How can Primary Schools Better Support their Students’ Mental Health?

PhD candidate & Learning Leader at the University of Melbourne & Murdoch Childrens Research Institute reflects on the challenges for teachers in Australia when supporting children’s mental health in primary schools, and the lessons for policymakers.

Alison Giles-Kaye

An Australian study of primary school teachers explored their perspectives related to how schools can support the mental health of their students. Despite feeling overwhelmed, teachers expressed high levels of motivation to support their students and said that students struggle to access teaching and learning when they are experiencing mental health difficulties.

Teachers gave insights into their complex role in this area. They specifically noted that supporting student mental health was not provided in their teaching degrees, and that was related to feeling overwhelmed and out of their depth.

Despite having developed a range of strategies to identify and support student needs teachers suggest that targeted pre-service and ongoing mental health professional learning is necessary.

This professional learning should help in understanding the functional characteristics of students with mental health difficulties, but also how they can support students in their classrooms and engage with external mental health services. A whole-school approach to mental health was advocated by all participants, including valuing staff, students, and families’ mental health as well as the importance of relationship-based practice. This enables teachers to know their students well and to see when they are struggling.  Findings provide insights that may inform a more effective policy approach within the health and education systems.

Key findings:

Teachers saw collaborating with families as vital to supporting children’s mental health. However, they also expressed concern about the pressures families experience that can add to the mental stresses of children and limit effective partnerships with their child’s schools. Moreover, low child mental health literacy levels, complexities around the language of mental health and socio-cultural differences in understanding of mental health add to the complexities of working with families. Low levels of mental health literacy affect children’s access to support services, and then limit schools’ capacity to provide them with effective support.

A school culture that embeds a whole-school approach and prioritises mental health was identified as a key factor to effective support of student mental health. This was identified as both an enabler and barrier as it either promoted or limited the support teachers can provide in their school. When student-staff relationships are highly valued by the school teachers say they are better able to identify and support students’ individual needs. This is further supported by a whole-school approach to social-emotional learning.

Professional assessments of children’s mental health needs were seen as pivotal in the planning and implementation of support for students. Participants noted the long waiting lists for services, up to a year, to access assessments and interventions. These extended wait times inhibit the school’s ability to effectively support children placing extra pressure on teachers who are left to fill the gap. This is further compounded by the previous finding of their limited training. Local school-based support services, such as allied health, were seen as insufficient with frequent changes in staff and a focus on diagnosis rather than treatment. Teachers expressed a need for schools to have access to consistent qualified support services that can help improve the capacity of classroom teachers, but to also provide targeted support when appropriate.

So, while schools are increasingly being seen as an ideal setting to support children’s mental health, educator insights raise implications for strategic policies and practices in the education and health sectors.

Key policy implications:

  • Pre-service teacher education and ongoing professional development should include training in the early identification of children’s mental health difficulties, as well as evidence-informed approaches which teachers can implement in their classroom. This would involve the support that can be provided to students, regardless of whether a student is accessing medical support.
  • Ensuring teachers and schools have sufficient time to enable them to identify and provide support for the mental health needs of their students.
  • Whole-school approaches to the teaching of Social and Emotional Learning, and the provision of multi-tiered supports build the capacity of teachers to effectively support children’s mental health.
  • Schools need consistent, regular access to qualified allied health staff to assess students’ needs and provide targeted assistance, and to give strategic support to teachers and families so they can effectively help children.
  • Excessive waiting lists to see mental health professionals should be reduced so children and families can receive prompt and targeted assessment, support, and intervention. Understanding the specific mental health needs of their students would give teachers the knowledge they need to supply individualised support within the classroom.
  • Public health strategies to improve Mental Health Literacy through the broader community needs to be implemented to help children access support services and to promote partnerships between schools, students, and their families via a collective understanding of mental health promotion and intervention.

On November 17th, IPPO is holding an online event to discuss the findings of its systematic review, which has looked at ‘What are the most effective, scalable interventions to address anxiety and depression, shown to have surfaced during the COVID-19 pandemic?’. Sign up here to attend.