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How we can support mental health challenges of school children?

11 October 2023

The waiting lists for local child and adolescent mental health services- ‘CAMHS’ are getting longer and longer. Teachers and parents are left fielding the mental health crisis, while the suffering of afflicted children and adolescents deepens with every day that passes. Young people’s mental health challenges cannot be left to fester, as they affect their identity, educational outcomes, parental income and resilience within the wider community. Here are 10 key strategies that parents and teachers can use to support children and adolescents dealing with distressing symptoms of mental health challenges while they are waiting for professional help.

1. A calm educational environment

The size of the school seems to determine the quality of the learning environment to some extent. If every class takes place in a tranquil atmosphere, this means that every teacher takes responsibility for the ambience in every lesson. In ‘creative’ subjects such as music, art and drama, it is particularly vital that children participate in lessons where respect both for learning and for every student is maintained. An ethos of respect for every student is easier to sustain in a calm atmosphere. Children with mental health challenges are more likely to cope for longer in this setting, where they are better able to self-regulate any difficult feelings that may arise.

2. A space to talk

In a school it is important that teachers and children have spaces where they are able to discuss and resolve pastoral or academic challenges in privacy, rather than for example, in the middle of a busy corridor. This is incredibly important for the more vulnerable pupils in our communities. Those with special educational needs and disabilities need to be supported with a particular focus in terms of social, emotional and mental health. A place where children are able to ask for help or advice from the pastoral team immediately shows all pupils that this is a caring school that values their feelings, responds to their questions and most importantly, takes their mental health challenges seriously.

3. Listening from the heart

The pressure of workload on teachers is enormous, and yet according to research, teachers are more effective in the classroom when they not only show their passion for the subject, but also that they care deeply about the children they are teaching. Both these factors unfortunately can lead to teacher burn-out, which would obviously diminish their capacity to listen from the heart.

Arlie Hoschild’s ’The Managed Heart,’ discusses ‘emotional work’ as an integral but undervalued and unrecognised aspect of many public-facing roles.

Teaching is clearly one these, requiring intense and constant emotional input. Sadly, many of the best and most dedicated teachers suffer because they are so invested in pupils’ learning and personal development.

It is vital that school leaders cultivate an environment that values the well-being of teachers, protects them from abuse, prevents them from burning out and avoids unnecessary workload. Teaching can be incredibly fulfilling, but often feels all-consuming. It is therefore vital that teachers have realistic and sustainable workloads. Our teachers deserve to have time to recharge during the school day so that they are better able to support pupils’ mental health challenges, particularly if they work as part of a pastoral team.

4. Compassionate reassurance

Much has been said about empathy in recent years, but compassionate reassurance achieves a stronger outcome in less time. Compassion involves complete acceptance of the situation, as well as the capacity to hold all the challenges of that situation in mind, which is why it is easier to help students to feel emotionally ‘safe’, as they are more likely to begin to self-regulate. This involves being able to breathe deeply and slowly, feel physically more relaxed and more connected to their body, which may enable them to be better able to express their feelings and to share their concerns more openly.

5. Offering quality time with no distractions

Imagine a nine year old child, overwhelmed by a challenging situation and dealing with a mental health challenge, such as acute anxiety. One day, they feel ready to trust a teacher, to open up and to disclose their concern, but to their disappointment, the teacher must rush away to deal with something rather ‘more urgent’.

Their rational response would say, ‘Yes, emergencies happen, but my feelings are not as important as an emergency.”

At the same time, their vulnerable feelings might achieve a ‘shut down’ in their central nervous system and a dread of abandonment or rejection could trigger an acute attack of panic or anxiety or other distressing feelings and thoughts.

It is important for the child that the teacher stays physically present with them until that conversation or connection has reached a mutually agreed end point. If not, a negative spiral can quickly gain momentum if the ‘end’ of the conversation or connection feels abrupt or unplanned.

6. Practising gentle kindness

In day to day life, if we practise gentle kindness, it is obvious that we are not interested in conversations that are unkind. By walking away, we are showing that unkind remarks are not taken seriously. Gentle kindness begins in the mind, replacing judgmental thoughts with compassionate ones. It is arguably far easier to prevent mental health challenges than to treat them. Gentle kindness is a strong starting point for effective prevention.

7. Honouring the feelings

We all have feelings. Most people are uncomfortable with accepting all their feelings because difficult emotions such as shame or guilt or a belief that they are ‘not enough’ are pushed under the rug and barely acknowledged in our society.

Children and young people make comparisons between themselves and an ‘ideal’ version that they have seen online or experienced through parental scripting.

Here are a few examples of parental scripts or expectations of their child:

  • To get married and have children
  • To support the same sports teams as their parents
  • To attend a certain school or university
  • To take on the family business or join a certain profession
  • To live in a particular geographical area

Sometimes this form of scripting is very ambitious and the child is expected to achieve one or several of these:

  • To qualify to represent their country in an elite sports team or even in the Olympics,
  • To win a scholarship to a particular school or university
  • To have top quality examination results
  • To break records or ‘be the first’
  • To become so special and so talented that they are recognised for their accomplishments.

If these expectations are not fulfilled, harsh self-judgments and self-criticisms are likely to follow.

All of these negative beliefs, thoughts and feelings may well become so toxic that they may have a detrimental effect on the individual.

Conversely, a child who has too little support or stimulus from their family may well feel neglected and frustrated by a lack of attention and display challenging and self-pitying behaviour.

It is important to protect children from creating idealised versions of themselves. Even conscientiousness, which is often encouraged at school and is intrinsically admirable rather than harmful, can develop into an unhealthy source of anxiety and low-self-worth in certain situations.

8. Expressing the emotions

To express anger, frustration or resentment appropriately is natural and necessary. An outlet for emotions can be through sport or dancing or even music and singing. Some writers claim that anger has fuelled their best work! The response to these emotions has been carefully honed by warrior disciplines where the balance of managing and harnessing energy is the product of many years of dedicated training - for example Samuri warriors who are taught not only combative skills but also flower arranging. Cultures all around the world have found different ways to manage and express emotion in a socially accepted way. All of these practices involve allowing the body to discharge the emotions, as this is healthy.

Insufficient access to the creative curriculum means that pupils are restricted in terms of self-expression, the development of executive function, personal development and critical thinking. One appropriate way to express emotion is to dance and move, or sing and play music, allowing the body to cast off all the explosive, the aggressive and fiery feelings. Another way is to write down how these emotions feel and to really vent this on the page. These forms of physical release are very cathartic, though this needs to be done in a place, ideally out in nature - or where others won’t be disturbed!

9. Sharing worries and concerns

Young people and their parents need to share their challenges, worries and concerns. If a young person’s mental health challenges start to spiral and the situation deteriorates suddenly, this needs a swift and orchestrated response from everyone with a duty of care. It is not enough just to prioritise the children’s development of topical concepts such as, ‘resilience’, ‘growth mindset’ and ‘perseverance’. Above all, young people should not be left feeling isolated and surrounded by adults who are uncertain about what they ought to do, when facing a child who feels seriously overwhelmed, depressed or anxious.

Charities run helplines, manned by volunteers, and they train their people to offer a compassionate listening service. No one needs to suffer in isolation while they wait for professional help. As well as pastoral teams and family liaison workers in schools, there are helpline volunteers who work for charities that exist outside school. Together we can make sure that we support the families coping with child and adolescent mental health challenges every day.

10. Helpline numbers

Family Lives: 0808 800 2222

The Samaritans: 116 123

Childline: 0800 1111

NSPCC: 0808 800 5000

In an emergency dial 999.

Did some of this post resonate with your own experience?

If so, you might be interested in the important role played by rhythm in the management of stress in these related blog posts:

Education for social justice - This post sets out the mission, values and impact of the Rhythm for Reading programme in terms of reading and learning behaviour.

Rhythm, breath and well-being - This post unpacks the relationship between rhythm, breath and well-being in the context of smaller and larger units of sound, comparing the different types of breath used in individual letter names versus phrases.

Releasing resistance to reading - Discover how self-sabotaging behaviour and resistance to reading can be addressed through a rhythm-based approach.

Rhythmic elements in reading: from fluency to flow - Discover the importance of rhythm in activities that involve flow states and the way that elements of rhythm underpin flow states in fluent reading.

Tags: rhythm , Supporting mental health challenges , pressure of workload , learning and personal development , well-being , creative curriculum , compassion , kindness

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