What signs to look out for and how to help pupils’ with poor mental health during the pandemic

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Worried about well-being? Look for students appearing more withdrawn or fatigued than usual, or whose appearance has changed

The school gates have opened to all students for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic bolted them shut, forcing teachers and students to adapt to a new way of learning. The past few months have put a strain on emotional well-being for us all, but the resilience of young people has truly been tested as they continue to navigate this global crisis. Now that students have returned to classrooms across the country, supporting their well-being is perhaps the biggest priority for teachers.

What are the signs to look out for?

The first step to identifying that a student might be struggling with their well-being is undoubtedly to know the signs to look out for. Kelly Taylor-Cartwright, head of year 10 at The King’s CE School in Wolverhampton, believes a change in a student’s behaviour can be a clue. ‘A student who is often confident will start to withdraw, becoming quieter than normal,’ explains Kelly. ‘During conversations and interactions with students, we may see a change in their normal responses, for example, they may not engage in conversations or become easily agitated.’

As teachers we have an important role in supporting well-being

Heather Tunstall, senior teacher at Bolton School Boys’ Division in Greater Manchester, agrees with Kelly that behaviour can often be an early sign a student is struggling. ‘As teachers we are well placed to notice changes and have an important role in supporting well-being,’ argues Heather. ‘A useful indicator is anything that is unusual for that individual: are they quieter or chattier than usual? Has their appearance changed?’ Heather points out, however, that these changes may differ from one student to another.

‘These changes could show themselves in a number of ways,’ echoes Jess Martin, head of year at an academy in Wiltshire. She says fellow teachers should be on the lookout for ‘emotional outbursts, students avoiding social situations that they normally would have enjoyed being part of and appearing more socially withdrawn, or sometimes simply looking more fatigued and tired than usual.’

Opening up the conversation

It can be challenging to start a conversation with a student who might be struggling with their well-being. Kelly’s approach is to gain some common ground with her students by opening up a conversation about something they are interested in. ‘Then, if I feel it is appropriate, I will ask how they are, using open questions rather than specific questions relating to my concerns, which may result in them ‘shutting down’ and not talking,’ she says. She also acknowledges the importance of recognising when a student doesn’t wish to engage in conversation. ‘If it is clear the student doesn’t want to talk, I always just remind them that I am there for them when they are ready, whenever that may be, and that I will continue to touch base with them.’

Heather thinks that planning a conversation with a student beforehand is useful. ‘Choose an appropriate time and place to raise your concerns and let the student know you are available to chat; active, non-judgemental listening is incredibly important,’ she says. ‘If students don’t want to engage make sure you follow up with the pastoral support team, as they may feel more comfortable talking to someone else.’

Active, non-judgemental listening is incredibly important

Jess’s experience has taught her that honesty from teachers helps students to be open with them. ‘Staff should be honest in saying that they have recognised a cause for concern and wanted to check in to ensure the student is ok,’ she says. Adding that students should not feel pressured into talking about a particular issue with teachers, and that signposting to other staff members or organisations where they can seek further support can be useful.

Educational psychologist, Kavita Solder echoes this: ‘It can be really tricky for teachers to approach discussions with students around mental health, but it need not be.’ She thinks social media campaigns and broader discussions of mental health in popular culture are heightening societal awareness of emotional well-being. ‘Often students who are struggling will find it difficult to talk to family members or people close to the problem; teachers are that little bit further removed so tend to be a preferred person to confide in.’ However, Kavita warns against probing too much during that initial conversation. ‘The student will seek your input when they are ready.’

Looking after yourself too

While supporting students who are struggling, teachers also need to consider their own well-being. ‘Making time for yourself, away from the day job is essential,’ cautions Kavita. ‘Being able to switch off from work is becoming increasingly difficult, but it is worth scheduling some personal time.’ She also advocates for teachers to seek further support from organisations, such as Samaritans and Education Support

‘The safeguarding lead at our school is very open in offering support for any staff member that may need additional guidance or support themselves,’ says Jess. ‘Similarly, within our year teams we are lucky to have a pastoral lead that is able to support staff who may be supporting specific students.’

Sometimes it’s ok not to be ok

Kelly echoes this notion that teaching staff shouldn’t be afraid to seek advice from colleagues. ‘As a school, there is always someone who can support if a colleague is unsure of how to support students. We all have different strengths that we will tap into when we need support.’

Student well-being remains at the forefront of teachers’ minds, against the backdrop of a pandemic. Heather believes this year will be trying for teachers and students alike: ‘Teachers need to recognise that supporting student emotional well-being takes energy and they need to look after themselves; sometimes it’s ok not to be ok.’

 For help managing your own well-being visit the Teacher well-being hub.