Children’s Mental Health Week Spotlight: Ranikhet Academy

At Ranikhet Academy, mental health is something that is discussed every single day, forming an essential part of our Steps to Success, where the school works to ensure their children are physically and emotionally healthy, which is key to their wellbeing.

Louisa Sanghera, Head of School explains, “The school has a listening culture, where children know if they need to talk to an adult they can do and can be confident that what they say will be acted on and fed back. We’ve done a tremendous amount of work with our pupils to help them articulate their feelings and emotions and helped them develop their vocabularies to describe their feelings and emotions.

One of our main interventions to support pupils’ social and emotional mental health is our Nurture Group, which takes place every morning for children with SEND, or where staff are aware of concerns for them. The Nurture Group room is designed to resemble a ‘family home’ room, so there is a kitchen area, a sofa area, and floor space for learning through play. At present there are 12 children in this group.

In the room, children do a number of learning activities alongside wider activities to develop their social skills. As one example: when they have a mid-morning snack it is the children who make the toast, butter it, serve it to each other, and then wash up afterwards. Our staff model the behaviours we want to see, but otherwise try to sit back and let the children develop at their own pace.

Since bringing in the Nurture Group we have seen a real improvement in behaviour. Previously these children were really struggling to engage with their learning in a large classroom setting, leading to low-level behaviour issues and general disruption. As soon as they were taken out of the classroom and put into the Nurture Group setting for the morning, they were calmer throughout the day.

They clearly enjoy the structure and routine of their morning in the Nurture Group, while also developing strong relationships with the teachers there. We invite their parents into the school so they can see what a morning there looks like, and that also gives us the chance to discuss those so-important things like getting a good night’s sleep, having a solid bedtime routine, a healthy diet, and even giving them some cookery instruction for the future. It means it’s supportive for the whole family, which helps them develop their family unit as well as improving our relationships with them.

Our plan is for the children in the Nurture Group to be in there for four half terms. After this we will assess them to see if they are ready to start their transition back to the classroom, dividing their mornings between the Nurture Group and the classroom, before going back permanently. Of course, if they are not ready, they can stay in the Nurture Group for longer.”

Like Aerodrome Primary Academy and Beccles Primary Academy, pets also feature in the pastoral offer at Ranikhet. There is a ‘Reading to Guinea Pigs Club’, a morning club which is run weekly where children can come in and read chosen stories to the school’s pet guinea pigs.

The school has two guinea pigs which play a key role in supporting the most vulnerable children. These pupils may have struggled to develop their reading skills, as well as requiring emotional support, and so now have the opportunity to come into school and spend time with the pets and read to them in a reassuring and safe environment.

Two Year 6 pupils at Ranikhet Academy are the designated Guinea Pig Champions – responsible for supervising and cleaning out the guinea pig cages, modelling how to care for the pets, and how to use this kind behaviour in pupils’ wider lives. Using pets to support children’s reading is becoming more common in schools across the country as they provide a non-judgemental, supporting, presence which encourages pupils to feel more confident in reading aloud. In addition, there is growing evidence that children’s social and emotional development can benefit greatly from interactions with animals.

Louisa says, “We are delighted with the impact our guinea pigs have made since joining our school– they have been a great addition. Spending time with them has really helped some of our pupils who might need just that extra emotional support at school.”

Children’s Mental Health Week Spotlight: Heath Hayes Academy

Sometimes it takes just small changes to a school’s approach to make a significant impact on the emotional wellbeing of their pupils. Mary-Ellen Krause, Inclusion Lead explains:

“As a school we wanted our approach to children’s mental health to be proactive, rather than managing crises or responding to behaviour issues. As a result, we established our Relational Care Team (RCT), consisting of five members of staff with the role (in addition to their day jobs!) of supporting children with their unmet needs.

The RCT look for children who might need additional support, whether that’s due to bereavement, mental health issues, concerns with their learning, or anything else. Each member of the team wears a star on their lanyard so any child can identify them and know they can come to them for help.

So far, the impact has been incredibly positive. When it comes to dropping children off for the day, particularly on a Monday or after a holiday, they can be unsettled, but with two members of the RCT on the gate they are far more likely to be happier and start their day more smoothly. Having that friendly face right at the start means they know there’s someone there in case of any issues.

It’s also hugely helped across the school with any incidences of low-level unwanted behaviour. Because our pastoral support actively identifies any potential issues and mitigates them in advance, a child who is struggling with their learning can access this support and get themselves back in the right mindset to learn.

We’ve noticed a reduction in children coming to us in crisis and we’ve been able to identify patterns which has proven incredibly effective. We can notice an issue brewing and can often ‘nip these in the bud’.”

The school has plans to develop its Relational Care Team further.

“We already run a ‘soft start’ on Friday mornings for children with SEND, attachment issues or trauma, where they start the day in our nurture provision. It’s been really effective and parent feedback has been glowing about how much of a difference it makes.

That’s why we want to run this on a daily basis, with a member of the RCT overseeing it, to make sure these children start every school day at their absolute best.

In addition, after the February half term, we’re going to look at organising a separate dining room for pupils with sensory needs, who might struggle with a busy dining room. Again, a member of the RCT can oversee this and make sure these children can eat their lunch in peace, and so be in a far better mindset for their afternoon lessons.

These might look like small tasks, but their impact can be tremendous in supporting all our children to feel valued and to know we are actively looking to make the school environment as supportive as possible for them. Every member of the RCT wants our pupils to feel welcome, and ready to learn.”

Children’s Mental Health Week Spotlight: Camulos Academy

Whilst waiting lists were long before March 2020, one of the consequences of the pandemic has been a tremendous backlog in accessing external services to support pupils’ mental health. As a result, Camulos Academy has worked to train up their staff to develop a model of internal support to ensure pupils are able to reach their full potential.

Sam Greatorex, SENDCo at Camulos explains, “Our staff are very good at noticing triggers and signs of potential distress among our pupils. We’ve done a lot of training on this in the past and it has really paid off. Teachers are very quick to come and say they have a child who is struggling, meaning we can move quickly to see if they need an intervention, or a programme of support put in place.”

Programmes include speech and language interventions to enable pupils to have the vocabulary to express their emotions, as well as training a member of staff as an Emotional Literacy Support Assistant to help children develop their emotional and social skills.

“We are in the process of training up two members of staff on Mental First Aid courses, and our Headteacher is a Mental Health First Aider. These are vital roles where they can spot the signs of mental health issues and have the skills to support someone in crisis. It also means raising awareness around mental health for both staff and pupils and reducing any stigma around mental health.”

Another support mechanism in place, funded by the school, is a play therapist who comes in every week to work with pupils who need more focused support. If children are struggling to engage with their classes, they’ll be referred to the therapist for an initial six-week block. This has proven to have a huge impact in helping these pupils regulate their emotions, and while they may still have their ‘blips’, it’s a significant improvement in helping them concentrate in class.

Despite all these measures the school recognises that some children may still need more professional support through accessing CAMHS. However, with external support still difficult to access, by developing a model of internal support the school has embedded a supportive and caring ethos throughout the school.

Always looking to improve, the school has more plans in place to enhance mental health support for their pupils. “We want to build on our provision by training staff on Trauma Perceptive Practice. This helps staff understand more about the neurobiology behind pupil behaviours, why different situations cause pupils to react in different ways, and how these are influenced by the traumas they’ve experienced. It essentially helps staff understand that pupils aren’t misbehaving because they’re naughty, but rather because there are underlying issues that they need to explore.

These could be previous traumas, attachment issues, or emotional concerns. The programme is non-punitive and is designed to help staff identify certain triggers in their pupils and then approach them in a more compassionate fashion.”

The Headteacher and SENCo are currently training on the programme and will look to embed it among the rest of the staff over the course of the summer term.

It’s just one more example of the school looking at how they can mitigate the impact of losing outside support. With schools across the country struggling to access external services, Camulos have had to think harder about how they can actively widen the support they can offer ‘in-house’. “Our school culture is built around inclusion and putting in the work to help our pupils overcome any barriers to learning and developing a strong internal model of support is central to this.”

Children’s Mental Health Week Spotlight: Beccles Primary Academy

Beccles Primary Academy works hard to implement best practice in mental health provision. Their aim is to develop and embed a culture where mental health and wellbeing sits at the heart of school life.

This is evident in their commitment and drive to achieve the Wellbeing Award for Schools (assessment is due in June). At the start of their journey, the school evaluated their provision to identify their strengths and areas for improvement. This included gathering feedback from key stakeholders (pupils, parents, staff) to ensure a whole-school approach.

“We received a flood of suggestions, which have proven incredibly useful, and we have already been able to act on them.” Sue Manders, Mental Health Champion and Family Wellbeing Lead at Beccles explains. “As an example, we have started to train pupil Wellbeing Champions – four Year 5 pupils who are trained to offer support to their peers in a more informal fashion than asking staff for help. They will be a regular source of low-level support to our wider pupil body and will form a central part of our strategies to support pupils’ emotional wellbeing.”

Additionally, the school works with a specialist mental health school support worker who comes in on a monthly basis to act as a sounding board for staff if they have any concerns about children. They also meet with parents to support them, and recently led a three-session anxiety course for parents. “With mental health services so stretched at the moment, having her as a resource where we can call her and say we’re worried about a child and ask for her advice, is a tremendous help.”

Beccles, like an increasing number of REAch2 schools, has also tapped into the power of pets in the classroom. Statistics show time and time again that animals can help relieve stress and anxiety in children, and can regulate breathing and heart rates. Animals have been known to help calm children during panic attacks, and can be considered their friends, helping them feel less alone. Staff recognise that the school’s chickens and rabbits can be a great tool in helping the children regulate their emotions which allows a restorative approach to behaviour management to take place.

Another innovation to compliment the school’s work to support the local community, is the practical provision of what is called The School Shop. With the news full of reports about the cost-of-living crisis, the school is clear about the link worrying over rising costs may have on the emotional health of families. According to Aisling Traynor, Head of Advice and Training for the charity Mental Health UK, “Money and mental health problems are often interlinked, and together these issues can create a worrying cycle that can lead to problems in other parts of our lives, putting stress on our relationships and negatively impacting our wellbeing.”

Sue explains, “The name is slightly misleading, as we don’t ask for payment from parents for anything we offer here, but instead we use it as a means of ensuring our pupils and their families never have to go without. The Shop is open two days a week and offers a whole range of provisions. We receive donations from a local food bank, from Morrisons, and even a local farm shop which kindly offers fresh produce for our community. Parents are encouraged to come in and take what they need, and we’ve worked hard to make sure it is a judgement-free zone, so no one feels unable to access this service. As a school we also provide uniform items at the shop, as we know this can build into a significant additional cost for families. It means that our pupils can come to school looking their best, and no one feels ashamed if their family is struggling financially.”

Removing stigma around mental health is a key part of the work the school has done to develop a positive culture which regards the emotional wellbeing and mental health of their community, as the responsibility of all.

“What is great to see, is that the Shop has really started to become a community hub, and a number of parents will come in just for a cup of tea and a chat. It’s really helped us develop links with our families, and we know how important these improved relationships are in supporting their children.”

These improved relationships have also enabled the school to introduce parents to the mental health specialist so that they can access support from her, or even just have an informal chat if they have any worries.

Beyond this, the school has plans to build on their school ‘shop’ even further. “We are putting plans in place to host a Toddler Group there as we know that very young children have really suffered during the pandemic. It will be great to open this up to younger siblings and other young children in the area. Our experience so far has shown us how important having the shop is to our wider community and to bringing them into our school.”

Children’s Mental Health Week Spotlight: Aerodrome Academy

According to research published by Place2Be and NAHT, the vast majority of staff working in UK schools (95%) have noticed increased levels of pupil anxiety since the start of the school year.

This is certainly the experience of Head teacher Zoe Foulsham who shares the view that the impact of the pandemic is still being felt in schools.

“As a result of Covid-19 and the national lockdowns, we have seen children more likely to struggle with their emotional wellbeing. This can mean them being withdrawn, anxious, or suffering from trauma-related behaviours, such as being hyper-vigilant or struggling to maintain focus.”

The school’s response is to continue their focus on a whole school approach to addressing the increased need amongst their pupils. Staff have high levels of training for overseeing pupils’ emotional wellbeing. This isn’t just the occasional CPD session, but rather the result of a consistent conversation around mental health and wellbeing. New staff are inducted in this when they join, but they also learn over time through seeing existing staff talk about, and towards children to see how they are treated with respect.

This culture is reflected in the school’s behaviour management approaches. When unwanted behaviours arise in children, staff look deeper to understand why this is happening, and if there are any traumas that they can be supported with. The approach is always pastoral rather than punitive.

Behaviour is managed through dialogue with teacher and child, it is not a shame-based approach which highlights children who have misbehaved. However poor the behaviour, there is never a public audience to approaching it, but instead it’s a deeper conversation to understand the underlying reasons behind the behaviour.

Vicky Rhodes Assistant Head and SENCO, explains that a key element to this is the use of Zones of Regulation across the school. “This teaches children emotional literacy, emotional support strategies, and helps them understand how they can actively work on supporting their own mental health.”

The teaching team also have regular pastoral meetings, where a close look is taken at children who have displayed emotional behaviours to determine what support they need. One option is encouraging children to work with the learning mentor for a lunchtime or playtime session. This offers a relaxing and informal space where children can talk about any difficulties while doing a range of activities, whether that’s football, table tennis, drawing or even cookery (whatever they are most likely to respond well to). Another welcome member of the pastoral team is Wilson the dog who has been a part of the school for 5 years. He is taken for daily walks with Zoe and pupils who need pastoral support.

The school has more formalised external support in some cases. But this is complicated by the fact that the capacity just isn’t there these days outside the school. Vicky Rhodes highlights the national shortage of Educational Psychologists for example, with provision in their borough halved in recent months. This is reflected in the national picture, with only 23% of staff surveyed by Place2Be, saying they had regularly been able to access specialist support for pupils with mental health needs.

Zoe Foulsham is resolute in the school’s response to this, “We are willing to dedicate a significant part of our budget to bring in external support, but if we can’t find the people, then we will have to keep on supporting our children ourselves. Putting their wellbeing at the heart of our school is our first priority.”