News that pupil mental health is school leaders’ number one wellbeing-related concern is, unfortunately, not a surprise to me.

Faced with daily concerns about the wellbeing of the children and young people they work with, headteachers, deputies, pastoral leads and all staff are asking themselves what can be done to address this issue, especially in times of financial strain and wider changes in Health and Social Care.

While the Department for Education has issued recent guidance, Mental Health and Behaviour in School, and the revised SEND Code of Practice now refers to Social, Emotional and Mental Health Needs, it is clear more needs to be done to better support those on the frontline.

The Key’s report highlights a number of school leaders’ concerns and all have an impact on a pupil’s emotional health and wellbeing.

Domestic violence, cyber bullying, bullying and obesity were among the top five most concerning issues for school leaders, however, it was pupil mental health that school leaders were most worried about.

What are the mental health needs schools may be concerned by?

Depression and anxiety are common areas of need, however there are a range of behaviours that may also be of concern, including: persistent and severe violence and aggression towards others, poor displays of empathy and compassion for peers and adults and complex issues such as self-harm, suicidal ideation and eating disorders.

What is particularly concerning for schools is the difficulty in accessing specialist help and advice, with schools reporting long waiting times for assessment appointments. Not every area has crisis access and school leaders are increasingly telling me the issues they see in the classroom are getting more complex and intransigent each year.

Preventing problems and addressing things early

Children will, throughout school, have times when they feel sad, angry or worried – recognising what’s “normal” and what requires more in-depth work can be tricky! High quality PSHE that focuses on making use of what works in developing pupil’s resilience to the adversities of life is the foundation of addressing mental health needs. So what can your school do?

– As part of PSHE provision, schools can adopt a range of evidence-informed programmes. Schools could explore options such as Resilient Playgrounds and Classrooms, Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies or the Olweus Anti-Bullying Programme

– Adopt a high-quality screening assessment and related further assessment tools to help identify the concerns as effectively as possible

– Attuned adults who notice what’s happening for children and are curious about their experiences are essential to addressing things early. The key-person approach from Early Years extended and adapted throughout school life, particularly for more vulnerable children, could be helpful

– If possible, offer on-site provision for children with social and emotional needs such as learning mentoring, nurture group-style provision or parenting programmes

– Draw on support provided by charities such as Place2be, through to local counselling, psychology and behaviour support services

What about when this isn’t enough?

Some staff tell me they are becoming more and more worried about managing risky situations without easy access to specialist services.

There are examples of schools developing approaches with partners in child and adolescent mental health that may be of interest to others, and digital approaches may be part of the way forward in terms of developing innovative and secure access to online support and consultation.

Support for staff

One of the most important findings from the survey, and one which cannot be overlooked, is the wellbeing of the school staff themselves.

School leaders are highlighting the negative impact of their role on their own emotional and social wellbeing; and there is no doubt pupil wellbeing also affects staff. Providing containing supervision that addresses the emotional impact of the work is essential, as is developing models of support that address the unique needs of heads and senior leadership teams.

Leaders may benefit from work discussion groups or collegial peer supervision and wellbeing activities like mindfulness, meditation and yoga.

Pupil mental health cannot be ignored. Schools will approach this in different ways, but I would suggest schools start this journey from within, to promote positive emotional wellbeing by asking staff what they might find most helpful or presenting a range of realistic options from which they could choose.

When staff feel more prepared and comfortable, the results start to show.