In this post
Mental health is important at every stage of life. However, it is particularly important to develop a good attitude toward mental health during childhood and adolescence. Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. According to data from the NHS, 18.0% of children aged 7 to 16 years and 22.0% of young people aged 17 to 24 years had a probable mental health issue in 2022.
For those students without mental health conditions, it is still essential that the impact of the pressures of learning on mental health is considered. But what are the signs of student mental health concerns? And what resources are available for teaching assistants who have concerns about their students’ mental health?
Here’s everything you need to know:
Introduction to the Impact of Student Mental Health on the Learning Process
There is a direct link between student mental health and academic performance. Many children with poor mental health will receive poor grades at school because their mental health challenges will lead to difficulty concentrating, lack of optimism and difficulty sleeping. These are all common issues that can negatively impact academic progress. What’s more, we know that children with better emotional well-being make more progress in primary school.
For this reason, when children display signs and symptoms of mental health concerns within an academic environment it is important that their teaching assistant discusses this with the class teacher and that mental health concerns are addressed within the educational setting.
The most common mental health disorders among adolescents include obsessive–compulsive disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, bipolar disorder, impulse disorders, and oppositional defiant disorder. However, it’s important to note that the mental health challenges children and young people face in the school environment are not always diagnosable conditions. Many more children face challenges to their emotional well-being, behavioural well-being, and social well-being.
Teaching assistants play a very important role in supporting student well-being, particularly children who need additional support due to mental health challenges. Teaching assistants can support student well-being by creating a safe and supportive learning environment, encouraging positive mental health practices, and providing social and emotional learning. Teaching assistants tend to have more time to focus on social well-being than teachers, who are restricted to meeting academic learning goals.
As children and young people spend so much of their time in schools, teachers and support staff are in a prime position to help them build strong mental health and well-being. Because they spend one-to-one time with each child in the classroom, they are also in a great position to identify children who may have mental health concerns and need additional support both in and out of the classroom.
Recognising Signs of Student Mental Health Concerns
It’s important to be aware of some of the most common signs and symptoms of mental health challenges in children. According to the NSPCC, some of the main signs of mental health challenges in children and young people include
- Sudden mood and behaviour changes
- Unexplained physical changes, such as weight loss or gain
- Sudden poor academic behaviour or performance
- Sleeping problems
- Changes in social habits, such as withdrawal or avoidance of friends and family
Teaching assistants should be aware of when mental health issues become safeguarding concerns, and most teaching assistants should undergo training to support this. A key part of their role is to be observant and proactive in identifying students who may need additional support.
Children with mental health challenges often have additional emotional needs within the classroom. Some of the ways that teaching assistants can respond sensitively to these emotional needs include teaching children how to manage their emotions from an early age. The earlier children are taught to regulate their emotions the greater their emotional resilience will be. These are life-long skills that will be beneficial at every stage of development.
For this reason, social and emotional skills should be integrated across the curriculum and school life. There are many different ways in which this can be integrated into the classroom. Health and wellbeing education and curriculum lessons can be led by teaching assistants. Assemblies and whole-school programmes can also introduce the concept of emotional well-being on a wider level.
Building Trust and Rapport With Students
Children share and communicate best when they are with individuals that they trust. It is important that teaching assistants work to build a safe and trusting relationship with every student in their classroom, not only to further their educational needs but to focus on their mental health needs too.
Some of the best ways a Teaching Assistant can build an authentic rapport with their students include
- Smiling and showing warmth. Using open body language and greeting the children in an authentic way each morning.
- Don’t be afraid to share. Share your enthusiasm for the subjects you are teaching. Share appropriate stories from your life that relate to the content you are supporting in a personal way.
- One of the best ways to build a relationship is to say and use your students’ names. This clearly demonstrates that you view your students as individuals with their own identities.
- Start building rapport on your very first day in the classroom. Establish early with the children that you are supporting that their wants and needs are important to you.
- Understand that all students, no matter what their age, have rich and complicated lives outside of the classroom. Listen if your students want to talk about their lives outside of school, and don’t be afraid to reach out if you have concerns about their home life.
- Personalise your engagement with each student. There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to providing mental health support, care, and engagement within the classroom. Adopt a plan that works for the child you are working with, and modify this to suit the needs as your scope broadens to include other students.
Showing empathy and understanding is important to fostering a caring learning environment within the classroom. You can practise empathy by actively listening to what the students have to say. You should be understanding and listen carefully to what your students have to say without interrupting. If the child is reluctant to share or unable to express themselves clearly then asking open-ended questions can also be beneficial. Mindful understanding is key to building a relationship with the children under your care.
Encouraging Open Communication and Active Listening
When teaching assistants are working with students it is important that they keep the channels of communication open. One way to do this is to ensure that you are practising active listening. Active listening is a form of communication that involves going beyond simply hearing the words that another person speaks but also seeking to understand the meaning and intent behind them. This means that as well as simply listening to the words that are being spoken, you should also look for visual cues and posture to try to understand what the child is really thinking and feeling.
Maintaining eye contact during conversations and listening without offering either judgement or advice are both good active listening techniques that can be valuable to teaching assistants. Active listening plays an important part in ensuring that students feel heard and that their feelings and experiences are validated.
Communication is a key aspect of building a relationship between teaching assistants and students. To ensure valuable communication channels are established, teaching assistants should create opportunities for students to share their thoughts and concerns. They should be made to feel safe and comfortable to do so. Teaching assistants play a vital role in the social development of students as well as in their academic development, and strategies for good mental health will form a part of this social development.
Teaching assistants can create opportunities for students to communicate and share by setting aside 5-10 minutes at the end of each lesson to ask questions or encourage students to ask their own questions. Providing one-on-one time where each child can raise their concerns or ask questions of their teaching assistant will give a forum where they can also promote mental health strategies and ensure that each child is in a good state of mental health.
Providing Resources and Referrals for Professional Support
There is a wide range of resources that teaching assistants can access to support student mental health. These resources can be accessed both within the educational institution and within the wider community.
Teaching assistants should know when to discuss their concerns about any particular child with both the classroom teacher and, where necessary, the school SENCO. It is also important that teaching assistants know when to refer students to counselling or mental health services. The most obvious time to make a referral would be when a student specifically indicates the need for counselling or psychological services. But even if a child doesn’t express an interest in being referred to support, there may still be times when this is appropriate. Any student who is disclosing personal or psychological issues should be referred to counselling. In older students, any student who discloses alcohol or substance abuse issues should also be referred to services for help and support.
Teaching assistants should develop the skills to sensitively and discreetly provide information about available resources to students. It is particularly important to many students that their classmates don’t know about their mental health struggles, and teaching assistants should respect this desire for privacy.
Implementing Stress Reduction Techniques and Mindfulness Practices
Mindfulness is considered something of a buzzword at the moment, and people of all ages are being encouraged to adopt mindful practices. Mindfulness is defined as the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed.
Mindfulness is often viewed as a valuable stress reduction technique and teaching assistants can use this and incorporate it into their classroom setting. Mindfulness practices can be used to promote emotional well-being, and teaching and practising simple mindfulness exercises with students can have a positive impact on their mental health.
Teaching assistants can either lead mindfulness exercises or they can encourage their students to lead mindfulness exercises. For example, students can create a gratitude tree together, as gratitude increases mindfulness of positive events. Asking students to take part in breathing exercises before lessons can also promote positive mental health and well-being. Finally, sensory experiences form a fundamental aspect of mindfulness and are particularly valued by younger, primary school-aged children. Ask children to focus on what they can see, smell, taste, and feel. This will allow them to feel grounded in the moment, rather than worrying about what will happen next.
Promoting a Positive and Inclusive Classroom Culture
Teaching assistants play a key role in creating a positive classroom culture: they can promote social and academic enthusiasm, encourage friendship groups to form, and adopt strategies to ensure that no child is excluded.
Teaching assistants can work to promote friendship and understanding within the classroom, in a way that teachers often don’t have the time to do independently. Having a strong friendship group can be a huge factor in protecting children against bullying. And we know that bullying can be a huge contributing factor to mental health concerns. According to the Anti Bullying Alliance, bullying has a significant effect on children and young people’s mental health, emotional well-being and identity. Bullying that is not responded to effectively can cause children and young people to develop other coping strategies, such as self-isolation or self-harm; and significant disruption to their ability to engage with school, learning and their wider relationships.
Some examples of classroom activities that teaching assistants can support to foster positive emotions and build a sense of community among students include
- Providing opportunities for student-to-student interaction.
- Making time for student-to-teaching assistant interaction. This can be one-on-one or in small groups.
- Supporting the teacher by leading the rest of the class so that the teacher can also have one-to-one interaction time with each pupil.
Teaching assistants play a vital role in identifying mental health concerns amongst students and in promoting good mental health in their cohort. Mental health issues are on the rise in school environments. One study of staff working in secondary schools found that 72% of staff members have noticed an increase in self-harm, 61% in suicidal thoughts, and 56% in eating difficulties. Awareness of these conditions is key as it means that teaching assistants can identify any children that they feel may be at risk. They can then provide support and resources and foster a positive and caring classroom culture that provides support and open channels of communication to children with a myriad of needs.
There is a wide range of resources on child mental health available, and many schools will offer specialist training in these concerns to their teaching assistants. Teaching assistants should empower themselves with knowledge and skills wherever possible. This will ensure that they can provide the mental health support to children that they need, ultimately contributing to their overall academic success and personal growth.