Teaching mental health

teaching mental health


As SATs approach, how can we teach children about their mental health and handling any pressure that they may be feeling? Continuing her therapeutic schools series, Shahana Knight discusses ways to incorporate teaching about mental health and wellbeing into the school week

The SATs are approaching and the pressure is mounting. Often children feel this pressure and struggle to manage the stress and anxiety it can bring. Increasing numbers of children are also struggling with external stressors in their lives outside of school. It is important we acknowledge this and that we teach the children about this and how to manage it.

Attention needs to be placed on helping the children to develop their own awareness, skill-set, strategies and techniques to manage their mental health and wellbeing. As well as helping in the short-term, these are life-long skills.

Children should be able to recognise their own feelings, identify why they are having those feelings, and be aware of the impact of these on their behaviours and decisions. They should then be able to utilise strategies and techniques to calm themselves down, regulate and bring about a sense of control in a short space of time, developing their emotional intelligence and giving them autonomy over their emotions and wellbeing. Here are some practical ideas for your school.

Wellbeing check-in circle times

Every morning you do a register to see who is in school that day. Why not begin a “feelings” register to help children begin to identify how they feel each day and why. This will also help you to understand more about how the children are feeling and how this could impact their ability to learn and participate. This will begin to develop a self-awareness around their own wellbeing. It will also foster peer support, empathy and develop relationship skills throughout the class. This can be done will all ages (nursery to year 6) if you use age-appropriate stimulus and language.

Start every day sat in a circle on the floor (even in year 6) to promote the feeling of togetherness, trust and the sense of team within the class. Explain to the children that the class and your classroom is a safe place where you can all take care of one another and where you can support one another. As always, before you introduce a new activity, give the class prior warning and outline your rules, boundaries and expectations.

After you have done the normal register you can begin the check-in exercise. You will need to have some resources to hand to help the children to develop the skills to explain how they feel and represent that in words.

Resources might include:

  • Plastic animals, creatures, small world figures.
  • Stones, rocks, shells and pebbles, crystals.
  • Small laminated postcard pictures of different places such as the beach, a cave, a tornado etc (a free download is available on my website).

Place the items of your choice in the middle of the circle. If you do this every day, try to change the resources. Ask the class to take turns to go around the circle and tell everybody how they are feeling by choosing an object. Tell them that the words “happy and sad” are not allowed and encourage them to think of different words to explain how they feel.

You go first, so that you are modelling the way to phrase the response but also so that you are part of the experience. For example: “Today, I choose this photograph of a tornado, because SATs are coming up and I feel a bit nervous. It’s a bit like being swept up in this tornado.”

Then ask the next person in the circle to share how they feel. You will notice over time that their responses become more in-depth and insightful. Be open and honest with your feelings, but appropriate with clear boundaries. This will teach them that we all have feelings that we struggle with, even adults. Reflect pupils’ responses back to them: “Sarah, you feel angry today because you were late to school, so you’ve chosen a tiger.” Keep it simple and brief.

If someone shares a difficult feeling say something like “Ahmed is feeling worried and anxious today, I will be looking out for how you guys are supporting him”. Allow the children to support one another and guide this from afar. You cannot fix all the problems and the children do not need you to, they sometimes just need to be heard. Some rules include:

  • Allow each child to speak but do not begin a conversation about each individual child’s feelings. This is a quick check-in and there need to be boundaries. Help the children to keep their answers concise/relevant.
  • Create some rules to ensure that everyone knows their boundaries – especially ask the children to be mindful and respectful by listening to one another and not interrupting or making fun.
  • If you begin this, continue it consistently so the children can rely on it and can use the sessions to regulate themselves.
A weekly mental health session

As part of your PSHE sessions, make time for a mental health session where you focus on issues like:

  • What feelings are.
  • How to manage feelings and emotions.
  • How your feelings can impact your behaviour and decisions.
  • How to support others with their feelings.

You can pick a stimulus to centre your session upon. Good ones for primary pupils include:

  • The scene from Disney’s Dumbo where they take away his mother or make fun of his ears.
  • A clip from the Disney/Pixar shorts Partly Cloudy (about a cloud who feels that people don’t like him) or Feast (about a puppy who initially is only concerned with himself).

Make sure you watch any stimulus all the way through before deciding whether it is appropriate for your class. Think about the types of discussion it could generate and what questions you could ask.

Once you are ready, sit the children in a circle in the floor, remind them of your rules and explain the content of the session, specifically the focus of the session. Show the children the stimulus you have chosen and ask them to put their hands up and share their thoughts with each other; try to allow them to create a free-flowing discussion between them.

Every now and again offer small movements in the direction you feel you would like the discussion to go using a question or statement: “Do you think all people would feel like this?” “So you guys think that it is not his fault he behaved like that?” Try to keep the children on task and make sure that the discussion is about the objective – feelings.

Allow the children to be honest about their feelings and ideas. This is a good opportunity for them to soundboard these in a safe place. Remember that not all children have discussions like this and so they will need to develop their ability to reflect and understand different points of view and other children’s frames of reference.

Be understanding and open to their way of explanation and help guide them to a better way of explaining what they mean if necessary. Give yourself a time limit and give the children a 10-minute warning before the session is up.

This article was originally written for and published by Head Teachers Update

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