The age of the therapeutic school is upon us. Schools across England are changing practices and introducing a more reflective, whole-school, therapeutic approach to education.
We are aware that the number of children struggling with ACEs (adverse childhood experiences) and childhood trauma is rising. We are also aware of the negative effects of social media and technology. We know children spend less time playing and less time outdoors. The impact of just these few factors alone is significant.
Do your classrooms, teaching styles and lessons reflect this? There are many ways in which we can begin to change things and refocus the learning objectives we have for our children with an emphasis on emotional wellbeing and mental health. Ask yourself: is the children’s emotional wellbeing and mental health a priority at your school? If so, what are you doing to teach them that it should be their priority too? Here are some ideas for supporting children in learning about and valuing their own emotional and mental health.
Traditionally homework is given to encourage children to continue their learning and develop their skills outside of school. Often children get writing, spellings, maths, reading and homework sheets related to topics they might be doing. I invite you to change the focus of this once a month and issue “wellbeing homework”. Issuing homework around a child’s emotional wellbeing communicates that it is important to you as a school that they develop their skillset around healthy mindsets, happiness and wellbeing. It also communicates to parents that this is a key developmental area for children and helps to get them involved.
Having a positive mindset which focuses on achievement, overcoming difficulties and self-belief is essential for good mental health growing up. It is important that we teach children how to regulate their emotions, notice their feelings, control their thought patterns and feel empowered (even when things are hard). These lessons are not innate, they have to be taught.
The homework should start with a brief paragraph or factsheet about the topic you are choosing to focus on (for example, mindset). You could then set a challenge, a worksheet or an activity they need to complete (free homework sheets can be found on my website). For example:
This weekend note down anything that was difficult and what you did to overcome it, take control, calm down or see the positive side.
Tonight before bed close your eyes and repeat to yourself “I can do anything I set my mind to” three times.
List three things you are grateful for.
We challenge you to do a meditation every night this weekend and then write about whether it made you feel better (provide a meditation for them to do. Again see the free resources on my website).
This weekend, go for a walk in the park and notice three things in nature that create a feeling of calm.
Can you write a therapeutic story? You could do this with somebody you live with and share ideas for a good calming story.
If you feel yourself getting angry or frustrated this weekend, your homework is to take four deep breaths and control your feelings. Later when you are alone, do a short meditation to help you calm your brain.
Take some time in the class to discuss the homework as a reflective tool. You could even use some of the homework challenges as the focus for a classroom session to continue the learning at school.
When I visit schools I see the same classroom incentives – behaviour charts, reward charts, lollypops in tubs for good work and team house achievements. Most of these focus on something the teachers feel is an important trait, such as good teamwork, behaving appropriately, listening, sitting well, completing work on time, doing their best hand-writing.
I rarely see incentives to praise and encourage the children to practise healthy mindsets or good emotional wellbeing skills. Try using these as a focus point for their classroom incentives.
Have a “calm brain” jar or sticker chart. Add marbles or stickers for the children who are trying to regulate their feelings and take control of their emotions. Explain that sometimes we have big feelings and it is important to begin to take control of them. Let them know that this is an important skill we should be developing.
Ask them to begin to focus on keeping their brain calm and not allowing their frustration and anger to take over. When you introduce this incentive, discuss with them some strategies to help calm their brain, such as taking deep breaths, going somewhere quiet to calm down, asking for a kind adult to help them calm down, going to read a book, talking to a friend or sitting outside and looking at the plants.
Watch the children throughout the day and reward those children who begin to use these methods to regulate their emotions. Ask them to look out for their friends and recommend peers who should receive a reward for trying hard to regulate their emotions or who helps others calm down. This will communicate to the children that the ability to regulate ourselves is important and something the school values as a skillset. It will also begin to give them strategies for life.
Remember to introduce any new incentives to the children at the start of a new term and explain your expectations clearly.
Expanding on the point above, often a headteacher’s award, if you have such things, focus on attendance and behaviour. However, if you want to become more therapeutic in your approach it is important to show that as a head you want to see children working on their wellbeing, mental health and mindset.
A good idea would be to have the teaching staff tell you which children have got the most rewards in the “calm brain” initiative (see above) each week or half-term. Those children could be given a Headteacher’s Wellbeing Award and this would be read out in assembly.
Note that children struggling with low self-esteem, attachment disorder or their emotional wellbeing may self-sabotage so that they do not get any award (because they do not believe they are worthy). As such, do not put too much focus on “winning” the award. Eliminate phrases like “you need to behave this week if you want to get the headteacher’s award”.
Instead, give marbles as and when a behaviour has been seen as an immediate reward. This eliminates the feeling of having to work toward it and not believing they will achieve it. Praise them only in the moment so that there is no build-up or expectation. The same is true for both the headteacher award and the calm brain initiative.
“Wow, you just counted to three and walked away from that situation, come and put a marble in the jar”
“Jack, I just saw you go and help Farah calm down, come and put a marble in the jar”