Mental health needs

This section on mental health needs focuses on those children who have already become mentally unwell, have a condition such as autism or hyperactivity which may impair their ability to thrive and learn without further support or adjustment being made by schools, or are on the threshold of being mentally unwell.

It includes information on the different conditions that might affect children, the behaviours that school staff might see that could indicate a child is struggling, and the strategies that school staff can employ to support them.

These strategies include:

  • helping to build all children’s and/or prevent further escalation of poor mental health
  • helping children and families get the support they need
  • supporting children so that they can continue to achieve and learn even when they are struggling or unwell.

Some children with mental health needs may have an EHC plan (education, health and care plan) or other additional support as part of their school’s SEND (special educational needs & disability) responsibilities.



What leads to poor mental health?

Any child can experience challenges to their mental health, but some children and young people are at greater risk of developing mental health difficulties than others. This will depend on a range of factors including a child’s temperament, the range and severity of challenging life events that they face, and the extent to which they learn coping skills and get support to build their resilience.

Mental health risks and needs can also escalate.  Sometimes this happens gradually – sometimes more quickly.


Find out more about resilience

The Center for the Developing Child at Harvard have produced a useful video on what promotes resilience.


The link between mental health needs and SEND

There are significant overlaps between action advocated on this site to support children’s mental health and the responsibilities all school staff have as part of their SEND (special educational needs & disability) duties.

For example, under your school’s SEND obligations, all children will be assessed to establish if there are any barriers to learning caused by (among others) social, emotional, mental health or other needs such as autism.

The SEND Code of Practice also requires schools to adopt a ‘graduated approach’ – not just focusing on children with complex needs or who have an EHC plan (education, health and care plan), but being alert to all children’s needs, anticipating early on when those needs are escalating, taking action to prevent further difficulties, and supporting learning.

NASEN – the National Association of Special Educational Needs has produced a guide: ‘Everybody included: the SEND Code of Practice explained’. A free summary can be downloaded from the NASEN website.


Spotting the signs: Identifying when a child is struggling or unwell

Child mental health difficulties are often not obvious in how they present and for this reason can get missed.

It is not up to school staff to take on the role of a mental health professional and make decisions about whether a child might have a diagnosable mental illness. However, school staff are very well placed to be alert to any shifts or changes in mental health. Staff will also have access to a range of information on risks that may influence children’s mental health and on how a child is developing socially, emotionally and academically. All of this will help build a better picture of when a child might need additional support.

If school staff and parents/carers are worried but unsure about the scale of a child’s difficulties or of what might be behind certain behaviours/behaviour changes, the school’s pastoral lead and special educational needs coordinator (SENCO) will be able to provide further support and guidance. 

The ‘strengths and difficulties questionnaire’ (SDQ) can also be a useful resource. This tool can give a broad indication of where children might be struggling and of the scale and complexity of their difficulties. It can be completed by teaching staff and/or parents and is a helpful first step in working out what help children might need.


What schools can do about mental health needs

This website is not about turning school staff into mental health experts. It aims to help you:

  • Clarify what you are seeing.
  • Be alert and respond to children’s needs by taking appropriate steps.
  • Be more informed in your approach to identifying mental health/special educational needs; building it into your school’s plans for monitoring the progress and development of all pupils.
  • Use the school environment and everyday opportunities to help children develop coping skills and build resilience.
  • Increase your knowledge about how to promote and support children’s mental health.
  • Increase your knowledge and confidence about supporting children who may be receiving specialist mental health support or waiting to access help. School staff will always have an important role in helping all children cope, flourish, recover and achieve.

All of these activities need to sit within a whole-school approach to supporting children’s mental health and wellbeing.