We have health and safety policies for children’s bodies in our schools – so why don’t we have health and safety policies for children’s minds? We have all the evidence we need on the adult-child relationship experiences that cause mental health problems and those that heal.
Painful life experiences, particularly multiple ones, are in most cases, the cause of mental ill-health – especially when there is no one there to help a child make sense of and work through what happened (known as protective factors). ACEs include childhood events such as living with parental separation, suffering a major loss, witnessing domestic violence, living with a parent with mental health problems or one who has an addiction. The more ACEs, without protective factors, the more vulnerable the child is to developing a mental health problem. Furthermore, ACEs trigger what is known as ‘toxic stress’,which negatively impacts on the developing brain, the immune system and the endocrine system.
Mentally healthy schools can decrease toxic stress and interrupt the trajectory from adverse experiences to mental and physical ill-health. Some key components of a mentally healthy school include:
Implementing a ‘relationship policy’ for staff
Such a policy should include whole-school training on the physiology and neurochemistry of angry, threatened behaviour in children and the physiology of calm, engaged behaviour. When teachers are open and engaged with children in a respectful and warm manner, anti-aggression and anti-anxiety chemicals are activated.
Interventions such as ’meet and greet’ are key. This one intervention not only settles children but has been found to increase attendance figures (Dix 2017). One school found that saying goodbye to each child by name as they got on the school bus at home time led to calmer journeys.
Introduce specific interventions that bring down pupils’ toxic stress levels
There are many neuroscience research backed interventions designed to decrease stress levels in vulnerable children from toxic to tolerable. These include:
· Accompanied drumming
· Tai chi
· Sensory play
· Time with animals
Train school staff to become ‘emotionally-available adults’ for vulnerable children
Having daily and easy access to at least one specific emotionally-available adult is an effective way to bring down pupils’ toxic stress levels. If the child does not take to the designated adult, an alternative person should be found.
Key staff should be trained in reflective conversations to enable vulnerable children to address ‘incoherent narratives’ about their lives and negative self-referencing.This provision can enable vulnerable children to move from ‘behaving’ their trauma, to reflecting on those experiences.
Focus on the wellbeing of staff as well as students
This needs to happen from the top, with senior leads:
· Carrying out a duty of care to staff top revent burn-out, absence or leaving the profession through stress-related illness.
· Being aware of unmanageable stress and providing staff with sufficient emotional regulation and staff-only spaces where they can reflect.
· Providing on-the-spot empathic support for moments of crisis and a forum for school staff to talk about their feelings and stress triggers.