Mental Health & SEN

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Headteacher Ben Levinson explains why we need to be proactive, not reactive when it comes to the mental health of our SEN pupils.

Schools are positive places. In fact, most staff in the Special Educational Needs sector have optimism and problem solving running through their veins long before they start their SENCo training.

Take inclusion. We use visual velcro timetables to make changes to routine easier. We incorporate Makaton signing as standard practice. We deploy 1:1 teaching assistants where intensive support is needed, and we train staff up on positive handling. The golden thread? We’re proactive.

Yet when mental health challenges that come with SEN inevitably crop up, we take a very different approach. Whether it’s a lack of appropriate continuous professional development (CPD) or feeling out of depth with changes to best practice, more often than not we don’t address concerns until a child is already suffering.

Prevent and protect
Much as we know drinking more water and less coffee will keep our bodies functioning more effectively, we also need preventative measures in place to safeguard the emotional wellbeing of our students. In a climate where SEN pupils are more likely to be unhappy at school than their classmates (Department for Education, 2017), this is more important than ever. 20% of our students at Kensington have a recognised additional need, so we don’t take this  lightly.

We can do better than acting only once a young person is suffering. But as senior leaders, where do we start?

Here are five strategies that have helped me:

1. Know where you are starting from
Before you implement a proactive approach to mental health in your school, you have to read up on best practice, and compare this to your current standpoint.

Public Health England (PHE) and the DfE’s 8 Principles outlined in their Promoting Children and Young People’s Mental Health and Wellbeing guidance are a great place to start. The principles prompt you to audit your current practice, from looking at how your curriculum promotes emotional resilience to how you are adapting your CPD and deploying your SEN specialist staff.

We also need specialist knowledge around the needs particular to our schools. At Kensington Primary School, the vast majority of our SEN pupils are on the autistic spectrum. We have utilised CPD from the Autism Education Trust to give us a deeper understanding of the lived experience of our students, so we have a place to work from.

2. Appoint a mental health lead
With the vast amount of information we take on during our teacher training and CPD, the importance of children’s mental health can often take a back seat. Add this to the fact that, as a nation, we have only recently started talking about mental health, and it’s clear that we could all do with brushing up on the skills required to knit positive wellbeing into the fabric of a school.

Appointing a mental health lead and providing them with solid training is the turning point for many schools. 

A member of our team signed up to train with the Carnegie Centre of Excellence for Mental Health in Schools, from Leeds Beckett University’s Carnegie School of Education. The government has earmarked funding to increase the number of these mental health leads in schools – so make use of it. In doing this, you’re giving your staff invaluable new skills, and increasing your SEN provision.

The mental health leads don’t replace the work of CAMHS or SENCos, but are there to make sure we have that deeper understanding of the mental health challenges associated with SEN. They look at our whole school policies and curriculum with a mental health lens, so we might change how we deploy staff or adapt our lesson planning.

3. Know the tipping points
Prioritising positive relationships between staff and students is essential to establish a safe, trusting space where wellbeing can be talked about openly, and we can spot when people are reaching their tipping points. This is particularly key to supporting SEN learners.

While we all experience the world differently, there are often common challenges that crop up with students who experience the same need or disability. Autism is what we know best at Kensington, and there are classic obstacles that we see each year for these students. Changes to routine can be distressing for some students, so we layer on lots of support during transition phases like changing classes or staff members leaving. Our autistic learners are also more likely to experience sensory overload, so we prepare them well in advance for things like school play props going up. While our training gives us a working knowledge of these needs, we wouldn’t be able to make the adjustments that suit our students as individuals if we didn’t know them really well. 

These adjustments nip many stressors in the bud, meaning pupils have the chance to thrive emotionally, not just academically.

4. Adopt an anti-bias stance
Have you made the mistake of assuming a young teacher isn’t confident with Makaton, because they’ve been in the job for less time than you? Or perhaps you might assume that a student will always need a one-to-one? That’s bias. 

When promoting positive mental health in schools, we have to adopt an anti-biased approach. We must see each staff member and student as an equally valued individual and avoid making assumptions of needs and abilities before we know details.

Question your internal, unacknowledged bias as a leader and recognise that it could get in the way of a positive mental health day for someone else. It can be a challenge but recognising and working on your own flaws can make a huge difference to those around you.

5. Don’t be afraid to change things up
Expecting excessive documentation for IEPs and using rehashed curriculums can make teachers and pupils feel like cogs in the machine. So, do not be afraid of big changes.

One of the changes we made at Kensington Primary was to create a new curriculum from scratch that truly met the emotional needs of our SEN learners – and our school as a whole. Our new curriculum can be adjusted to smaller class sizes, as we know that the best place for every child isn’t always in a classroom of 30.

We’ve also created a ‘pre-formal’ group for students that won’t benefit from the classic learner set up. Some children go out and access things like libraries to help them with sensory overload, public transport to promote independence, and climbing to support sensory processing.

Prevention is better than the cure – and while we can’t circumvent all mental health issues, there is a great deal we can do to promote a positive mental health culture in our schools. This not only benefits SEN students, but the school community as a whole.

Ben Levinson
Author: Ben Levinson

Ben Levinson
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Ben Levinson OBE is headteacher at Inclusion Mark Flagship Kensington Primary School in Newham in East London

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