Mental health is hot on the agenda at the moment with many recognising that it is something their school needs to improve. There is a common worry that budgets are not large enough to accommodate external help and some are concerned that they will be unable to make the changes they want.
However, there are so many small, low-cost changes you can begin to implement that will make a big impact on children’s wellbeing and the overall ethos of the school. One such change is your teaching skill-set, by which I mean the way you listen, respond and approach children and situations. I believe we are now in the age of the “therapeutic teacher”, where a teacher’s role goes beyond that of a facilitator of learning and is evolving into a role of nurture, safety and self-awareness.
The therapeutic teacher can identify that a child’s basic need for love, acceptance and security have to be met before academic learning can occur. They recognise that their role is to first teach children how to understand their feelings, emotions and behaviours and how to navigate through social situations. They know that a child who is self-aware and has good emotional intelligence and who feels safe and accepted will flourish in their class, and will be ready to learn and be able to participate in school life.
By becoming therapeutic in your approach and by learning some basic techniques with regard to language and responses, you can feel empowered and equipped to tackle mental health and wellbeing in your own classrooms day-to-day. Children struggle with so many different issues in school, such as emotional regulation, behaviour, peer relationship skills, hyperactivity, self-esteem and a sense of self – all of which has an impact on their ability to fully participate in school and get the best from it.
Try these techniques to begin to make a difference and help tackle some of these underlying issues.
The art of listening
Often when children talk to us we are not actually listening. We respond with off-hand comments like “Oh I am sure it will be okay”, “Don’t worry about it”, “Sarah does like you”, or “I have told you to ignore him”. These comments actually shut down a child who might be trying to work through something they are finding difficult and fails to recognise that they are really asking for help.
With 30 children in an average classroom it is difficult to be available and present to everyone when they are trying to talk. However, it is important to be attuned to those moments when a child is asking for your guidance with an emotionally challenging situation.
When a child is talking to you about feelings (angry, hurt, upset, frustrated, alone), behaviours (hurting others, aggressive behaviour, hiding, running away), or relationships (falling out with peers, feeling left out, not joining in, struggling to connect with others) it is important you try to be as available as you can for a few moments to help support them through this.
These issues might seem like something you want to move past quickly but, actually, these are the perfect opportunities to teach the children important life-skills that relate to their wellbeing and mental health.
Eye contact: When a child is taking to you/or you are talking to them about their behaviour, make sure you are giving them a lot of eye contact. Developing their emotional intelligence by allowing them to see your facial expressions, feel your connection to them and understand the importance of being fully present when they talk to others.
Stop what you are doing: Be mindful about what your body is doing when you are talking to a child, are you still fiddling with paperwork? Or helping another child with something? Are you distracted? If so, then you are silently communicating to the child that their situation is not significant enough for your attention. For an already vulnerable child this will confirm their belief that they are not valued and will contribute to their low self-esteem.
Sense of worth: Turn your body to them, come down to their level, stop what you are doing and if someone interrupts you say: “I am just helping X to figure something out, this is important so I will be with you in a moment.” Keep this brief without discussion so the child you are dealing with knows they have your attention. This increases their sense of worth and teaches them that it is important to pay attention to our feelings.
Use a calm caring tone: Whatever the situation, always use a calm tone when dealing with any issue relating to behaviour, feelings or relationships. A calm, friendly tone will instantly calm the child’s brain and reduce the stress hormones, allowing their rational brain to light up and begin to listen to your guidance. A raised voice, sharp tone and hard facial expressions will trigger their self-protection mode and shut-down the part of the brain that allows them to listen, reflect and reason, making learning impossible.
Children cannot name or recognise their feelings without your support. For vulnerable children it is likely that parents have been unable to teach children the basic skills for identifying feelings. As a result children are often confused by their feelings – sometimes they misread them for hunger and tummy aches, sometimes children assume every feeling is happy, sad or angry.
Expand their language. Print out a list of different feeling words (you can find one on my website). Incorporate these words in to your day-to-day communication with the children. The more words you use to describe their feelings, your feelings and the feelings of the people in the topics your teaching in school, the more they will begin to recognise those feelings in themselves. In addition, ensure you use reflective language. Every time a child displays a behaviour or response that is linked to their feelings (angry, disappointed, frustrated, anxious, nervous, embarrassed) tell them.
The trick to therapeutic teaching is that you can recognise that a child needs support with their self-awareness, and when a child finds something difficult it is an opportunity for you to teach them about themselves.
Use reflective language regularly with the children. Here is the method: 1. Use their name 2. Reflect their feeling back to them 3. Reflect their behaviour back to them.
Use this technique in every single situation you can and before any sanction, conversation or solution is given. This will increase their awareness of what their feelings are and how those feelings feel:
- Sarah you are feeling frustrated, I can tell because your turning your body away from me.
- Fahad, you are very angry right now, that is why you want to break things.
- Timmy, your feeling anxious about the new routine, you are not sure what to do.
- Emily, you are feeling disappointed that you didn’t win, I can tell because you’ve gone quiet.
8 November 2018 Written originally for Head Teachers Update magazine