December 2017


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  • Head first
    In a bid to equip young people with the tools to navigate their mental health and build their self-esteem, mental health organisation The Self-Esteem Team shares its top tips for staff and pupils. More
  • Time to speak out
    LGBT+ students need more role models among their teachers if they are to come out with confidence, says Daniel Gray, one of the organisers of new support and advocacy group LGBTed. More
  • Leading character education
    As discussion grows around character education, researchers David Sims and Matt Walker from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) highlight key findings from a new research project into the ways that five pioneering schools are leading character education within their settings. More
  • The gift of knowledge
    In celebration of the 100th issue of ASCL's Leader magazine, we asked senior leaders to share one piece of advice they would give to their younger selves if they were starting their first leadership role today. Here's what they said... More
  • Unfair shares
    Sam Ellis, Susan Fielden and Julia Harnden test out the National Funding Formula (NFF) and find it wanting. More
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In a bid to equip young people with the tools to navigate their mental health and build their self-esteem, mental health organisation The Self-Esteem Team shares its top tips for staff and pupils.

Head first

Young people are expected to navigate through life without being taught how to take care of their mental health. When they are inevitably tested by life and then ‘fail’, they often turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as self-harming or eating disorders, leaving those around them wondering why.

We can’t expect students to pass an exam without the right help, and that’s exactly how we view mental health education at The Self-Esteem Team.

It is a springboard to help young people find their voice, feel more comfortable in their skin and tap into their inner confidence to achieve their full potential. We aim to equip students with the tools they need to pass life’s exam – by opening up the dialogue we felt we so desperately needed when we were at school.

Fortunately, the tide is turning, and mental health is on the agenda now. Yet, by many it is still perceived as ‘being well’ or ‘being ill’. It is simply not that binary. Mental health happens on a continuum throughout our lives, requiring constant nourishment, but we only address it when someone hits crisis point. When they have, essentially, ‘failed the exam’.

We are taught almost from birth how to look after ourselves physically: eat well, exercise, sleep and so on. Yet we lag behind when it comes to the mind, so we get sicker and sicker, bottle up instead of open up, and then wonder why we’re hitting crisis point.

Even posters with details of helplines are located at bridges and train stations, places associated with peak crisis. Why aren’t they in classrooms, in Topshop or Tesco or, like a first aid box would be, around before people hit crisis level, so we can ‘normalise’ asking for help?

Mental health is not synonymous with mental illness. Statistics like ‘one in four will suffer a mental health issue’ are not helpful. Mental health is part of everyone’s life – it is four in four who have mental health. It is four in four who fluctuate between ‘being ill’ and ‘being well’ depending on what is happening in their lives at any one moment, whether it is grief, bankruptcy or even just a busy day.

So while you’ll be familiar with your five-a-day for physical health, here are our five-a-day mental health ‘must haves’:

1. Me time

You can’t pour from an empty cup, so you must look after number one – you! Take time for yourself so you can bring your A-game to the classroom. Whether it’s watching a TV show without checking your phone, having a takeaway mid-week so you don’t have to cook, taking a walk at lunch, using a meditation app or having a soak in the bath – whatever works for you, do it in regular, bite-size chunks to avoid stress levels rising to a point where you feel frazzled.

2. Practise what you preach

How many times have you said “I’m fine” and not meant it? To really have a shot at avoiding crisis, we need to increase our emotional literacy so when it is time to ask for help, it’s less daunting. Our Primary Expert Marie Udall says her best strategy is what teachers already do every day: modelling.

Let pupils know how you’re feeling daily, and be honest. Then ask them. You don’t need to divulge personal details; instead, demonstrate how simple and sociable it can be relating to one another.

Using a scale can help steer emotional intelligence tasks, that is, one to ten allows children to have a more tangible understanding of feelings. Make this interactive by using display boards – swap ten for a smiley emoji and one for a sad emoji. You can also use a scale of –5 to 17 to increase thinking outside the box and avoid students defaulting to 5 for an average day.

3. Critical thinking

The curriculum enforces passive ‘parrot-fashion’ learning, which not only discourages young people from interpreting and retaining information, but also becomes the way in which they view the world – meaning they absorb the messages around them and on social media, like a sponge. This conflicts with development and forming opinions and results in job interviews, public speaking and even exams consequently becoming something to fear.

A great way to spark a criticalthinking debate is to play what we call ‘the white writing game’. This involves getting students to find adverts on TV or online and hunt for the tiny white writing disclaimer in the corner of the screen that debunks the message being sold to them, and that maybe feeds their insecurities. When young people start questioning the world around them, they begin to feel empowered.

4. Collaboration

Sharing ideas can do incredible things for self-esteem. It can also revolutionise revision, as ‘learning when doing’ anchors facts to memory, making them easier to recall when under pressure. If possible, support the whole class to work together, and/or set tasks in pairs or groups and then help create roles based on pupils’ skillsets, that is, some pupils may be better at presenting to class, while others would be better at writing the script, designing handouts, promoting the talk to fellow students and so on. This allows a space where all skillsets are allowed to flourish, rather than those who like the limelight always leading.

Chris Russell, our speaker who delivers our Belong Workshop, said: “I’ve been playing piano since the age of seven, though it wasn’t until my teens when I started sharing my musicianship with some classmates, that I really understood how powerful that can be... Twenty years later, our band is still together, and we’ve performed across the world. None of that would’ve happened if we hadn’t bundled into a room aged 14 and gone: ‘Hey, let’s give this a shot.’”

5. The F word

Other than perhaps Olympic athletes, we are relentlessly taught how to succeed, yet never how to fail. We celebrate achievement and are forever chasing more likes on our last selfie, higher grades on our test or more money in the bank. The irony being, failure is life’s greatest teacher.

Our speaker Kay Rufai, who delivers our anti-bullying workshop, says, “Students must be taught how to command their own power rather than waiting to be empowered by others, or by success.”

A fun way to illustrate this is getting students to tweet or Instagram a picture that means something to them but not to others. The idea is to get the least likes. If the post is popular, get them to delete it and start again. This teaches students that the power lives inside them, and the idea of subcontracting your worth to others or a test grade, not only gives that thing the power to validate you, but also gives it the power to take it away. The ultimate objective is to show that their value is not only tied up in the destination but the journey.

Self-esteem workshop

The Self-Esteem Team is delivering a workshop on mental health at the ASCL Annual Conference in March in Birmingham. Find out more and book your place online

Nadia Mendoza & Grace Barrett
Founding members of The Self-Esteem Team