Developing the role of the school in supporting mental health provision

Tim Cook writes about some of the ways teachers can help their pupils with mental health.

As the New Year brings with it new resolutions and new hopes, the need for more effective mental health provision to help vulnerable children can surely not have been more acute.

The scale of the problem is significant. The charity YoungMinds identifies that 850,000 children across the United Kingdom are diagnosed with a mental health condition. It is reasonable to assume that many more children have symptoms of mental health conditions and are, as yet, undiagnosed.

As reported by The Guardian newspaper, in response to their survey of CAHMS psychiatrists, 7 out of 10 doctors consider the service offered by CAHMS to be inadequate. The leading counselling charity ‘The Place to Be’ identify how so many of the children who benefit from their counselling have many other factors which make them vulnerable (e.g. Pupil Premium status, recent bereavement or are subject to a Child Protection Plan). For many children, this issue is a very real one.

Of course, mental health needs have always existed in schools as in society. Researchers have for years identified the mental health needs of those within the secure estate, for example. However, Heads/Principals are increasingly facing the need to deal with these issues in the mainstream sector.

Some relatively simple steps to ease pupils’ anxiety can be taken to ensure high quality provision within the school context.

Know your starting position. Make sure you have access to some form (if not several) of measure of analysing a child’s confidence. Schools can make easy use of Strength/Difficulty questionnaires; purchase Pupil Attitude to Self and School surveys or train colleagues to implement Boxall Profiles or Thrive analysis. Ideally, a teacher should be able to map a child’s confidence as easily as they can map their academic performance.

Employ a counsellor. Ideally, schools will be able to find the budget to look at this option – most likely out of Pupil Premium allocation. It should be noted that bids can be made to Children in Need to support counselling within schools for up to £10,000.

Act as a centre for therapists to build training hours. Often under the supervision of a more qualified colleague, various organisations are open to schools hosting placements without cost. Play Therapy UK, for example, provides therapists within schools following appropriate checks.

Be open to working with ‘sister’ organisations. There are often local and well qualified family workers who work for reputable organisations such as the Church or volunteer musical groups. Our school benefits from relaxation sessions from such partnerships where children work with professional and qualified colleagues on a voluntary basis. Often, great people are there just waiting to be asked!

Identify an appropriate home for the elderly. Where children phone or visit older folk, they can build esteem, confidence and attendance – as they know people are relying on them. Some nervous children have blossomed working over a term with older folk, some of whom have the early onset of dementia.

Find some safe animals. Many schools are on the waiting list for Pets-as-Therapy, but schools can be pro-active about working with other animals. The wonder of watching an upset child being soothed by stroking a rabbit, or an angry learner calm down whilst staring at the fish tank is something which never fails to amaze.

Pupil Premium Plus money can reasonably be used to take children on horse riding lessons, again to build confidence and esteem. Again, local sanctuaries are often all too willing to share their time, expertise and animals. Schedules for especially vulnerable learners to work with animals can be devised where they get to support animals, often on a very cost efficient basis.

Complement such measures with keynote events, such as celebrating Children’s Mental Health Week (6-12th February), and over time such measures can help contribute to a positive ethos.

It goes without saying that all Safer Recruitment checks have to be carried out in the usual fashion as colleagues who come into the school are likely to find themselves in positions of trust. This should be standard practice.


Simply put, teachers have known for generations that if anxiety can be reduced, children learn better. In academic terminology, Professor Hattie identifies the reduction of anxiety as having a significantly positive effect (0.36-0.4), with greater impact still for play programmes and formalised psychotherapy work. Where full counselling occurs, ‘Place to Be’ identify that in 64% of cases, classroom learning improved after counselling provision occurred.

It is reasonable to assert that implementing positive mental health measures will have a positive impact on achievement. In moral terms, we owe it to our most vulnerable children to offer what support we can.


Dr Tim Cook is Principal of Liskeard Hillfort Primary School.

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  1. Time Travelling Teacher

    Mental health should be a much higher priority in our schools, and in our society as a whole. We will be wasting our time, however, if we try to implement any schemes where we focus on the mental health of children while at the same time teachers’ mental health is being systematically destroyed by our appalling culture of overwork and overwhelming pressure, which our students are witness to, and indeed part of. Not only are we not dealing with the mental health issues which children might arrive at school with, we are adding to, and even creating enormous problems for them once they are there.

  2. LaCatholicState

    Mental health must not be confused with legitimate unhappiness which many children experience because of unstable family life or ordinary life experiences. Seems to be a conflation of the two.  Teachers are limited in how they can cushion children from life outside school.

    What schools and state could have done, they didn’t.  They could have promoted stable marriage.  Now the child victims of this are partly their fault.

  3. Mental health is a serious issue.
    As for basic unhappiness with school life (influencing learning, absenteeism, poor behaviour, boredom, loneliness, higher stress levels, poorer engagement in school life, slower personal development, etc.) which is different from discussing MH issues, a better playtime environment/culture certainly has helped in many schools, as one part of a wider programme. 
    Not convinced? Try watching this

    Playtime is a significant 20% of the school day, which very few schools in this country take proper notice of, and with most children now only playing outside for less than an hour a day, compared with three times as much in the 1970s, much can be achieved at school to help improve childhood happiness. 
    Making the right improvements to the lunchtime offer, including increasing daily contact with nature, teaching and support staff training, a clear long-term action plan and a sound policy, will lead to better pupil engagement, fewer accidents, increased physical activity, less stress, improved self-regulation and creativity, increased self-confidence and improved learning, more happiness with school life and a great many other developmental benefits. 
    Best of all? It can be achieved at surprisingly little cost. The key to it all is the approach of the staff, led by the Headteacher and supported by the school community, including parents.

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