Promoting positive mental health in a secondary school
I’ve always been interested in applying Psychology at strategic levels within school systems, and have been working closely with the Principal of a large secondary school to work in this top-down way.
Within a secondary academy I work with, a significant amount of time over the last year has been allocated to promoting positive mental health on a systemic level. This work has felt like some of the most fulfilling and useful work I have been involved in during my career. I believe the impact has been on the whole-school community and the support from the Executive Senior Leadership Team (SLT) has been incomparable.
I feel honoured to represent the Educational Psychology community through working in this way and have been able to use a wide range of skills from the Doctoral training course. In this blog post, I have outlined some of the key areas of the work I am currently involved with this secondary academy.
My initial scoping of this work
I began working with this school on a day-per-week basis for EP casework. Early in this journey, the SENDCo asked if I could advise on how to use a one-off payment from the academy trust, which was to be used for ‘promoting positive mental health’. This led to me putting together a proposal for an additional half-day per week, eventually increasing to a total of three days per week of EP time specifically for this project.
In the proposal, I outlined the areas of work discussed in this blog, working closely with the SENDCo and Vice Principal, to consider the needs of the school and existing resources. This proposal was discussed and approved by SLT and governors. Since that time, each of the areas below has had a key point of contact in the school to support with facilitation. I’ve also had the support of an Inclusion and Wellbeing Practitioner who is employed by the school for an additional half-day per week to support with this project.
It has been immensely useful to attend Executive SLT meetings to continue discussions around this project and to have monthly meetings with the Principal. As an example, several options were presented about how to navigate researching staff mental health, including a survey approach, focus groups or interviews with Heads of Departments. A Vice Principal and I had several conversations, exploring the options and looking at examples of research to see the depth of information from each, before deciding which option was most suitable for the school’s needs.
I have been fortunate to have allocated time for exploring, planning and forming a proposal for each of these areas, in collaboration with the key staff member, before having them agreed with SLT.
Setting up a peer mentoring project, with sixth formers providing emotionally supportive conversations to younger students, has been a big focus this year. Initially sixth form students were able to apply to be a peer mentor and six applicants were selected. I delivered two training sessions of a full day each, and subsequent half-termly group supervision.
Topics covered included:
- the role of the peer mentor
- therapeutic conversations
- building relationships
- typical issues that may be raised by mentees.
Each session involved a ‘go-do’ activity and used a range of teaching styles such as videos, case studies, person-centred planning activities and presentations.
To date, the peer mentors have presented to SLT in a meeting, all staff in a briefing, presented assemblies to students, ran a competition to design a logo for the project and designed referral forms.
As this is the first year, these students have been responsible for setting up all elements of the programme. After Easter, they will have a designated room in the school, jackets to wear to distinguish themselves as mentors when they move around school and will have timetabled slots to provide wellbeing sessions.
Parent Coffee Mornings
One of our biggest aims this year has been to develop relationships with parents by inviting them into school regularly. There have been 4 coffee mornings so far, covering topics such as ‘communicating with your teenager’ and ‘supporting your child with anxiety’. This has helped to build relationships with several parents, who have been regular attenders, and has helped me to understand more about their perspective as parents of students at a large secondary school.
Parents have begun to request topics for future sessions, and I plan to involve other external agencies in delivering these sessions, such as the Mental Health Support Team. A secondary impact has been to implement changes within the school, based on feedback from parents, such as altering communication pathways.
Staff Mental Health Research Project
The Executive SLT commissioned a research project into staff mental health, to explore what factors are impacting on wellbeing and what changes could be made to improve staff mental health. This has consisted of three focus groups with six staff. The data from these focus groups was transcribed, themed and mapped onto Bronfenbrenner’s Ecosystemic Theory and discussed with the Executive SLT.
Whilst still in the early stages, the intention of this work is to form a development plan focused on enhancing staff mental health and to continue to work with staff to implement changes, as part of a vertical slice team. The Executive SLT are keen to act where they can and invest in a long-term approach of working with staff from a range of roles to understand factors that are impacting on them.
Previously, members of SLT had been keen to improve staff mental health but had felt unable to accurately elicit information about what the key issues are due to their line management responsibilities. As an Educational Psychologist with a neutral positionality, bringing research skills and an ability to protect confidentiality to this project has been valuable.
Student Mental Health Focus Groups
The mental health lead practitioner within the school has commissioned two separate rounds of student focus groups exploring the factors that harm and improve their mental health. The focus groups have involved students from different year groups, with a variety of needs, backgrounds, and identities. This information has been used to inform the content of the PSHE programme, interventions offered within the hub and has led to actions to enhance mental health at a whole-school level.
One example of these actions has been for the student council to create films of key issues, such as a group of year 7 students being interviewed about the transition experience into secondary school that can be shared with prospective parents and students to support the upcoming students.
I have delivered Emotion Coaching training to the whole-school staff during 2 sessions. As I am in the school frequently, I have had follow-up conversations with heads of departments, individual teachers, and members of SLT since the initial delivery.
To build on this foundation, I am in the process of delivering trauma-informed practice training. I have been delivering this to individual departments, enabling me to run it as table-top discussions and to differentiate the conversation. This is encouraging a greater depth to sharing ideas and reflecting on the content. In addition, there have been separate discussion sessions with SLT, pastoral teams and staff who work within the Hub – a base for supporting students with additional needs when they are not in lessons.
Staff Emotional Wellbeing Sessions and Coaching
In a time where the mental health of educational professionals is considered to be at an all-time low, with 78% of education staff reporting to have experienced mental health symptoms due to their work in a recent survey (Teacher Wellbeing Index, 2022), offering wellbeing support within the school system has been fundamental to promoting positive mental health in a school community.
Whilst there is an Employee Assistance Programme on offer, with a confidential phone-line offering therapeutic support, many staff are reporting a preference for face-to-face support with someone that is familiar with education. This has led staff to approach me directly, or to take up the offer of a confidential conversation with me from a member of the SLT. Topics have included grief, personal relationships, and work-related issues. Through using a combination of coaching (Adams, 2016), solution-focused approaches, motivational interviewing and CBT, staff can discuss anything in a space that is non-judgmental and free of line-management, thus competence-linked, processes.
The take-up of this offer has been steadily growing during the last two terms, with several staff members arranging regular sessions with me. I plan to grow this further to offer group coaching sessions to teams, such as the pastoral and Teaching Assistant teams. We are also exploring writing it into a mental health policy as an offer for staff who are returning to work following long-term absence, such as maternity leave, loss or illness.
Implications for Educational Psychology
It is an immense privilege to work with an SLT that has a clear dedication to promoting positive mental health and invests in it so highly. I work with several school Principals in a similar way, believing that an approach that filters from the top down has a high level of impact within the whole-school system.
I appreciate being able to draw on skills in research, intervention, training, consultation, coaching and supervision (of specific staff within the school), in addition to using assessment skills to complete casework.
My ultimate reflection relates to the importance of working closely with school Principals, through frequent discussions, to explore what the priorities for the school are and how we can work together to have the greatest impact. In supervision with Educational Psychologists and Assistant Educational Psychologists, I often recommend that they introduce themselves to the Principal and schedule a time to get to know each other, as it can lead to such an interesting variety of opportunities for Educational Psychologists to apply Psychology to.
Adams, M. (2016). ENABLE: A solution-focused coaching model for individual and team coaching. The Coaching Psychologist, 12 (1), pp. 17-23.
Education Support. (2019). Teacher wellbeing index 2019. London.