Think about impact of behaviour policies on mental health, heads told

New mental health guidance should make headteachers think hard about the impact “rigid” behaviour policies have on pupils, according to one of its contributors.

Non-statutory guidance released by the Department for Education on Monday urged schools to focus on how mental health problems could “manifest themselves in behaviour” and how to support pupils.

Mental health and behaviour in schools also says that schools should not try to diagnose any pupil’s mental health condition.

The guidance was put together by various parties, including the government’s behaviour adviser Tom Bennett and the Attachment Research Community (ARC).

Tony Clifford, a trustee at ARC, said the “zero-tolerance” behaviour strategy of some schools could be a challenge for pupils with mental illnesses.

The guidance was “an invitation to heads to consider the mental health of the child before operating a rigid strategy”. It includes a chapter dedicated to the “link between mental health and behaviour” and marks a change from the previous guidance, which was “much more medicalised” and encouraged schools to diagnose pupils, Clifford said.

Instead teachers should operate “positive classroom management” and use a “graduated response” to support struggling pupils.

Under the four-step process, schools should “instigate an assessment” to establish the pupil’s needs, produce a plan on how the pupil would be supported, action to carry that out, and a review to assess its effectiveness.

The guidance suggested two tools for assessing pupils, the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ) and the Boxall Profile.

But Natasha Devon, a former mental health adviser to the government, said she was worried teachers did not have the expertise or time to spot mental illness or to assess pupils.

“They are still essentially asking teachers to play therapists.”

She also cast doubt on the accuracy of the SDQ tool, which GPs use, saying pupils who were not depressed could be wrongly identified, while other mental illnesses were missed.

The guidance also said it was “normal” for children to feel nervous or under stress around exam time.

But Devon said the government was “blindingly unaware of how the pressure-cooker environment of school is impacting young people”.

Mental health support teams are due to be in place in schools “by December 2019”, but arrangements for designated mental health leads in schools have yet to be confirmed.

A DfE spokesperson said the guidance was intended as “practical advice” for schools, and the tools including the SDQ would not involve schools themselves making a diagnosis.