Schools must adopt a whole-school approach to social and emotional wellbeing

A head teacher once said to me: “If you can’t reach the child, you can’t teach the child.” Besides having a penchant for accidental rhyming, this Head speaks to the essential nature of our work as educators: that if you cannot connect emotionally with a child, it will be close to impossible to teach, inspire and motivate them effectively.

To many people, this statement may sound “fluffy”, and an understandable reply from a member of the teaching profession might be: “I don’t have time to emotionally connect with 30-300 pupils when I’m teaching them to pass their exams.” This response might be even more understandable from a teacher working in a more challenging school context, where they could be under pressure to improve standards to meet Ofsted criteria, and close the achievement gap between children from the most and least disadvantaged backgrounds . Add into this mix the fact that teachers are increasingly stressed and many are leaving the profession within 5 years of joining, and it becomes even more understandable that the idea of connecting emotionally with a student seems like a luxury.

On the other side of this coin, the UK is in the midst of what has been dubbed a “child mental health crisis”. You may be familiar with the facts:

  • Half of lifetime mental illness starts by the age of 14
  • 1 in 10 children and young people have a clinically diagnosed mental health disorder and/or emotional and behaviour problems
  • Around 1 in 7 has less severe problems that interfere with their development and learning.

These are the tough challenges that both schools and parents are facing. The statistics are worrying not only because no one wants their child to struggle with emotional and mental health problems, but also, by failing to give children and young people the tools to deal with life’s ups and downs, we are hindering their ability to achieve. This is true across the board, regardless of background.

One of the Fair Education Alliance’s five impact goals aims to improve the emotional wellbeing of children to reduce educational inequality in UK schools. Without good mental and emotional wellbeing in a child, there is no foundation for learning, and there is strong emerging evidence to show that by improving pupil wellbeing, attainment can improve, with some studies citing an 11% increase in attainment . One method of building social and emotional skills is through the implementation of a social and emotional learning (SEL) framework throughout school. Recently the NCB have published two highly useful papers to support schools. The first is Dr Katherine Weare’s paper outlining what works in promoting social and emotional well-being and responding to mental health problems in schools. The second is a self-assessment and improvement tool for school leaders looking to adopt a whole school framework for emotional wellbeing and mental health.

All of the best evidence tells us that we should be supporting schools to adopt ‘whole school approach’ to social and emotional wellbeing; one that involves teachers, children and parents, so children see the benefits of emotional wellbeing at home and at school. The advantages of implementing SEL programmes are not just beneficial for pupil wellbeing, prevention and reduction of mental health issues and academic learning, it can also have significant positive effects on staff wellbeing, and reduction of stress for everyone from a Head Teacher to office staff and care takers. Research tells us that SEL programmes and approaches reduce stress, improve teaching ability and performance, and reduce sickness and absence.

So by taking a whole-school approach, where teachers, children and parents are involved in a programme that helps equip them with tools to look after their own wellbeing, all parties can see significant benefits. And while SEL can be beneficial for all types of people, for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, having the tools to look after their own emotional and mental wellbeing could open doors to allow them to excel to the best of their ability and fulfil their potential. It could take us a long way towards ending educational inequality and closing the gap.

Key Recommendations for Schools, Teachers and School Leaders:

  1. Invite staff and school leaders to use the ‘self-assessment and improvement’ tools to identify areas for development and focus.
  2. Generate buy-in from all stakeholders using concepts and ideas from the ‘whole school’ framework.
  3. Consider adopting evidence-led SEL approaches and programmes that include a focus on children, teachers and parents.
  4. Collect data on impact to inspire reflection and continuous improvement.
  5. Share your learning with other schools in your network, and inspire good practice.

(Also posted on the Fair Education Alliance website