How can teachers understand emotional disturbance?


Investment in staff training holds the key to identifying and working with children with emotional and behavioural difficulties

The Children’s Plan describes the 21st century school as one which, “without compromising on its core mission of educating children to their full potential, contributes with others to all aspects of a child’s well-being, with a focus on early identification and prevention”. In practice, says the DCSF guidance, this is about having “a supportive school ethos characterised by staff modeling positive behaviour, valuing each child as an individual and systematically promoting children’s social and emotional development, including children’s self respect and respect for others”. On the way to this ambitious vision for schools we have seen the Behaviour Improvement Programme (BIP), including behaviour and education support teams (BEST), a statutory duty on schools to promote wellbeing, Healthy Schools, SEAL and now Targeted Mental Health in Schools (TaMHS). Education has certainly taken seriously the message that mental health is everybody’s business and that schools have a vital part to play in improving mental health and psychological wellbeing for all children and young people.

A few years ago at a Healthy Schools conference, where guidance on emotional well-being and participation was being launched, a very experienced teacher said something to me in the coffee break that he felt unable to voice in the open conference. He said, in effect, that teachers understood very well that children’s emotional well-being was central to their capacity to learn and to their behaviour in school. He acknowledged that there was no conceptual conflict between a focus on attainment and a focus on mental health and well-being; the one supports the other. But, he added, many teachers chose to deny this because they didn’t feel that they had the time, knowledge, skills and support to allow them to accept responsibility for it. While intellectually accepting the “everybody’s business” logic they acted on the “somebody else’s business” principle for fear of being overwhelmed by issues they felt ill equipped to deal with. This is one of the most compelling cases for good training that I have heard.

Imagine how different things would be if everyone working in schools felt able to promote mental health and psychological well-being, recognise early indicators of mental health problems and provide effective support: different for the ten per cent (that’s three in an average class) of children who, research tells us, have a diagnosable mental disorder. Different also for all children and young people in school and for all school staff and for parents and carers. The 21st century school would be more emotionally containing, more supportive, more fun to be part of and a better place in which to work and learn. The potential is there for a step change in the emotional well-being of both the children and the adults who make up the school community. If this sounds ambitious, it is. If it sounds unrealistic, it’s not, and the evidence for this can be seen in those schools that have already seen the transformational change that thoughtful, whole school approaches to emotional well-being can make possible.

What  is unrealistic is to expect staff to engage with this agenda in the absence of training. Unless staff feel confident and competent, unless they are enabled and supported to look after their own emotional well-being and to work effectively with colleagues in social services, child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) and other services, the 21st century school will remain a fantasy.  The independent review of CAMHS in England, Children in Mind, recommended basic training in child development and mental health and psychological well-being for everyone working with children and young people, and a host of other reports and enquiries have made similar calls. Training is explicit in six of the points in YoungMinds’ Children and Young People’s Manifesto and implicit in the remaining five. It is a devastating criticism that so few of those working with children and young people have had any specific training in mental health when we know that around 20% of children will experience a mental health problem at some stage and, indeed, mental health is something we all have.

Calling for more training is easy. Making it a reality for practitioners who are already confronted with a huge array of other demands on their time and energies is much more complex. Some children’s trusts have invested in building local training capacity across services so that sustainable programmes are available for school staff to learn alongside their colleagues in social care, early years, youth work, primary health and other settings. It can be done. Some schools, either individually or as clusters, have invested in training to support their plans for primary to secondary transition or their work on behaviour management. There are good practice examples but they remain the exception rather than the rule.

My worry is this. Those who have not prioritised this training during times of comparative financial plenty are not likely to do so now, as we enter a period of significant public spending restraint. Even those who have shown real vision are likely to find it more difficult to sustain that in the harsher economic climate ahead. And yet, that very same climate is almost certain to increase the stresses on families and the need for effective action to promote emotional well-being.  Now is not the time to cut the training budget. Now is the very time when investment in training on mental health and psychological well-being is needed more than ever.

There are challenges here for training providers and for those commissioning training. Providers will have to become more responsive and creative in making training accessible. Commissioners have to be brave enough to sustain a case for training as an essential component of improved joint working and an integral part of service improvement. All of us have to think strategically and work collaboratively, ensuring that training really does add value. The cost of training will need to be assessed against the savings in improved behaviour and attendance (by both staff and pupils) and the long term reduction in the need for more specialist services. The benefits will accrue to schools and other agencies, and the planning and investment needs to be appropriately shared.

The goal is not about making school staff into mental health experts. It’s about raising awareness to the level where schools are able to promote mental health and emotional well-being, identify early those children with additional support needs and work together with other agencies to better meet those needs. To achieve this, staff must be supported and trained to look after their own emotional well-being as well as that of the children and young people they work with. There is no quick fix or cheap option that will do that, but good training can. It can enable schools and other services to better manage risk, build resilience, understand behaviour and contain anxiety and emotional distress with direct benefits for pupils and staff in both the short term and the longer term. If expediency leads us to turn our backs on what we know works, the capacity of children, families and professionals to cope with emotional difficulties is likely to become increasingly depleted over the next few years, and the 21st century school could turn out to be a pretty scary place for all involved.

Further information

Roger Catchpole is from the charity YoungMinds

Article first published in SEN Magazine issue 42: September/October 2009.

Roger Catchpole
Author: Roger Catchpole

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