How schools can support pupil mental health

A mental health strategy in schools requires deliberate planning and clear thinking about building strong character.

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of celebrating my two sons’ birthdays- 21 and 23. My speech at the do was difficult but necessary. Before me stood a group of young 20 somethings, who had their whole lives ahead of them. I wanted to convey the tough journey my boys had to endure having tragically lost their father at a young age. Their loss, their trauma, their history has never defined them, I said. For that I am very proud. They have never used their heart-breaking past to excuse their behaviour. Instead, they have sought to develop strategies to help them make sense of their world. We talk. They continue to try to be better each and every day. I ended the speech with some of my hopes for the future. I wished that everyone would strive to be more compassionate not only towards each other but more importantly towards themselves. It is only when you hone these skills can you learn to be hopeful for the future and have a chance to endure difficulties that you are sure to experience in adulthood. How well you can deal with the ups as well as the downs in life defines your character. As Kipling said, ‘If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster. And treat those two imposters just the same… you’ll be a Man my son!’


As we approach Mental Health Awareness Week, I have been reflecting on the work I have seen schools undertake to tackle pupils’ personal development over the last couple of years. It has been a mixed bag. Some schools have ‘ticked the box’ by having sessions on mental health in the PSHE programme or in assemblies. I have also seen some excellent thought and deliberate planning around tackling mental health. Schools that have brought everyone together to reflect on what the past 30 months have meant for pupils have started an important journey of repair and rejuvenation for the school community. Resolving the fact that there is nothing that can be done about the past but there is a lot that can be done about how we face the present and the future, is a helpful approach. That is what we have control over. As educators, we can play an enormous role in helping pupils navigate the ups and downs in their life. We can play a huge part in shaping their characters and how they can respond to life’s events.

Positive mindset

Research suggests that there has been a growing number of pupils reporting high levels of anxiety. This has been especially true in the lead up to the first closed examinations since Lockdown. What we do know is that anxiety over exams or any other stressful situation is not new. Social media and school closures may have exacerbated the stressful experience, but these anxieties have been experienced by generations before. Helping pupils to embrace the stress and acknowledge the feelings as normal have got to be deliberate strategies in schools. In one primary school I work with, the headteacher said the pupils breezed through the SATS tests because teachers had encouraged pupils to ‘show off’ in the test. A positive mindset pervaded the school. Mindfulness exercises helped pupils to take control of their worries. Pupils learnt to help themselves and each other. They were compassionate. Sound preparations and a rounded education meant that pupils could put the tests into perspective. Pupils are more likely to achieve well when they feel happy in themselves, and the culture of learning is positive.

In the schools where teachers’ own anxieties permeate the classrooms, where the sword of Damocles appeared to hang over their heads during exam periods, pupils did not cope well in the tests. High rates of melt downs and absences were reported. Children behave and deal with problems in the way the adults around them do. When schools returned, some teachers rightly felt sorry for their pupils. For some this meant excusing poor behaviour, loosening rules and letting standards slide. In my experience, this is not a helpful approach. More than ever pupils need clear boundaries and certainty. Wavy lines serve to hinder their road to recovery and readjustment.

Self-help development

Many years ago, as an assistant headteacher, I came across a mental health organisation that gave some helpful guidance for teenage pupils experiencing difficulties. One of the tips included asking the question: on a scale of 1-10, where 10 is death, where does this problem lie? Pupils were given inspirational quotes and mental health tips to keep in their blazer pocket. I noticed pupils using the statements with one another when someone was finding work difficult, or they were feeling sad. It strikes me that schools should consider developing self-help skills among pupils more, so that pupils can help themselves and each other in times of difficulty. Mental health pupil ambassadors can be highly effective when deployed well. Also, those schools that regularly invite visitors or their staff to share their stories of triumph over adversity can be hugely inspirational for pupils.

Developing compassion and a broader world view

Professor Lord Layard, from the LSE and previous well-being adviser to the government has offered a number of strategies which he suggests might support mental health in schools and in society. Significantly, he points to the impact of social media in creating a very inward-looking mindset. This, he believes, is very toxic and unhelpful to developing strong mental health. Schools should, in his opinion, work hard to develop pupils’ compassion and empathy skills with the wider world. For example, putting them in touch with children like them but from the developing world. In short, helping pupils to be less focused on themselves and more on others, perhaps less fortunate than themselves. By developing a broader world view, pupils may gain perspective and be less affected by the narrowness of the opinions on social media. In my work with schools, I have deliberately encouraged pastoral coordinators to open discussions with pupils about what they have seen or heard on social media. Getting to know who their pupils’ social media influencers are, may give leaders insight into the prevailing attitudes and perspectives to challenge. This, alongside a well-thought-out programme of social, political and economic awareness raising, may well help to strengthen pupils’ mental fortitude in the long-term.

Failure is learning

I am the author of a national award on resilience in schools. Among the many short and impactful strategies I advocate, is to actively encourage pupils to take on challenges. These promote the notion that failure is learning. Most schools acknowledge that developing pupils’ resilience is an important core aim for a pupils’ personal development. The pandemic has increased the prevalence of the ‘helicopter’ or ‘lawn-mower’ parenting approach. This is when adults around the child ‘clears the path’, preventing children from experiencing difficulties and even failure. This may take the form of having no winners at sports day, not revealing attainment grades or simply not exposing pupils to any risk in the playground. In my view, this is not helpful for children. As educators we have an important job to help children manage risk, deal with setbacks and failure and be better each and every day. Being upset that you have lost in a competition, or not achieved as well as you would have liked or not climbed to highest point on the climbing frame like your friends are important character-building experiences. What makes those experiences detrimental and toxic, is when the adults and children around you do not praise the effort and encourage perseverance. When there is ridicule, bullying and catastrophic mentalities, that’s when risk taking can be harmful.

Multi-layered success

A successful mental health strategy in schools is multi-layered. Of course staff must be vigilant to those requiring specialist support but for the majority, the approach should at least contain the following elements:

  • A strong character education, which is consistently supported in and out of class
  • Teachers who advocate resilience and self-help
  • Teachers who let pupils know that finding things difficult is part of life; failing is learning and setbacks are there to be overcome.
  • Firm but fair boundaries
  • Trained pupil ambassadors
  • Training for staff to help them use the language of resilience in interactions with pupils
  • A culture where risk-taking is the norm
  • A pastoral curriculum that develops pupils’ world view – their understanding of the world beyond their immediate surroundings to help them know about people less fortunate than themselves.
  • Dedicated times when pupils can talk about their worries, their fears and their internet usage without judgement.
  • Giving pupils regular examples of people who have triumphed over adversity
  • A positive learning environment

To download your free mental health tip sheet to put up in the staff room.

If you think you and your team could benefit from further support concerning mental health and well-being, contact us today to start a conversation.




Please share this post