In Part 1:
I described how children have been affected by Covid-19 and tried matching this with the Maslow model. I explained that establishing positive mental health will mean recreating pleasure in the physical world, building the happiness that only people bring and finding again the lack of purpose and direction which young people have currently lost.
Together this trilogy of hope could create stronger mental habits for pupils and a stronger framework that we can turn to when things get tough.
One of the hardest things in supporting children’s mental health in schools is knowing how much time to invest in the urgent daily demands, and how much time to spend on getting the long-term needs right – when to be reactive and when to plan ahead. Covid-19 arrives and the government reacts. And then the country reacts. It’s all reaction.
So it’s a time in schools when we need calm heads to do our best long term thinking. I’d rather trust this to school leaders leading with the deep knowledge of their children than the DFE or the government. Our Heads are in the game. And we have the minds and the hearts to make this work.
On the one hand, responding quickly to the flood of mental health needs is key for the effective running of the school day. We’ve all experienced times where we are drowning in referrals and where families need support fast. On the other hand, if this is all that we do, then every day unravels in this vein, an unplanned, unachievable to-do list and no sense of a future plan.
Healthy schools require both: people with the skills to get through urgent priorities fast, and time set aside to take stock, prioritise and plan well ahead.
The key question is: how do we know when to do which?
Dan Heath calls this separation of long and short-term problems ‘Upstream’ and ‘Downstream‘, after the classic public health parable:
In this story, a witness sees a man caught in a river current. The witness saves the man, only to see more drowning people float past. After more rescue attempts, the witness stops and walks upstream to investigate what’s going on. “What are you doing?” He is asked. “I’m going to tell them to stop pushing people in.”
The story, credited to Irving Zola, shows us that most of us are more willing to respond to dramatic emergencies instead of preventing the crisis in the first place. People who save the day, or rescue us are often praised in our last-minute culture. Psychologist Daniel Gilbert believes that this preoccupation with the immediate is inbuilt into the human genetic make-up, part of the defensive, reptilian brain protecting us from Jurassic dinosaur danger.
One way to mitigate this human trait for the urgent, is to create space in the system. Some hospitals use a ‘safety huddle’, where staff meet to review ‘near misses’. The medical author Atul Gawande describes the ‘checklist’ approach in hospitals used as a prelude to operations where all staff can call out problems, breaking the medical, male hierarchy of silence so long stifling the profession. Matthew Evans describes brilliantly here what he calls the ‘looseness’ we should plan into our schools, the necessary slack in the system which prevents breakdown, and which Covid-19, and repeated directives from the DFE, threatens:
“The need for heroism is usually evidence of systems failure.” Dan Heath
But because of the poor track record of successive governments on mental health, schools are used to ‘last minute’. Headteachers have faced shortages of Education Psychologists for a decade, two thirds of councils have cut their CAMHS (Child and Adult Mental Health Services) and since 2010 and the maximum waiting time for mental health appointments has doubled. Even the recent positive investment in the Trailblazer programme, where Education Mental Health Practitioners support schools with self-harm advice, will only reach a quarter of school children by 2023.
In fact, we could argue that in mental health we’re so far ‘downstream’ we are almost out to sea. So the impact of Covid-19 on children’s mental health described in Part 1 will bring greater demands and more referrals. Of that we can be sure.
And unless we plan carefully, this will condition our thinking around mental health to be more short term, more ‘downstream’, more last minute. And of course there just won’t be enough money in the system to throw at the needs, so we will need to do this differently.
Therefore the pyramid is not an assessment of a child’s urgent need, but a different ‘Maslow’ starting point for some ‘upstream’ thinking about mental health based on our experience of the last few months.
Here is how we could help children develop the following three attributes:
1/ Pursuing Pleasure – Exploration defeats Isolation
Part of the risk assessment of children returning to school is teaching hand washing and social distancing. And in the wake of scenes of packed British beaches, they need to take responsibility for unsupervised social distancing (on the way to school, in the community). More curriculum time for PE will give children outside time, and encourage families to continue to prioritise daily exercise. Remember, by limiting exercise to once a day, the government inadvertently raised the value of physical activity. (I write more about this here). More time for the wider Creative Arts (art, music, drama, design, crafts, hobbies, beauty) will promote mental health and reduce stress. Teaching about the balance between the online and the real world, phones and technology, will give clearer guidance about how children and adults need to self-regulate.
2/ Fixing People – Love over Loneliness
We seem to measure everything else in schools, and right now we need a sound way to judge how children are doing mentally. A school with a culture of strong mental health is where you know that there is no shame in admitting you are struggling, and that staff and students are there for you. Children need to have a platform to describe feeling down, anxious, uncertain. Structured ‘time-to-talk’ can promote strong habits of mind, using resources (such as Young Minds here and edpsy.org.uk here to help them deal with feeling down.
In assemblies and PSHE programmes we need to teach healthy friendships with a focus on developing a few close friends, not searching followers and likes. We should create time in the RE and ‘Personal’ curriculum for practising gratitude and acts of kindness. A school with a culture of strong mental health knows that there is no shame in admitting that you are struggling, and that staff and students are there for you. The development of a ‘staff well-being charter’ can send a real message to the whole school community that you are serious about everyone’s mental well-being.
3/ Finding Purpose – Direction not Uncertainty
Guidance towards future goals creates direction, especially for families now worried about the cost of university (especially disadvantaged pupils, under more pressure to get into employment quickly). Completed pupil work needs to be acknowledged and further challenging tasks set so they feel valued and gain a pride in self. A strong reading programme (in school and online) develops independent readers who can draw on that wider network of wisdom from authors, with their own experience of traumatic life events. And a brilliant Character Ed programme can foster independent habits of mind and will develop real self-confidence (more on Building Character in my next post).
So I’ve tried to use pleasure, people and purpose as simple destinations for mental health. I think this can help plan where we are headed as a school, how we share our thinking with parents and how we will walk our pupils through the next challenging six months.
Who knows, it might also help move us ‘up-river’.