Mental Health in Schools: Building Strength of Character
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Mental Health in Schools: Building Strength of Character

Victoria Lambert finds out how schools are putting the extra-curricular subject of resilience at the core of their ethos.

Victoria Lambert finds out how schools are putting the extra-curricular subject of resilience at the core of their ethos.

If parents could pick one attribute for our children to develop at school, most of them would opt for resilience. No other quality seems to be as valued or as necessary in the 21st century.

mental health in schools

Why are young people so much more vulnerable than before and how can we help them?

The Mental Health Threat

We admire resilience, in particular, as key to supporting emotional well-being and positive mental health, both of which seem under threat. According to the Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition, one in ten children now has a behavioural or emotional difficulty, and almost half of young people with fewer than five GCSEs graded A* to C said they ‘always’ or ‘often’ feel down or depressed, compared with 30 per cent of those of the same age who are more qualified.

And after children leave school, changing patterns of work and social attitudes, combined with growing global insecurity, are enough to make even the toughest-skinned individual feel fragile.

Longlasting Damage

The consequence of not being resilient may last longer than we have previously realised. A new documentary, Resilience, directed by James Redford, explores the science of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and the birth of a new movement to treat and prevent toxic stress.

Now understood to be linked to a wide range of medical conditions, from heart disease
and cancer to substance abuse and depression, extremely stressful experiences in childhood are believed to alter brain development and have lifelong effects on health and behaviour.

A New Challenge for a New Generation

Yet the idea of needing to build resilience in a conscious way is curious. Our parents’ and grandparents’ generations lived through war and the deprivation that followed, so perhaps it’s not surprising they grew up uncomplaining. But those who grew up in the much more peaceful and prosperous seventies and eighties are also able to flex a little backbone when needed without any instruction. So, what’s happened to the tech age generation that they need extra developmental support. Why are young people so much more vulnerable than before and how can we help them?

At Gordonstoun in Scotland, headmaster Titus Edge is not convinced the problem is new. ‘Kids have always needed to be resilient; we’ve been engaging with it for 80 years at Gordonstoun. Each generation faces different challenges.’ 

For the current cohort of young people, he points to the pressures of social media, exam expectations and the changing work place with new challenges. ‘It’s a very different world to that which people faced a couple of generations ago.’

He adds: ‘I would say that children today are not necessarily less resilient. But they are much more honest and open with their feelings.’

Ann Clark, principal of King Edward VI High School for Girls, Birmingham (KEHS), agrees: ‘I feel that the current generation of children are just as resilient as their predecessors, but they have more to deal with as life is incredibly complex; the demands of social media are extremely difficult to navigate, and the fashion industry plays a more significant role than when I was young. Even the increase in university fees makes universities seem a more pressurised environment.’

mental health in schools

Marymount girls love to learn and learn to love

What Does ‘Resilience’ Mean?

There is a question mark too over what we mean by ‘resilience,’ warns Dr Felicia Kirk, headmistress
of St Mary’s Calne. ‘There is a tendency for some to hark back to the sort of pointlessly arduous
rites of passage that many of us had to endure with a kind of “it never did me any harm” attitude,’ says Dr Kirk. ‘The world has – generally, anyway – moved on and it’s not fair implicitly to doubt
the current generation’s worth because they face different challenges.

‘In fact, I think that’s the key to it: the pupils I see today are not (on average, and of course they are not a homogeneous group) less ‘resilient’ than the generations that preceded them. They are differently resilient, in the way that today’s world demands.’

Who is To Blame?

Where there is a lack of resilience, we adults may be to blame, warns Margaret Frazier, headmistress at Marymount International London. Mrs Frazier points out: ‘Children are the most resilient beings on the planet. Over the past decade, well-intended parents, teachers, coaches, and even head teachers, out of love, fear and expectations, have created too many safety nets that have prevented the little spills, stumbles and setbacks as part of an expected path of child development.’

mental health in schools

Marymount offers the IB, which offers a broader definition of success for candidates

Dr Kirk agrees that adults create the world which tests the resilience of children, but she says that ‘teaching and learning has been through a quiet revolution in recent times and in great schools it is now almost unrecognisably more professional than it used to be, so that pupils are far better nurtured and prepared for life in the round than they used to be in many cases. In one way this reduces the need for resilience – a degree of unpredictability has been removed – but in another way it increases the pressure because there is arguably less reason to fail.

Nurturing Resilience: How To Do It

‘This is something that we recognise at St Mary’s Calne and we work hard to help our girls through it – that’s one of the big drivers behind our bespoke well-being programme, which operates for the whole school community. That programme also helps build children’s ability to deal with the changing social pressures that they experience, including navigating the online world and social media.’

At Ashford School, Penny Willetts, head of prep, has been focusing on giving children new skills, including developing resilience which she now considers to be a core skill across all ages. 

‘The staff work with the children in their classes to point out examples of other children being resilient in everyday school life,’ she says. ‘We coach them through scenarios when resilience is needed. At the end of each week I receive nominations from staff of children that have shown good resilience. In our Friday awards assembly I give out resilience awards, which are small trophies,
to those children and they come up to receive them. 

‘Now I am approached by pupils who want to nominate other children in the school for resilience they have seen. If you asked any child at Ashford Prep School what resilience was, whether four or 11 years old, they would be able to tell you.’

At KEHS, Year Eight and Nine girls have mindfulness days after exams, with colouring, Hama beads, walking in the countryside, swimming and meditation on offer, and a strong encouragement to put their mobile phones to one side. Next year will see the launch of a meditation club. 

And in addition to a range of sport, the school offers each girl eight weeks of sessions of Krav Maga self-defence, a relatively simple but effective technique developed from other martial arts. Plus, English teacher Simon Holland has started an Ultimate Frisbee club which proved a popular stress-buster during GCSEs and A-levels.

How the IB Can Help

Marymount offers the International Baccalaureate (IB) which Mrs Frazier believes is important in itself. ‘The definition of IB success has always been broader: creativity, collaboration and individual student experience comprise it. The IB is not just test scores in a few subjects.  

‘I talk to the girls, and their teachers and advisors do too, a lot about the “other IB” – the inner being or inner balance needed to be a person who can adjust, adapt, and have confidence in herself
and is not afraid to ask for help. 

‘Among our school retreats, advisor chats, assembly topics and lots of self-reflection in their academic classes, we foster an ongoing conversation about this topic. It’s not ever a “one and done.”  Students’ wellbeing, with resilience and adaptability front and centre, should be our number one concern.’

Pushing Boundaries

For Titus Edge, Gordonstoun’s location on the northeast coast of the Scottish Highlands is core to the way the school develops life skills in its students. ‘We are close to the Moray Firth and just an hour’s drive from the Cairngorms. So as part of the curricular experience, children go into the hills and out to sea. They experience life beyond the normal comfort zone.

mental health in schools

Gordonstoun is the only school to have its own fire service

‘By impelling them into a range of expeditions such as sailing, which require them to take personal responsibility, we can inculcate them with self-worth and resilience that can endure throughout their lives. Real achievements – not just educational ones – can help you navigate the ups and downs of life.’

Another element of Gordonstoun life is the school’s concept of service. This is key, he says, to developing inner strength in children. ‘Our young people go out into community and learn to be of service. We are the only school to have our own fire service. We also offer a coastguard service.’

Resilience Births Agents for Good

There is perhaps another link back to the way our parents’ generation found strength in one area, which Mrs Frazier describes as central to Marymount. ‘Our faith-based values as a school of the RSHM [Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary] also provide a strong foundation,’ she says. ‘Gratitude and compassion empower and build resilience. Our girls believe in something bigger than themselves,  and I have seen the strength they have in seeing themselves as change agents for good in the world.

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