Mary Taylor makes a plea for more effective emotional health support.
We have the evidence to help us to understand the importance of building emotional health in our developing young. What we need now are the policies and practices to enable this. We need training for all adults around children and young people, and programmes to work in partnership with parents and carers in a shared approach. We are lucky to have such a wealth of evidence now about child development, about how young brains continue to develop through childhood, into the teenage years and beyond. Now we need to share this as training and to embed it in policies. We need to work together—home and school—in non-judgemental partnership, for the very best for each child.
Addressing the emotional health needs of all pupils is crucial if they are going to be able to attend school regularly and engage in their learning. We know that a child who is experiencing too much stress, or too high a sensory input, or language which is too complicated for their stage of development, is unable to access the parts of the brain needed for sustained learning. In addition to this, their difficult feelings when faced with these inappropriate expectations often lead to behaviours which are received as challenging, or to anxieties which can get in the way of feeling able to go to school at all.
We need to ensure that there is a proper understanding of child development, of speech and language difference, of neurodiversity, and of sensory needs. Adults can then model this understanding to other children too—so that young people (and indeed their families) aren’t labelled as rude, troublemakers or neglectful in some way. We need to model empathy, co-regulation, curiosity. (“I can see something is really upsetting you”, “I’m wondering what might help you right now?” “I’m here to help”)
These are also important approaches for all pupils—part of an emotionally healthy environment which benefits everyone, which is non-judgemental, enabling, supportive, boundaried, kind, safe. We do our best learning when we feel psychologically safe. This isn’t just about how we are treated—how people relate to us—but also what we see around us—how others are treated in front of us. Modelling a kind, psychologically safe, relational approach is crucial to allowing everyone to access their best learning. Learning how to self-regulate is a lifetime’s job—we can always learn more about how we can do that for ourselves, and how we can support those around us through offering co-regulation.
Imagine how a pupil who struggles to self-regulate in the classroom might be viewed by the other pupils—are they seen as a trouble-maker, or someone who takes up all the teacher’s time or distracts others from learning? Or are they seen as someone who needs help with managing some overwhelming feelings, or a bit of time and space to calm themselves?
The responses from the adults in the classroom will be the deciding factor here. For example, during the following break-time out in the playground, will the child be shunned, whispered about or teased? Or will someone ask them how they are doing, or if they’d like to join in a game, or say “well done” for asking for help when they needed it?
As the adults around children and young people, we create the culture, the lived experience, the values. We can enable an emotionally healthy development for all or we can disable it. We can offer kindness, curiosity, empathy and co-regulation (along with boundaries “to keep everyone safe”) or we can offer judgement, punishment, shame and guilt. (“you have made a bad choice”, “you are a naughty child” or “you have made me sad”).
The vitality and sustainability of any society depends on the extent to which it provides opportunities early in life for all children to achieve their full potential and engage in responsible and productive citizenship.
Mary Taylor is the Head of Programmes at the Family Links the Centre for Emotional Health.