If you discuss mental health in the classroom with people you know, some will reflect on their experiences and tell you that high school was hard. They might recall being picked on in middle school, or that they found it difficult to find somewhere to fit in as far back as infants’ school. Of course, there are many people whose school experience was a blast; they had no trouble making friends or were top of their class. For many, though, an aspect of school life somewhat tainted their experience.
Now imagine you have a mental health condition or special educational needs. Together with the issues most young people face, you have the additional challenge of managing your needs in the classroom. Finding your place in school can be much harder and you might have to work twice as hard to get half as far. If others do not see your needs, as is often the case with mental health issues, your struggles can go unnoticed in the classroom.
I spoke to one of my closest friends, Naomi, about her experience in school as someone with mental health conditions. She has also recently been diagnosed with autism.
Customise the curriculum to improve mental health in the classroom
“Part of the reason that those with SEND (special educational needs and disabilities) and mental health needs struggle is that they don’t have access to the right resources,” Naomi tells me. “Different people learn in different ways, and trying to teach a class of around 30 pupils all at once means that information can often get lost.”
Fundamental Principles states that children should be offered access to a broad, balanced and relevant education. But, for those with SEND, gaining access to this often requires some adjustments within the existing curriculum.
“It was really difficult at school, especially high school when there are often many pupils in a class”, Naomi continues. “I felt uncomfortable telling my teachers I didn’t understand, and sometimes I didn’t know what was being asked of me. Traditional workbooks and huge lines of text can often be too rigid for people like me to understand.”
How we teach pupils can greatly impact their ability to retain information. Research conducted for Pearson International Schools states that SEND pupils require appropriate teaching strategies tailored to their distinctive abilities. Put simply, to thrive; these pupils need additional support in the classroom.
Teacing soft skills helps our understanding of mental health conditions
Sometimes, pupils with mental health and SEND have issues that can be made worse by a lack of knowledge in the classroom. “Despite raised awareness in recent years, there still a lasting stigma around the topic that makes it so much harder to access the right support,” says Naomi.
She believes that adding talks about mental health conditions to the curriculum could help pupils and support their teachers: “When I was at school, no one ever talked about mental health”, she explains. “Unless you study psychology, there’s no discussion on mental health conditions and the effects they have on daily life. While people don’t mind talking about physical health, mental conditions are not given the same attention.”
The Mental Health Foundation states that good mental health is fundamental to our ability to thrive in life. By giving pupils access to the right tools to learn about mental health, we can remove any remaining stigma.
Naomi would love to widen the conversation further around mental health: “As someone with a chronic illness, I wish people understood more about what that means day-to-day. From an empathy perspective, I think it’s vital to teach pupils how to recognise illness in their peers. That way they know how to support their friends should they need to. I had a really strong network of friends in high school that I knew I could talk to. But I recognise that not everyone has that stability, and that’s exactly why we need to be have these conversations in schools.”
According to Naomi, her educators did not fully understand her conditions: “Growing up, I was constantly told that my feelings were down to teenage hormones and that I would grow out of my depression as I got older. Now, knowing I have autism alongside several other mental health conditions, I feel frustrated that I wasn’t listened to as a child. We know our bodies and when something is not right. Had I been given access to the right support at school, it would have been a much more comfortable experience.”
Naomi wasn’t alone in her childhood struggles. Now, more than ever, children and young people are being referred for support with mental health problems. According to the UK Mental Health Foundation, 50% of mental health problems are established by age 14. Young people are desperate for support, and the way we approach education needs to reflect that.
Accessing the right support for mental health in schools
Having access to someone who specifically understood mental health in children and young people would have vastly improved her experience Naomi believes. “At school, I felt like I had no adult to talk to who really understood my needs as someone who was mentally ill. At the time, I didn’t know I was autistic, and this, of course, hindered my progression through high school massively. But, even with my mental health problems, I felt like there was nowhere I could go to decompress.”
In a survey conducted by the National Education Union members in 2019, only 12% of schools have access to a mental health first aider. Giving pupils access to someone who understands their conditions professionally can be crucial in improving the situation in the classroom for pupils that are mentally unwell.
The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy is campaigning for a trained counsellor to be based in all secondary schools. It states that counselling for young people positively affects their confidence and academic achievement. Similarly, having a designated place for pupils to go when they feel overwhelmed by their mental health in the classroom would be hugely beneficial in encouraging those with mental health and SEND to come into school.
“Having access to a quiet space free of the sensory overload that can often be the reality in a classroom would have hugely improved my time at school”, says Naomi. “I knew that once at school I would have to cope with the noise and chaos from 9 till 4. Often that prospect was way too much for my brain to deal with, so I wouldn’t go in at all. Giving pupils like me access to a quiet classroom, or allowing them a space to decompress when they need to would greatly improve the chances of keeping them in education.”
There is a range of benefits to having a sensory room in mainstream schools. As put forward by Experia, having a safe space allows special populations to succeed academically by providing tools and a safe space they require to concentrate and learn. It’s no doubt that conversations around mental health are widely beneficial not only for us to understand how someone is feeling about their mental health in the classroom, but so that those who are unwell can access the right support and not just survive but thrive.
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