Promoting resilience and better mental health at GCSE

How do we define mental health and resilience? And what can teachers do to promote better wellbeing for pupils?
Doctor Jo Taylor
Educational Psychologist, EAST LONDON

As an Educational Psychologist working in East London, the headline results from the teacher survey, discussed earlier in this report, reflect my own experiences of increasing concerns around anxiety – and fit with the current policy landscape. So, what do we do about it? 

Defining anxiety and mental health

While anxious feelings can often be an appropriate response to the environment (e.g. GCSE exams in year 11) and even helpful (e.g. keeping us alert for that exam) they can also be difficult and unpleasant. Over time, chronic anxious feelings can negatively affect our wellbeing – so it’s an important area to discuss. 

When we talk about mental health in schools, naturally lots of questions can arise for teachers and school staff. Is it my job? Am I qualified to help? Will I make it worse? We also all understand mental health through our varied lived experiences and reference points. So, in schools, it’s important to have a common language for talking about mental health and a shared understanding of terms. I like the definition from the World Health Organisation (WHO):

“Mental health is not just the absence of mental disorder. It is defined as a state of well-being in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community” 

For me, this highlights how mental health is not just the absence of mental ill health, but is about fulfilling potential and experiencing wellbeing. When we use this definition, mental health becomes everyone’s daily responsibility and the aims align with those of school. I think most staff would agree that their job is about helping children to fulfil their potential (even if they disagree on how to achieve this). 

It’s natural to be concerned about the students you look after. Often when I speak to staff, they describe feeling worried and overwhelmed when they’re faced with supporting students with their mental health. I’ve found the following approaches and tools have been useful across the different schools I’ve worked for.

Consider the specific context of the child

When a child is presenting as anxious, it can be hard to know how worried to be. Some questions you can ask yourself will help to put behaviour in perspective: how long have they been acting like this? What impact does their anxiety seem to be having on them? Who else has noticed? 

The answers to these questions will help staff to get past their immediate response to being faced with an anxious child (this might be shock, empathy or annoyance) and to consider the bigger picture of that child’s specific context. Recent events might provide a clue to behaviour, and they also might help you to put support in place in advance of a pressured time. 

Let’s imagine two students who have the same exam coming up; both are experiencing some anxiety. You know that one of them was recently bereaved. Your response to each might be different because you’ve taken the context into account when considering the support you put in place. This might seem like simple stuff – but, in the heat of the moment, it can sometimes feel difficult to zoom out and view the picture of the whole child. I meet experienced, dedicated staff everyday who ‘know’ that context is everything, but without that moment’s pause, can miss vital insight. 

Don’t make decisions in isolation

When considering how you can help, the first thing to note is that you shouldn’t feel like you have to do it alone. Firstly, you might have noticed something which made you worried about a child, but you might not be the best person to act on it – other staff members might have a better relationship with that child or see the student more regularly. 

In addition, it can be useful to combine what you’ve noticed with information from other people. Your contribution might be the final piece of the puzzle for someone else, or they might give you information which changes what you think is the best course of action. This will already be a feature of most school’s safeguarding policies, but I’ve lost count of how many teachers have described feeling like they’re carrying worry about a child alone. And, if you talk to your colleagues, it means you’re more likely to avoid the ‘waking up at 2am remembering a fleeting interaction’ scenario.

Develop resilience by balancing risk with protective factors

The field of resilience research has changed a lot over the last few decades. Researchers started by thinking about resilience as a personal trait, but now think of it as a social process of ‘harnessing biological, psychosocial, structural and cultural resources to sustain wellbeing’. 

This definition puts the emphasis on wellbeing as an ‘asset’ and focuses on the process of ‘harnessing resources’ – rather than simply relying on children to pull themselves together. Risk of developing mental health difficulties isn’t spread equally across students and this means that your support probably won’t be either. 

Risk factors are things which might make someone vulnerable to experiencing mental health difficulties. Importantly, risk factors aren’t causal in isolation but they are cumulative. The more risk factors a child is exposed to, the higher the likelihood they have of experiencing issues with their mental health. On the flipside, protective factors are the processes which promote wellbeing, “tilting the balance” to mitigate risks. 

Practically, this means the more risk factors present in a child’s life, the more protective factors they need to balance out that risk. This is where school staff come in: because every day you do things which promote student wellbeing and these small things – which you might not even think about – are protective factors which can add up to make a big difference.

Use the Resilience Framework

One tool that’s really useful for helping adults to introduce more protective factors around a student is the Resilience Framework (Hart & Blincow, 2012).

Shown in the table below, the Resilience Framework outlines different, evidence-based options for introducing protective factors around a child. Importantly, these options can be introduced in any order, so – no matter what a child’s specific difficulties – positives can be added to help “tilt the balance” towards wellbeing.

The Resilience Framework is a really flexible tool, but below are two ideas for how to use it:

To support a specific child

You may be able to bring a child to mind who you would like to support. Imagine organising a meeting with key staff members and their family. During this meeting you can use the Resilience Framework to celebrate what is already going well (e.g. circling the factors on the Framework – keeping it asset focused!). 

You could then think about what outcome you would really like for the child over the next term, or year. Holding this in mind, as a group you can think about which processes on the framework might move you all toward this outcome. This can then inform you making a simple plan for home and school. 

To develop school systems

Organise a meeting with a pastoral team or senior leaders. Consider which protective factors the school is already facilitating, circle them and annotate with the specific related school systems (e.g. an affirmations assembly, parent coffee morning, sports day, etc). Next, highlight two or three which you think are particularly important to focus on, and bullet point the steps which would help the school to provide them

Doctor Jo Taylor
Educational Psychologist, EAST LONDON

Doctor Jo Taylor is an Educational Psychologist working in East London, providing psychological services to a PRU, Alternative Provision, secondary school and two primary schools. He has a doctorate in Professional Educational, Child & Adolescent Psychology. Dr Taylor is a Teach First Ambassador ('10), Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and the proud founder of a handful of charities, social enterprises and projects. His professional focus is on tackling social inequality, mostly through applying psychology to education and social change. In 2015, he was recognised as a Queen's Young Leader: a global award from HM Elizabeth II for social change.

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