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Tapton School’s focus on mental health: how it’s working

Steve Rippin, Assistant Headteacher at Tapton describes our approach

Our decision to focus on mental health and wellbeing was based on a multitude of factors rather than any one reason. As an outstanding, forward thinking school, Tapton is always looking to provide students with the very best experiences and opportunities so that they are able to lead fulfilling lives.

Through close analysis of our results each August, we were becoming increasingly aware of a small but significant cohort of students who underachieved compared to their predicted grades because of known mental health issues at a key point before their exams. We were also aware of a number of students who were struggling to positively engage with school expectations and successfully access learning because of mental health and wellbeing issues. This was having an impact on the smooth running of the school. Use of social media and family issues can have a huge impact on teenagers and their schooling; and the number of cases and their complexities appear to increasing.

Children and young people’s mental health was (and still is) regularly in the headlines and gaining momentum on the national agenda. Faced with a lack of resources, poor service and long waiting times for child mental health issues when compared to adult mental health and other illnesses, things needed to change. Especially concerning were the studies highlighting mental health as the biggest issue facing children and young people. With scarce resources and clear evidence that mental health issues were impacting on student performance, behaviour and lives, we knew we had to play our part.

Anything we could do as a school was seen as a positive. It was time for Tapton School to live up to its ethos, ‘valuing everyone, caring for each other, achieving excellence’ to do the very best possible for its students so they are able to achieve success, make the next steps and be prepared for life.

However many teachers did not feel qualified or confident and were not comfortable supporting students with mental health issues. Yet students spend a considerable amount of their time in our care. If we were going to support students with their mental health and wellbeing we were going to have to provide training for staff and develop a whole-school approach. Through endorsing an emotionally healthy learning environment that promotes mental health and wellbeing, we could support children and young people, and their families, on their journey through school.

We were also increasingly aware of the extra pressure staff were under due to increases in class sizes and workload as a result of budget constraints and the pressures of modern day life. In order to achieve buy-in from staff it was important they felt their emotional health and wellbeing was also being given due care and attention.

When an opportunity came up to be involved in a national schools and CAMHS link pilot we jumped at it. Working alongside CAMHS, Tapton has set about a cultural change, developing a whole-school ethos to mental health and wellbeing. We firmly believe this will have a positive impact in ttendance, attitude to learning, behaviour, attainment, achievement and progress.

In 2015, when Tapton School took part in a national pilot promoting collaboration on young people’s mental health between CAMHS and schools, I took the role of mental health lead. I have found this work incredibly interesting and rewarding, and feel as a school we have been on an amazing journey.

I knew that if we were going to have impact a holistic approach was key, building a culture and ethos that promotes and supports mental health and wellbeing.

One point thing that I would like all of us in education to agree on is a commonly used and accepted term. The range of terms currently used include emotional health and wellbeing; emotional intelligence; mental health; positive mental health; or mental health and wellbeing. All of these terms are interpreted slightly differently by individuals.

Many avoid using the word ‘mental’ because they argue this gives negative vibes. I don’t necessarily disagree with this but I also think we need to use a common language and if someone is looking for help and support they will enter ‘mental’ into a search engine. We need to ensure they are successful with their search so they are able to access support. For the sake of consistency I am going to use the term mental health and wellbeing. I think it is time we all accept that we all have mental health which we need to take care of, in just the same way as we have physical health that we need to look after. Therefore ‘mental health’ shouldn’t have negative connotations, and a key task for us all is to destigmatise the term and promote positive mental health.

As a school our first challenge was to raise awareness and destigmatise mental health and wellbeing, through a carefully planned programme of assemblies, form discussions, PSHE lessons and newsletters. Key to our success is for mental health and wellbeing always to be on the agenda, at the forefront of people’s minds, so events are spread throughout the year, rather than having a big launch  which then fizzles out. Assemblies allowed for the delivery of a core message to all students and form tutors, and link it to a number of other initiatives offering support to students within school. This work was dovetailed with the launch of a statement of the school’s approach to mental health.

Coupled with this was a complete overhaul of the PSHE programme. Instead of covering mental health and wellbeing in a few lessons, we encompassed mental health and wellbeing elements into a wide range of units of work such as:

  • transition and friendships
  • internet safety
  • relationships and sexuality.

This made the links with mental health much clearer, better connected to the topics and more relevant to life.

Signs and symptoms

In conjunction with this we also shared with students the signs and symptoms of poor mental health and wellbeing – sleep issues, lack of focus, etc – so that students are able to identify at an early stage when they may be at risk of developing a mental health and wellbeing issue. This then enables students to think about their lifestyle and make the necessary adjustments to self-regulate and better manage their emotions from a range of ideas provided before issues become more ingrained.

Seek support early

A further step is developing student confidence and resilience to seek help and support at an early enough stage, rather than allowing issues to reach crisis point before they ask for help. This is a key step as I believe many know they have mental health and wellbeing issues, but often lack the confidence to speak with someone who is able to help them. This is an area that we still need to work on, as it is not a quick fix. Children and young people need to have confidence to engage with people who can help them.

CAMHS support

Developing and delivering a planned programme to raise awareness and destigmatise mental health and wellbeing across school has little economic cost. But it needs support from the headteacher and leadership team is it is to have a very positive impact. Overhauling the PSHE programme requires some thought and planning, and possibly training. Support and guidance from CAMHS at points was gratefully received.

Linking up and working with other local schools, sharing ideas and resources can be very supportive and help to keep up the momentum.

Wide-ranging survey

While we were busy launching our mental health programme, we were also working on a student, staff and parent/carer survey in conjunction with CAMHS. This was to gain a baseline measure and discover stakeholders’ viewpoints on mental health. A section of the survey allowed for free text, which proved interesting reading. The student survey was completed in May 2016 by a sample of students from all years just before final exams (are there better times in the year to measure mental health?!).

The survey was very informative though, giving us a measure of mental health and wellbeing and highlighting key areas to focus on and develop. Some points raised were as expected, for example, exam pressure and stress being the number one cited cause of mental health issues.

Other points were more surprising, such as sleep deprivation/patterns which I wouldn’t have predicted. Students and parents highlighted that they wanted greater signposting of information. Students said that they just wanted to be asked “how are things going?” by staff.

The staff survey revealed that many didn’t feel qualified and were hesitant to give mental health support for fear of giving the wrong advice and making the situation worse.

Undertaking surveys, I believe, is a key tool to measure impact – but, more importantly, to gather people’s viewpoints and provide areas of focus. Deciding on the questions to be asked and designing questionnaires without loaded questions takes time. And as with all surveys, it is best to run a pilot first. May 2017 will see us repeat the survey across school as I thought it important to complete at the same point in the year. I can’t wait for the results.

The survey led us to inviting CAMHS in, to deliver a bespoke staff workshop to increase staff skills in specific areas identified, making the training much more relevant and beneficial. We included all teaching and non-teaching staff, giving a clear indication of the importance we attach to this area of school development.

The training helped to allay staff fears and promote the idea of ‘attunement’ – tuning in to students’ feelings – which is very powerful and links into a number of behaviour management techniques. It was also the starting point for encouraging staff to engage in conversations with students that asked how they are on a more regular basis.

From this training a number of staff across all areas of school volunteered to be mental health champions, who students could go to if they wanted to chat things through. The beauty of this is that students have a wide choice in who they speak with. Also having posters with pictures of these staff around school gives a very strong message that we take mental health and wellbeing seriously and are here to support students.

Having posters with pictures of ‘mental health champion’ staff around school shows that we are here to support students

However, a recent review of the number of students who have approached staff mental health champions has shown that this is not as high as we would like. We are looking at how we can foster greater uptake through prompts and recommendations by pastoral staff. We also ask mental health champions to make the first contact with students who we know are struggling with emotional health and wellbeing. While children and young people with mental health and wellbeing issues may struggle to approach staff, but if we are aware we can prompt conversations and the offer of support.

Students’ responses to the survey showed they wanted greater support in school and in particular staff to be available to help; also, they would like more signposting of information. This led us to add an area to the school website offering tips and guidance for self-regulation and management of mental health and wellbeing, as well as links to further information and support out of school. The key to this is that it is available 24/7 and gives more choice. Some students may choose to access information through the website because they lack the confidence at that time to speak to someone. The information may help them to manage their mental health and wellbeing; or may in time give them the confidence to seek help and speak to someone, either in school or out of school. Research in this area showed that very few schools offer this information and support on their websites.

While we have made inroads, I am looking to make this area much more prominent and easily accessible, providing information for students, staff and parents/carers. We are currently exploring linking to locally known support groups out of school. With all of this, CAMHS support has helped greatly, as they have the inside knowledge to help us ensure links on the school site are to reputable sites and organisations.

To promote the whole-school approach and show the value placed on the work, and to foster the learning from the CPD, we organised an extended form time focusing on mental health and wellbeing. Extended form time was delivered to every form from year 7 to year 13 at the same time by form tutors. This was an absolutely wonderful moment in time, fostering positive links and building relationships between form tutors and their forms as well as developing a positive culture and sharing a whole-school ethos towards mental health and wellbeing.

Through all our work, the holistic approach focused on a change of culture has been the defining element of change and positive impact.

Complementing the staff mental health champions, we developed a small group of students titled ‘epic friends’, who have advised us on developments and supported us in the development of ideas.

We have also looked to offer a self-help support group. We tried to extend this and offer lunchtime sessions on specific topics such as bereavement and exam stress. However, this was not well attended. Student voice indicates that students would rather have the opportunity to speak with peers on a more informal basis, which is something we are looking into. I am keen when we do this that it is sustainable and supportive.

Work of this nature relies on staff goodwill but can have great benefits. It is important students are encouraged to take the opportunities available out of lesson time and helped to regulate their emotions, enabling them to access lessons and learning. This approach helps to support students’ mental health and wellbeing as well as academic success. Obviously there will always be students with pressing issues who need a more immediate response, but through this support these needs should be reduced.

Staff mental health and wellbeing is also taken seriously. The workload of reporting and departmental meetings was reduced. We took the notable decision to change our email protocol: the server is now switched off between 7pm and 6am Monday to Friday, and at weekends.

Cutting out work-related emails at evenings and weekends has helped staff to plan and manage their time better, so they are more relaxed and prepared for school. This is very important, as staff are now much more able to respond in an emotionally intelligent way, which helps to de-escalate situations and for school to run more smoothly. Many staff have commented on the benefits of switching off the server and the positive impact it has had on their mental health and wellbeing.

A few members of staff found the restrictions limiting, but we have worked with them to explore how they can work within this framework. The benefits far outweigh any drawbacks: fewer emails means more staff talking to each other.

There is still a way to go in our approach to supporting students’ and teachers’ mental health and wellbeing, but we feel we are at the forefront of developments, and are pleased to share our experience with others. The key learning points for us are: having a whole-school approach, building a culture of support and skilling up staff.

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