“Communal wellbeing is central to human life.”
– Cat Stevens
“What’s invisible to us is also crucial for our own wellbeing.”
– Jeanette Winterson
A young person on BBC1’s “Question Time” a couple of weeks ago said “Five years! Five years I’ve been under pressure because of exams”. The exasperation and frustration in his voice was disconcerting.
A teacher, a good teacher says “I’m tired. I love teaching but I just don’t think I can carry on. There are too many changes!”
Another child says, “I work and work and I still only get ‘B’s. That’s not good enough but I can’t work any harder than I already am!” – (NB this child has just turned 12 years of age).
A report in the Guardian – with alarming statistics about the mental health of our teachers: http://www.theguardian.com/education/2014/apr/14/ofsted-inspections-targets-harming-teachers-mental-health
Another report in the Guardian about the increase in mental health problems for children and young people – with the added pressure of funding cuts to CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services): http://www.theguardian.com/education/2014/apr/15/pupils-mental-health-cuts-services-stress-teachers
We wonder whether there are any connections!
“A relentless inspection regime and a culture of target-setting is damaging teachers’ mental health, with many reporting stress and exhaustion, a survey by a teaching union has found.”
Such a statement is damning in its own right. Add to this the effects that such pressure is having on young people and we have a serious problem. The transfer of pressure from managers to teachers to children is a nasty and damaging cycle, and it’s time that we looked at the underlying causes for such stress and did something about it. If our teachers are feeling pressurised they cannot possibly “perform” at their best.
The Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) conducted a survey with shocking but unsurprising outcomes.
“Of those teachers who did feel their job had damaged their mental health, many reported experiencing stress (80%), exhaustion (69%), disturbed sleep patterns (66%), anxiety (57%) and headaches (47%). Almost one in three said it had affected their appetite.”
80% stressed. This is not going to go unnoticed by children and young people. Even the least empathetic will recognise or be affected by such stress.
Add to this another crisis………
“Cuts to mental health and other services for young people mean teachers are increasingly having to fill the gap, even though schools do not always have the resources or training to provide the extra support pupils with mental or emotional issues may need.”
Schools aren’t judged on their ability to deal with the mental health of their students directly. They are only judged on how these children perform in tests. Therefore the tests become a priority. The children stress because they are concerned about their performance. The teacher adds to this stress because they’re concerned that they will be judged on their children’s performance which potentially leads them to putting more stress on the children, who then under-perform because they’re stressed………. which leads to disappointment and frustration from the teacher, who possibly considers that booster classes might help the children, which further pressurises the children ………. And so on and so forth. And all of this before we’ve even looked at the other underlying issues that affect a child’s wellbeing – like problems at home, or poor housing, or inability to manage their feelings.
This is madness! It’s the system that’s insane.
Not all mental health issues come from the stress of the examination system, but many do. Do we really want to end up with a society like South Korea – who may have exceptional levels of “attainment” but also have the highest suicide rate for young people?
If a child enters school unfit or unable to learn, then the school and the teacher have to do something about that. However, the underlying reason for supporting the child shouldn’t be about how well they might attain “standards”, which is often, not always, the thought process behind support offered. Teachers absolutely should be trained in how to recognise and deal with mental health issues, and services need to be available for those young people who have specific and extensive needs.
However, we also need to look at proactive and preventative measures in order to try and stem the need for reactive and emergency support. This isn’t rocket science yet for too long we’ve ignored this emerging crisis.
We need some calm – individually and within our system.
We need quality PSHE that allows people to talk and listen and develop relationships, and develop the ability to understand feelings and emotions. We need to support children to develop the skills to speak out when they are feeling low or to know how to manage their emotions and reactions to difficult situations. We need to slow down and give our children, and our teachers, time to breathe – and we are simply not doing that.
If we consider the potential of preventative measures, then we may not eradicate all mental health issues but we may alleviate enough of them to ensure that specific provision such as CAMHS is able to cope with the highly complex needs of specific individuals and cases.
So what preventative measures can we take?
We absolutely have to address this now before any more children go through an education system feeling an unnecessary and alarming amount of pressure.
Our priorities for change are complex and merit more than one post on the subject, yet are summarised very quickly in these key points that schools may wish to consider.
- Review the purpose of education in your school. What is your raison d’etre? Developing each and every child’s desire to learn has to be integral to that, ensuring that the environment for learning is fit for the individual. Attainment and wellbeing ought to go hand in hand.
- Review precisely what you are doing to “promote the wellbeing of pupils”. This is a statutory requirement and has to be looked at holistically. How does the curriculum, the teaching, the activities, the culture, the school community, the environment, the after-school activities, the relationships between pupils and staff/pupils and pupils/parents and staff contribute to the wellbeing of students? Is the fear of failure – of Ofsted and exams – putting unnecessary and damaging stress on a young person that is contrary to the promotion of wellbeing?
- Partake in quality CPD and training for all staff – teaching and support staff – on wellbeing. Any training on wellbeing that’s worthwhile will consider the individual and collective needs of the whole school. It will value all aspects of education and not just academic attainment.
- Allow quiet, reflective time or short bouts of physical activity – however pressurised that might feel. Ten minutes of relaxation or cardio-vascular activity will impact on learning. Try meditation, massage, quiet reading, organised aerobics – anything that works for you and your children to re-engage more productively and energetically in learning. Slow down. By slowing down, there’s the potential to speed up learning.
- Have a set time in the timetable for PSHE that doesn’t get pushed to one side if the literacy and mathematics activities aren’t complete. The opportunity to talk, to develop life skills and to collaborate through active learning is as vital to a child’s wellbeing as the ability to read and write. Just because these activities can’t be recorded through writing doesn’t mean they are less important. Get a camera out. Get someone in the room to observe.
- Consider the personal and social development (PSD) objectives in all lesson planning. Just as all teachers should be teachers of English, so too should they be thinking explicitly about PSD.
- Involve young people in decisions – all decisions. If they feel they have a say and a sense of ownership in what takes place in school, they are more likely to engage. If children and young people are engaged in this way, they are less likely to be disaffected and more likely to know what to do in crisis situations.
- Create a behavioural policy with children and their families, that’s devoid of the word “don’t”. Within the policy have a clear programme of intervention if children present worrying signs of poor mental health – intervening as early as possible. Make the connection between learning policies and behavioural policies – explicitly and positively.
- Look at what you are offering in all aspects of school that provide opportunities for individual needs. Not all children are academically gifted. What other opportunities are there for them to excel? If every child develops a sense of self-worth, then that is going to have a massive impact on their mental wellbeing and the behaviour in school.
- Balance attainment with wellbeing. Both are important – equally.
We appreciate that these are only starting points and many schools are already addressing them, but as educators we have to really consider what external influences are impacting on the wellbeing of the children in our care, and what pressures are coming from within the system – for pupils and those who are charged with their care and learning development.
“Wellbeing cannot exist just on your own head. Wellbeing is a combination of feeling good as well as actually having meaning, good relationships and accomplishment.”
– Martin Seligman