Helping a child struggling with their mental health: a teacher’s perspective
Sarah, a primary school teacher, explains what can be done to support a child with their mental health, both in school and at home.
As a teacher in a busy primary school, I am often asked by parents if their child is okay or if there is something wrong. Working with children all day without the distractions of everyday life, it can sometimes be easier for teachers or support staff to spot the signs and symptoms that a child is struggling with their mental health and not just having a bad day.
How to spot the signs that a child is struggling with their mental health
Sometimes it’s enough simply to see that the child looks sad or withdrawn or is constantly coming out of class to seek time with an adult, whether that’s speaking to a staff member or complaining of a tummy ache in the medical room. On their own these incidences may not be enough to set alarm bells ringing, but couple them with an increase in the number of days off or consistent lateness and, added together, it may suggest that the child is experiencing some mental health issues. These traits may be repeated in some form at home, so it is worth parents and carers looking out for these types of behaviour changes.
How we as professionals can support the child
If we can identify the issue, we can support the child. Within the school environment, this will mean setting up an adult support network and building a rapport with the child. It’s important to engage with them about things that matter to them - for example, asking them on a Monday how the football match went at the weekend, or anything else that shows you have listened to them as an individual and care about them. These are actions that can be taken at home as well.
I will often take time out to give a struggling child a daily job that helps them feel important and have an increased sense of self-worth – doing this in the morning can often set them up for the day. I know first-hand how difficult it can be getting children ready for school, but, if there’s time, then maybe that’s something that can happen at home too (a double boost)! I also use play therapy, where I can introduce structured play to allow the child to express themselves and talk about how they are feeling.
If either the parents/carers or the teachers do identify a problem, then it is important to share it and be honest with each other, so that you can jointly try to understand the root causes and give the child the support they need. It may be difficulties at home or problems with learning at school, but parents and teachers working together will allow you both to recognise the issues and identify the best course of action. And it is important to keep communicating with each other, perhaps by writing in a school-to-home link book.
How parents/carers can help the child at home
Most of the work that we do in school can and should be reinforced at home. For example, utilising what we call ‘zones of regulation’, which help identify a child’s state of mind through the use of colour, or setting home target charts to encourage good behaviour can be introduced and positive feedback shared with the school.
Using some or all of these techniques and reinforcing ‘I can’ language with positive praise and reinforcement will make a difference and, ultimately, we hope to see the child enjoy coming into school with a renewed sense of purpose and wellbeing.
Both parents/carers and teachers want what’s best for the child and therefore will be keen to address any issues as quickly and effectively as possible and, as we teachers say, keep the children in the “good-to-go green zone” - something we can definitely achieve with collective support and encouragement.
Author: Sarah, primary school teacher
Resources for professionals
If you work with children and young people, have a look at our YoungMinds professionals page for resources, tips and advice on things you can do to help young people with their mental health.