The headmaster of St Andrew’s Prep, Eastbourne, emphasises the importance of tolerance and kindness in overcoming childhood insecurity.
‘There comes a time when the world gets quiet and the only thing left is your own heart. So you’d better learn the sound of it. Otherwise you’ll never understand what it’s saying.’ (Sarah Dessen)
The modern world moves quickly. People can communicate across continents at the touch of a button and they expect answers immediately. Through instantaneous forms of social media, people are quick to form opinions and decide whether they ‘like’ something or not. These same people can also be seduced by the idea of having ‘friends’ which encourages them to share unnecessary details for all to see.
It is no wonder then that children are so vulnerable to feelings of insecurity which in itself has the power to damage society. Schools need to do all that they can to address this issue head-on.
There are around 850,000 children in the UK with a diagnosed mental health condition and the number may well be rising. Teachers are often trusted when it comes to problem solving and while no one should ‘play’ at being a counsellor, schools have a significant role in the way young minds develop.
We need to be educating our pupils how to form opinions properly, substantiate ideas, self-reflect without over-analysing, listen and value other opinions, think critically and be aware of the wider community. In other words, we need to expand the minds of every pupil so that they become more resilient, more compassionate and better listeners.
A paper produced by the LSE in October 2013, asking What Predicts a Successful Life, noted, ‘The most powerful childhood predictor of adult life-satisfaction is the child’s emotional health. Next comes the child’s conduct. The least powerful predictor is the child’s intellectual development.’
Most schools now have a dedicated member of staff in place dealing with wellbeing issues. Many schools also provide regular interaction with a member of the mental healthcare services. However, if a school really wants to be successful in tackling mental health issues, it must strive to be preventative rather than reactionary. The emotional health of its pupils should be placed at the heart of its culture. This requires more than just a detailed PSHE programme, as good as it may be. It requires a whole-school commitment to ensure that each child recognises the purpose for why he or she comes to school.
Pupil disengagement occurs when the purpose of school is not clear and the education on offer is regarded as irrelevant to that pupil’s world. Every teacher in a school has to be on board with the culture so that the purpose is clear in every lesson and in every activity.
Pupils need to know that they are at school not simply to learn what is presented to them but to learn how to learn, how to think independently and how to work collaboratively. If they do learn these skills, they will become more confident, carry hope and aspiration and develop a greater understanding of the society around them. This is easy to say, harder to implement.
Emphasis must be placed from the earliest years upon respecting each other’s views, even if they are different from one’s own. Care must also be taken to ensure that the approach is protective learning which will build up the necessary confidence and self-esteem to overcome insecurity. Children must not be allowed to feel that there are limitations to their learning, nor that their opinions and ideas have no value. Time must also be set aside on a regular basis, especially as the children mature and develop increasingly committed schedules, for the pupils to stop and, in modern parlance, ‘re-calibrate’, having self-reflected on their progress.
Indeed, this time-out provides a very valuable opportunity for a school to embed its culture. By getting each pupil to measure himself or herself against its core values, like kindness and tolerance of others, the school will simultaneously reinforce its own identity and develop a stronger emotional health within each pupil.
Meeting the complex and varied issues surrounding mental health is an enormous challenge for schools. However, if they can be clear with their values, allow each child to think for themselves and ensure that each pupil feels valued, they will go a long way to creating resilient, compassionate and confident citizens, who know themselves and are ready for the challenges of adult life. In the words of Plutarch, ‘What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.’