowledge, understanding, skills and resources to manage the challenges they may face. 

Mental Health and its Link to Learning                                                                                  

When children and young people have the knowledge, skills and resources to manage they are able to cope with day-to-day challenges, build and maintain positive relationships, talk about how they feel and manage their emotions. They are able to develop positive beliefs about themselves and cope when things go wrong, all the things that also support them be open to and manage the challenges of the school environment and learning. 

There are a great many things that schools are developing and putting in place to support the mental health and wellbeing of their students as the link between wellbeing and learning is clearly documented. Many schools are incorporating lessons and activities that support pupils to manage stress, anxiety, and depression. Other schools are focusing on developing a preventative Wellbeing Curriculum that teaches strategies for wellbeing, whereas others are focusing on ensuring, specialist staff are available to help young people talk about the challenges they are experiencing or helping them to access further support. 

A Whole School Approach         

 “In a whole school approach, wellbeing and mental health are everyone's business,’ with genuine engagement across the entire community: staff, pupils, governors, parents and external services. The approach involves multiple components including early identification and intervention; staff wellbeing and development; and skills-based work for pupils, but above all it adopts a positive and universal focus on wellbeing.” National Children's Bureau

A whole school approach has been shown to have an impact on:

  • Improved pupil wellbeing
  • Improved staff wellbeing and retention
  • Improved academic learning
  • Strong link to improving school’s overall effectiveness
  • Development of social and emotional skills
  • Prevention of MH problems
  • Improved school behaviour - reduction in fights, bullying, exclusions and absence.

How Can Educators Develop Resources That Underpin and Promote Positive Health and Wellbeing?

If we look at the research from schools from around the world we can see that by teaching and developing these skills from an early age children develop the knowledge and strategies to protect their mental health, build resilience, develop their social and emotional skills all of which gives them a greater ability to learn and flourish.

1) Ask Your Stakeholders                             

All the groups within school have different challenges and need different things and so the first place to start is to ask questions and listen to the answers they give and then make a plan to tackle the challenges that have been shared.                              

2) Make the Most of Assemblies and Special Focus Days                                                            

 Assemblies are a great way to support the many special focus days that happen throughout the year helping us to talk and reflect on both our physical health and our mental health. 

Mental Health Friendly Classroom

1) Develop a Sense of Belonging                                                                                                                       

The most important focus for developing a Mental Health Friendly Classroom is to develop a sense of belonging. All children and young people need to feel as though they belong – whether that is in a physical place, a community or with in the home.  A sense of belonging is a human need, which enables people to feel safe and accepted and through this open to new experiences, able to develop positive relationships and be curious and open to learning. Fostering a sense of belonging within the classroom needs to be a priority at the beginning of the new school year for all teachers. By doing so, learning and positive relationships can thrive. When our classroom community is open and collaborative, children feel safe to share ideas, confident to have a go and take a risk with their learning because failure is accepted as a part of that process and is supported. They can be curious and explore ask for help and know help will be given.  There are many things that teachers and professionals working with children and young people we can do to create a sense of belonging.

2) Make the Development of Emotional Literacy a Priority                                                                                      

Learning is interwoven with emotions and the ability to work with others. Therefore, social and emotional competencies cannot be separated from the learning task. The neurological processes, social interaction and the ability to manage emotions become the three strands, which run throughout the learning process, and have to be managed by the learner. For some children and young people their emotional responses to learning, or the learning interaction, can trigger a range of difficulties, which then prevent them from learning. To be an effective learner a wealth of emotions have to be managed and regulated. Emotions are said to operate the on off switch to learning and so by teaching children and young people about emotions and ways of managing them they are more able to manage the learning task. 

We can clearly see that teaching emotional competencies within schools has a wide range of educational and social benefits including educational and work success, improved behaviour, increased inclusion, improved learning and improvements in mental health. When we have good emotional literacy, we are able to recognise our own emotions and regulate the intensity of them and we are able to recognise and manage the emotions of others in a thoughtful way. These skills make for a much better working and school environment. 

What Can Teachers Do?

  • Develop a Regulation Station within the classroom. A space where students can go and calm themselves or distract themselves until they can manage the learning task. 
  • Calm boxes. Use calm boxes to promote the fact that we can all learn how to ‘change state’ and move from one emotion into another
  • Specifically teach about emotions and the fact that we all feel things differently and can all learn to manage in different ways.

Preventative Work

1) Help Children and Young People Understand How Their Brains Work                    

Supporting children and young people understand their brain and how it links thoughts, emotions and physical sensations which then influence how they behave or respond is so important if we want them to learn how to manage. Understanding the fight and flight response and why our brains are wired to focus on the negatives all enable children to develop positive skills and strategies and help them thrive. If we teach young people about stress, negative bias, self-talk and the fight or flight response we can empower them with knowledge and help them to choose how they respond to situations.

2) Develop Social Skills                                                                                               

It is during our childhood and adolescence that we learn the skills to build and maintain relationships in a positive way. Children, initially learn this from parents and carers and then from those around them in school and within their community. This early socialisation shapes how they understand and then develop their own model of relationship-forming behaviours in future. An overwhelming body of research shows that the possession of positive social skills are important for maintaining social, psychological and occupational wellbeing. People who lack these skills appear to be at risk of developing a range of difficulties including being less popular with peers, less successful in relationships, at risk of depression and social anxiety and academic underachievement. 

Preventative strategies supporting positive mental health and wellbeing are becoming vital in schools and therefore, supporting the knowledge and understanding of staff in how to both teach social skills and then weave these skills into all areas of school life is vital to the wellbeing of children and young people.

Circles for Learning is a unique project that focuses on developing the five essential areas that lay positive foundations for mental health and wellbeing including emotional literacy, building positive relationships, how our brain effects our learning and behaviour, skills for learning and how our sense of self develops. 

Circles for Learning is backed by 10 years of development by leading Educational Psychotherapist and writer of the Teachers Mental Health and Wellbeing Toolkit, Alison Waterhouse. 

For further reading and insight from our guest blogger Alison Waterhouse, read 3 ways to teach social and emotional skills at school to support your students manage their mental health.

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