Are Teachers Ready to Teach Mental Health Lessons?

By Corby, Gemma | Times Educational Supplement, February 14, 2020 | Go to article overview

Are Teachers Ready to Teach Mental Health Lessons?


Corby, Gemma, Times Educational Supplement


As well as focusing on RSE, the new curriculum is designed to teach young people how to look after their mental health. But teachers need to tread carefully with this content – they must be aware of potential triggers for students and have the weight of research behind them, experts tell Gemma Corby

While the media and parents have been focusing on the sex education elements of the new relationships and sex curriculum, teachers could have been forgiven for eyeing their new statutory responsibilities around mental health with more concern. While it’s true that teachers have been stepping into a mental health first-responder role for some time, the increased obligations of the new curriculum to help protect against mental health challenges represent a shift from where the role of the school has traditionally been.

What the curriculum asks for is, at times, very complex: “pupils should know how to critically evaluate when something they do or are involved in has a positive or negative effect on their own or others’ mental health” and “pupils should know how to recognise the early signs of mental wellbeing concerns”. These are items not likely to be covered easily in a 45-minute lesson last thing on a Friday. Many adults would struggle to do those things.

So how should teachers approach this section of the curriculum?

The advice seems to be: very carefully. The issue is not necessarily that the information that needs to be relayed is complex (though some of it is); rather, the biggest problems come in the delivery of that information.

The PSHE Association has published guidance to support teachers with the teaching of the new curriculum (see page 38), acknowledging that it is not straightforward. It recommends training for teachers to ensure a cautious approach: “Schools should access training and support before teaching the more challenging areas of mental health and emotional wellbeing ... schools should work on the principle ‘first do no harm’”.

However, if training is not accessed – and some schools may argue they can’t afford it – will teachers do more harm than good?

Not necessarily. Tamsin Ford, professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Cambridge, says the chances of teachers doing harm are small if the curriculum is delivered thoughtfully. For example, knowing your students and their potential trigger points well is essential. Even if you don’t know everyone’s full history (and let’s face it: most of the time you will not), she says, teachers will have an instinct for content areas that could potentially trigger a harmful reaction.

“It is important for teachers to have a critical eye and to be able to identify the topics that might be more sensitive for vulnerable children,” Ford says.

Even if teachers take precautions, though, some argue that issues will arise naturally during the teaching of these areas.

“The framework emphasises the option for pupils to have alternative provision for some topic areas where sensitivities may be known. However, there will be many young people who haven’t been identified,” argues Rose Webb, a former RE and PSHE teacher and social, emotional and mental health specialist at the organisation Thrive. “It sometimes isn’t until these things are touched on in curriculum content that things come to light.”

Schools need to be ready for these moments, argues Jenny Barksfield, principal subject specialist and deputy CEO at the PSHE Association.“PSHE works in tandem with – but is discrete from – pastoral systems and individual interventions, which need to be in place to deal with issues as they arise,” she says. …

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