How to start a conversation with children and young people about mental health
It can feel difficult to start a conversation with children and young people about mental health.
This may be because you don’t feel equipped with the information you think you may need, or lack confidence about how you even open up the conversation. Adults can also be concerned that they may not have the answers to children and young people’s questions, or that they might say something ‘wrong’.
But the good news is that you are used to working with children and young people, and are able to use language that they can understand. There are also a number of excellent resources available to help.
Why talk to children about mental health?
Calmly and confidently opening up conversations in our schools can encourage children and young people to understand that mental health is something we all have, and that we should be aware of it and learn skills to look after it. Importantly, we can also ask for help when we need support.
Depending on which phase of education you teach, the reasons for starting these conversations may be different.
In primary schools
When children are younger, it’s important that they understand how there can be changes in their bodies which are connected to their feelings and thoughts. For example, when our heart beats very quickly after we have been running, the same is true when we are nervous or scared.
By helping children with these concepts and getting them to think about how feelings and thoughts are linked to behaviour, we can then explain how a combination of all these elements affects our mental health.
In secondary schools and further education settings
If you work with older children, it’s important that they know that it is okay to ask for help. Speaking about mental health regularly will help students understand that we all have mental health and that there is no stigma in talking about it.
You may also want to start a conversation about mental health if you notice changes in a student that concern you. Being able to have these conversations is very important, as they will help you find out if they need support, if they are having a crisis, or if you need to involve specialist services.
What schools and further education settings can do
Conversations about mental health will be more effective in the context of a positive whole-school environment, where:
- There is an ethos of constructive, caring relationships across the school built on trust, kindness, safety and security.
- There is a sense of belonging and students are encouraged to talk to staff about worries and difficulties.
- Children and young people have been taught good social and emotional skillsand are able to identify feelings, thoughts and emotions.
- All staff are encouraged and supported to be alert, watchful and curious about children and young people’s behaviour, their body language, their interaction with other pupils, what they say, what they draw and what they do in school.
- There is a clear safeguarding policy in place so that staff know what to do if they believe a child is at risk.
- There is a strong foundation of good staff mental health and wellbeing.
Not all staff will feel comfortable opening up conversations on child wellbeing. It is important that school staff have good quality training and ongoing support from the senior leadership team to help with confidence in this area.
Starting the conversation
Ideally conversations will be opened up by a classroom teacher, a well-liked and sensitive teaching assistant or a playground staff member who is well-known to a child/children (rather than a supply teacher).
Every school should make sure that anyone working or interacting with children understands safeguarding procedures and has the necessary training.