Tackling the mental health challenge in schools

Emma Fownes

Emma Fownes has taught at Boundary Oak for 10 years where she is Deputy Head and Head of Pastoral Care. Emma qualified as a teacher in 2003, achieving her PGCE from Southampton University where she returned to give a lecture on ‘surviving your NQT year!’. In 2003 she won a National Teaching Award for ‘Most Outstanding New Teacher’ for the Southern Region. Following this accolade, Emma took part as a judge in the same category. This led to her interest in becoming an NQT mentor throughout her career.

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In recent years we’ve seen a positive shift in attitudes towards mental health. It’s being talked about by everyone from the royal family to Justin Bieber: little by little, the taboo is being broken.


I take a great personal interest in the subject of mental health. I am a trained Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) instructor and have worked with colleagues, children and parents around promoting mental wellbeing. I’m particularly interested in attachment and the impact of trauma in the first years of a child’s life.

It’s now widely known how common anxiety and depression are amongst adults. At least a quarter of us will experience mental health struggles at least some point in our lives - but what is less well recognised is how prevalently it affects children, too.

According to the Mental Health Foundation, as many as 10% of 5-16 year olds have a diagnosable mental health condition. Challenges like family breakdown, bullying, and bereavement can have a devastating impact on children’s emotional development.

Clearly, the role educators have to play in addressing children’s mental health is huge. In 2017 the government pledged to offer Mental Health First Aid training in all secondary schools by 2020, and the impact of this so far has been wholly positive: a recent survey of education professionals carried out UCL Institute of Education (IOE) has shown around a three-fold (190%) increase amongst in confidence in knowledge, skills and awareness to support a young person struggling with their mental health. But there is still much work to be done.

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What can schools do to promote better mental health?

Promoting better mental health in schools starts with a holistic approach that recognises the role of good physical health in underpinning cognitive wellbeing. Talk around the importance of sleep, a healthy diet and active lifestyle – as well as providing regular opportunities for outdoor learning and exercise – is a great place to start.

Boundary Oak is a boarding school, so we provide a home from home for many children, and that family is enthusiastically extended around the rest of the school. We’re passionate about developing our pupils academically, but also nurturing their mental and physical health as they grow with us. As such, we consider character skills – like dealing with failure, building resilience, and empathy – to be as important educationally as learning to read and write.

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Route to success

As educators, it’s vital that we help young people understand how to recognise and handle emotions and to equip them with the tools and strategies to cope in stressful situations. This might be through talking things through with a trusted adult, engaging in a favourite activity or simply taking time out.

At Boundary Oak, we want every child to feel like a success at something, and we encourage them to develop their passions both inside and out of the classroom. Our wide range of co-curricular programmes aims to stretch imagination, mind and physical ability, thus promoting well-being and good mental health.

Support network

Pastoral education is as important as preparing children academically for the world, and we will continue to build on our excellent pastoral programme. We provide as many avenues as possible for children to communicate their feelings: our ‘Circle of Care’ helps to ensure pupils know where to turn to feel safe and listened to. The message is that there is always somebody that pupils may seek in times of trouble.

But it is important to recognise that young people might not always want, or indeed be able, to verbalise their feelings. We were interested in a therapy-dog programme to help such children. Milo, our therapy dog, can be seen by any pupil who needs that all-important cuddle at a time when they feel anxious, upset or homesick, and to aid deeper discussions. Research shows that the presence of a therapy dog has a calming effect on pupils and can also help boost self-esteem and confidence in their learning. Milo is also on hand for break times walks with teachers to help them digest their day.

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Specialist support and training

Embedding skilled mental health professionals in schools, as part of a whole school approach, can have an enormously positive impact for pupils, families and staff. In addition to our school counsellor, at Boundary Oak all pastoral staff are qualified in MHFA, and all staff are trained in the Wellbeing of children and young people. In addition, academic tracking and progress is shared with all staff so that they are aware of pupils’ specific needs, to help maximise their success at school.

It is welcome news that the NHS will start working with schools in 2019 to provide mental health support to some half a million pupils. It is hoped that the new support teams, when working in conjunction with schools, will speed up access to specialist services.


The message is clear. Mental health will not go away nor is teaching about it ‘a tick in a box’ or something mentioned only in one lesson a week. The list of concerns we see in our pupils are in direct response to the world in which they find themselves and they are ever-changeable. As adults, how many times do we find ourselves replying to questions about how we feel by saying: ‘it’s fine’, ‘I’m ok’? Our role has to be showing young people that they can talk, that people will listen and, arguably most important: it is ok not to be ok.

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