The issue of our children’s mental health is one of growing concern within the country. With academic and social pressures at an all-time high, Harry White asks three experts what teachers should look out for, and how music can serve as therapy for some
The issue of mental health among British youngsters is one of increasing concern between unions, teachers and parents, and is rapidly rising up the political agenda. While arguing that access within school to specialist pastoral services such as counselling is the absolute imperative for children with mental illnesses, increasing numbers of charities and organisations are also offering training and advice to curriculum teachers who wish to support pupils in their classes.
Nicola Marshall is the founder of BraveHeart Education, a training organisation that delivers courses to educators that help them to understand the needs of vulnerable children. She begins by emphasising that for classroom teachers, the key to supporting vulnerable children is ‘all about the relationship’.
‘Depending on the mental health needs and how linked they are to environment, then “relationship” is often the area that’s been broken for young people,’ she says. ‘They may have had bad experiences, or be frightened and worried about social interactions. Teachers working with them need to be aware, and work intentionally on building good, solid, trusting relationships. Helpful strategies might include communicating regularly with those responsible for the child and keeping diaries that can be used to share information. Aim to understand as much as you can about the child’s circumstances by talking with the relevant people. More than anything else, spend time with the young person, finding out what helps them and what doesn’t.’
Teachers often cite difficulty in supporting vulnerable pupils with the everyday academic issues of, for example, meeting homework deadlines and educational targets. ‘This is one area we struggled with for my three adopted teenagers,’ says Marshall. ‘The solution that worked for us was to do all homework at school. This meant that those best-placed to help our children were on hand. Young people who have mental health issues or poor attachment from early trauma may have organisational and memory difficulties. They need adults to help them to manage this. Chunking work helps to give them bitesize pieces that can be reviewed regularly to keep them on track. One of the sayings that helped me to understand my children was that “learning is not a priority for them – but survival is”.
Students who have other things on their minds don’t come to school to learn; they come because we make them and then it’s about getting through the day. The more we can help them with those “little” anxieties around deadlines and work, the more they can concentrate on learning and feeling confident.’
Winchester-based Living with Harmony delivers support to vulnerable children and adults through music therapy. Music therapist Meta Killick stresses that both classroom and extracurricular music should be encouraged as they can play a role in providing additional support for children with mental health problems.
‘Music is a medium that teens tend to gravitate to naturally, so it can be very effective in developing social and emotional intelligence,’ she says. ‘It also provides a unique way to work with teens that offers both protective and restorative opportunities. Community music-making in peer groups, family groups or whole-school groups, offers both the chance to be challenged and to achieve. The witnessing role of the group affirms and supports the adolescent girl or boy as she or he explores the potential which adulthood offers.
Community group music-making can offer psychological support as well as offering the opportunity for building healthy relationships with peers and others. Shared music-making requires listening, mutual respect and valuing. It also evokes the creative potential in participants. These are all attributes that are predictors for successful adults.’
The qualities of music clearly also present opportunities for peripatetic instrumental teachers who encounter students with mental health problems. Marshall acknowledges this, but believes that because of limited contact time, getting the basics right is the key. ‘Find out as much as you can about the child and their difficulties as well as their strengths,’ she says. ‘Ask the parents or the school if you are struggling to understand the child. In my family, my daughter had singing lessons with a peripatetic teacher. The problem for her wasn’t the singing, but the turning up to the lesson; the lesson times changed, so knowing what time the lesson was and then finding the confidence to ask a teacher if she could leave the classroom was stressful.’
Caroline Hounsell is the director of partnerships, product development and training at Mental Health First Aid England. She believes that encouraging openness about mental health can be incorporated within individual classroom lessons – but only via a holistic strategy that is coordinated by the school. Only once this is established can effective classroom techniques be implemented. ‘For example,’ she explains, ‘in an English class you might ask, “What do you think this character is experiencing emotionally at this point? How is it impacting their mental health?” Or in PE one might talk about how mental health can be affected positively by physical exercise.’
Hounsell is also clear that all teachers can play a role in recognising behavioural issues. ‘It’s important that all school staff are able to understand the different signs and symptoms of mental ill health, and the impact on a young person’s thoughts and behaviours,’ she says. ‘Some of the key identifiers of a student who is experiencing depression include a loss of interest and enjoyment in ordinary things and experiences, a low mood, lack of concentration in class and a lack of interest in play or social interaction. The key principles in responding to a student who you think might be experiencing a mental health issue should be to ask, assess and assist. Listen non-judgmentally to how they’ve been feeling. The key attitudes to make the young person feel respected, accepted and understood are acceptance, genuineness and empathy.’