Whilst the understanding of the concept of mental health has increased, especially since the lockdowns, there is a gap between awareness and understanding. For some, their awareness is coupled with effective strategies, whilst for others their awareness is yet to be supported with understanding of the ‘how’. We can often, also get lost in looking for a ‘one size fits all’ approach, and missing the fundamentals. In no way, is this written to minimise what is being done, nor in order to criticise, but rather from 10 years of having similar conversations and making the same observations. There are still spaces where we can DO better, you reading this, tells me that you must agree to some level.
So, how can we best support mental health and special educational needs in our classrooms? Is there a route forward?
The simple answer is ‘yes’, but it’s not a one size fits all, cookie cutter approach.
7 ways to support children
#1 – Make it safe – I say this in every course I deliver, albeit online or face to face. In order for children to engage, they need to feel safe. If our brains do not feel safe, we remain in a state of hypervigilance, where our amygdala (fight-flight centre) is constantly engaged telling us ‘I am not happy and I am not safe’. So, how do we create safety? First of all we need routine and structure, this is especially important where we are working with SEN or trauma involved children. Routine and structure create predictability, predictability creates safety. I need to know what is happening. Considering visual timetables, consistent staff, the same seating plan, and doing what you said you would – promises being kept is fundamental to safety. When we are constantly making things ‘exciting’ we can lose safety and escalate emotional dysregulation and behaviour challenges.
#2 – Think of the environment – For many children, the environment is a huge factor to safety and dysregulation. For children with ASD or sensory processing difficulties, being too loud, (this can include constant low level noise), too hot, too cold or having too many sensory images e.g. things hanging from the ceiling or busy walls, can cause dysregulation and activate hypervigilance. Considering how we use our classrooms and how we regulate the sensory variables is incredibly important. You may consider reducing things hanging from ceilings, reducing the amount on walls, offering noise cancelling headphones and considering seating plans to minimise overwhelm.
#3 – Clear boundaries – As part of my Level 4, we dive into boundaries work, and interestingly, it is often a word we ‘use’ but are unsure how to manage. This is often a reason for dysregulation, and why some teachers can have few issues in class and others a great deal. Not because they are poor level teachers, but rather the concept of implementing boundaries has never been taught to them. When we have clear boundaries, we have clear expectations in our class which are CONSISTENTLY implemented and advocated to and by, both children and the teacher/teacher assistants. This means that children know where the lines are, and that because this is consistently implemented, they feel safer. We can fall victim to the belief of not wanting to play ‘good cop – bad cop’ but interestingly, when we look at this concept we can find a middle ground where we are consistent, fair and give clear explanations and expectations, which is incredibly important to children with mental health, SEN or trauma needs.
#4 – Safe spaces to decompress – Children who become dysregulated, cannot regulate in the same environment in which they became overwhelmed. We therefore need quiet safe spaces that children can visit to decompress. This is vital to helping children learn to regulate and to reduce risk to themselves and others, particularly where children experience fight or flight when dysregulated. This space should be cosy, quiet and have regulating strategies provided (see a full list here). Children should be able to visit and have a staff member nearby, but will frequently not want to speak to them until they are decompressed. Remember, too many questions activates the fight flight system.
#5 – Validation is vital – If you have completed my specialist courses in Emotionally Based School Avoidance or Self-harm, you will be familiar with the concept of validation. Often, adults can avoid validation as they believe that it means that they are agreeing with things. Validation is actually when we listen and hear the child’s perspective. It is not to say that they are right or wrong, but to validate that in this moment, this is how THEY feel. To build trust and safety, it is of vital importance that we validate children’s emotions and help them to verbalise their feelings and interpretations. Without this, we can become victim to making decisions for children rather than with them.
#6 – Gain parent perspectives – When children have mental health or SEN needs, their presentation at home and school can be like night and day. Therefore, what either of us see, is not necessarily the whole story. Children will frequently mask their symptoms, and this can mean that we are unaware of the bigger picture. We may find that the child is like two sides of a coin. Often, this delays interventions, support and assessments. Therefore, open and clear communication in which parents and staff are validated is a priority to identifying the support required.
#7 – What are we saying? – When children are experiencing mental health issues or are being assessed or have been diagnosed with ASD or ADD or ADHD, they are frequently rejection sensitive. This means, that when they experience criticism, shame or ineffective behaviour management (e.g. isolation, being sat outside offices, or being highlighted in front of peers – read more here) this can escalate their dysregulation through the use of inadvertent shame. Balancing and evaluating feedback and considering whether a child hears more positive or negative, often highlights triggers to the child. Consider what happens when we hear more positive feedback (for actual jobs not for the sake of it) and how this motivates us to do more, versus if we hear more negatives and how this demotivates and causes us to lose confidence.
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