The Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) code of practice will give schools the impetus to review their approaches to supporting mental health.

About one in 10 school-aged children has a clinically diagnosable mental health disorder. Many of these difficulties will still be apparent in adulthood, with estimates suggesting that around half of all adult mental illness begins in childhood. With this in mind, it is appropriate that the new SEND code of practice, and supporting guidance Mental Health and Behaviour in Schools, reinforces the link between behaviour and unmet mental health needs, and emphasises the role of schools in identifying and supporting children’s mental health.

The revised code came into force in September with “social, emotional and mental health difficulties” replacing the previous category of “behaviour, emotional and social development”. This new emphasis on mental health directs schools to consider the unmet social, emotional and mental health needs that can underpin many behaviours, and shape responses accordingly. For the first time, the code names potential mental health difficulties such as, “anxiety or depression, self-harm, substance misuse, eating disorders and physical symptoms that are medically unexplained”.

What does this mean in practice? The implications for schools are twofold: first, to promote positive mental health for all pupils through universal approaches; second, to identify and offer targeted support for those experiencing challenges to their mental health.

In promoting positive mental health for all, the guidance acknowledges the key role that schools can play in developing resilience. Definitions of resilience invariably refer to a capacity to cope with challenge and adversity, with recent research suggesting that qualities such as perseverance, curiosity, conscientiousness and optimism are also included.

In addition to resilience, having a sense of connectedness or belonging is another recognised protective factor for mental health; school may be the only environment where some pupils have the opportunity to experience this.

Schools will need clear processes to identify risk factors and signs of emerging mental health problems

In light of the new legislation, schools may need to spend some time reviewing their whole school approaches for supporting mental health by asking: “How does the school ethos and universal approaches, including PSHE delivery, promote mental wellbeing, limit the impact of risk, and strengthen resilience?”

Second, the new legislation sets out the responsibility of teachers and school staff to support children who are at risk of developing mental health problems. Some reports suggest that young people with mental health problems are slipping through the net as many adults lack confidence in their ability to spot the signs of common difficulties such as anxiety and depression.

As part of a graduated approach, schools will need clear processes to identify risk factors and signs of emerging mental health problems. A starting point may be to review their CPD requirements so they are equipped with the confidence and skills to understand risk and resilience factors, and to identify and meet the emerging mental health challenges of pupils in their care.

Following identification, pupils with additional mental health needs may need targeted support. Schools should consider a range of strategies including access to counselling and pastoral support, small group work to promote social skills, confidence and self-esteem, and working with parents/carers. Of course, teachers and school staff are not expected to be mental health specialists and an important part of the graduated approach is knowing when and how to access specialist mental health input.

It is reported that one of the greatest predictors of success and happiness in adulthood is not academic achievement, but positive mental health in childhood. The SEND code of practice acknowledges the vital role that schools can play in strengthening mental health for all pupils. It urges schools to recognise the risk factors, to intervene early before serious problems occur, and to support children to develop the inner resources they need to enable them to thrive into adulthood.

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Paula Nagel is Principal Education Psychologist (NOAD) for Place2be