6th-12th February marks Children’s Mental Health Week, in a year when children’s mental health has featured in many worrying headlines. Despite the issue seeming gargantuan, there are things you and your school can do to promote self-esteem in young people, to cultivate self-awareness and help fend off the more serious issues early.
The charity Rethink Mental Illness advises that low self-esteem can point to conditions including (but not limited to) anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder and personality disorders.
Your first port of call should, of course, be the Mental Health Strategy of your school. Your Head, School Counsellor or inclusion officer will have a wealth of knowledge and evidence-based methods to cultivate an environment of mental health awareness in your school. Because it’s good to collaborate, our teachers have shared with us some other ideas happening in classrooms to promote positivity and foster a place for the children’s identities to thrive.
…in class using a questionnaire subscription such as Self-Image Profiles or a free download. Your school may have a previous process which needs to be refreshed. Benchmarking scores now allows you to (a) measure progress at the end of this school year (b) track their improvement up through their whole time in school (c) identify any surprising results for your children. Ask your Head for timetabled cover to assess these yourself.
Use PHSE and Circle Time well
This is an often lost subject amongst the assessed core and STEM requirements but is an excellent route to meta-cognition in the children which reaps rewards in the long-run. The PHSE association’s lesson plans on Mental Health are available to download on their site and also easy to navigate on Leicestershire’s Healthy Schools.
Goleman (1996), found that people with high self-awareness also have high emotional intelligence and consequently, they don’t allow their emotions to rule them. Many schools start with a sequence of lessons intended for children to understand their minds, emotions and how to recognise mental stress in themselves. As with many incentives, the best results invariably come from actions and verbal reinforcement integrated into daily classroom culture. John Tomsett, Headteacher at Huntingdon School says: “If we can create a school culture where young people can understand their own minds, where they realise that they don’t have to believe everything they think, and where everyone is aware of children’s mental health in the same way we are cognisant of their physical health, then we can turn the tidal wave of mental health problems and avert this oft-proclaimed crisis”.
Integrate alternative opportunities to shine
Your aim here is to create situations that allow them to regularly experience success so that when there are failures, it’s not world-crushing. The transition questionnaires and games you did at the start of the year will yield information about their interests and areas of confidence. From this, you can devise lesson tasks to allow the less prominent class members to lead and showcase their strengths. Natasha Devon advises that some subjects serve as “coping mechanisms” for children such as music, PE and PSHE have been ‘squished out of the curriculum’. Your school may offer clubs and extra-curricular enrichment. Your school may have pupil premium funding to cover the cost for some children.
Play and learn outside
The Big Lottery Fund’s ‘Better Play Programme’, promoted the idea that outdoor play was critical to mental health because it promoted social cohesion and friendships and developed self-esteem. Creating opportunities for outdoor play also allows for mentoring: ‘Employing’ playtime buddies or an ICT helper for a lunchtime club. Pairing children with younger counterparts gives a sense of responsibility and chance for conversation. Your aim here is to allow a sense of ownership, so give them scope to invent activities.
Foster a sense of self-worth
…through mentoring by setting up reading partners. Partnered reading can be done by matching classes once a week. The National Literacy Trust recommend an age difference of 2 years. Match each child to a long-term partner in another class then swap half of yours (every other seat works well) with half of theirs once a week and allow 10 minutes for the children to read to each other each way at desks or on the floor, or in the corridor. Less confident readers can describe the pictures and plot instead.
Promote growth mindset
…by praising effort, not attainment. As well as debunking the idea of fixed intelligence, Growth Mindset also empowers a child to feel in control of their learning and their life. As a teacher, it’s very challenging to praise the effort instead of the achievement, but with practice it becomes more habitual. You could integrate this into your marking feedback. Promote Grit with verbal encouragement and celebration of wins after perseverance. For more on Grit and Growth Mindset, see our other articles.
Read to dogs
Programs such as Dogs Helping Kids, Read 2 Dogs and Bark and Read, where visiting dogs listen patiently to a reader, have been shown to significantly improve self-confidence in vulnerable children. It allows a sense of achievement for children and the chance to build new relationships. The presence of an animal is an incredibly soothing leveller.
Ensure end of year transfer meetings are face-to-face
Children giving you even the smallest of concern need to be passed up to the next teacher will full explanation and handover, or all the observations and opportunities created in each academic year can be lost. Ask your Head to facilitate the meetings in covered time and bring in next year’s NQTs as well as any job share teachers for these meetings to happen. They are critical.
Prioritise your own mental health
You can’t put children first if you’re putting the teacher last. There is plenty of advice about mental wellbeing for teachers, but the pivotal factor is your acceptance that you need to refill your cup in order to pour out into the cups of others. Mental Health in schools commentator Tom Bennett indicated that workload and time management have affected teacher wellbeing such that children can become ‘anonymous’ – resulting in subtle warning clues of a child’s problem being missed. If you are finding that your working week is consistently encroaching on your evenings, weekend and home life, you need to agree with your Head how to lessen your workload and responsibility. If you don’t feel supported in reducing your workload to sustainable levels, it might be time for you to consider another workplace.
These suggestions are just a starting point to help you scaffold the children on their learning journey. The most effective activities are not intended to boost to self-esteem, rather they contribute to a durable foundation of ‘self’, on which a child can build their sustainable self-worth and resilience.
What other resources and strategies do you use?
About the author
Katie Newell BA(Hons) PGCE is an ex-primary school teacher, Head of Maths, Head of Year five and languages specialist. Katie qualified in Psychology at Liverpool then specialised in Primary Languages for her PGCE at Reading. Before teaching, Katie was a financial commentator and is now the Content Manager for eteach.com and fejobs.com. Katie feels passionately that teachers are the unsung heroes of society; that opening minds to creative timetabling could revolutionise keeping women in teaching, and that a total change to pupil feedback is the key to solving the work life balance issue for the best job in the world.