We constantly hear of the mental health crisis in schools. Compared to many European countries, educational achievement in the UK is falling behind. The list of complaints about the education system is long.
What would it take to be able to say that British schools are good for the intellectual, personal or social development and well-being of students?
Answering this would take many blog posts, so I want to focus on one area that needs more attention than any. There’s one concept that is somehow only just beginning to enter mainstream thinking. However, it’s something that has been obvious to professionals working with children, young people and adults for decades.
Childhood events have an impact on our lives, for better or worse. Difficult experiences in youth may help us to become stronger, but equally they can hold us back.
Adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, is a term given to events that are related to a range of negative health and well-being outcomes, including behavioural difficulties, mental and physical ill health. ACEs include witnessing divorce, abuse, and having a parent with mental ill health. Many behavioural or emotional difficulties that many children struggle with could be linked to such experiences.
There needs to be a shift in terms of how we think about behaviour. We need to understand that people behave in certain ways for certain reasons. We need to learn that we can unpick those reasons and formulate a plan of support accordingly, instead of trying to control undesirable behaviour with rewards and punishment.
However, we should be careful about the temptation to blame anyone. That is the opposite of what needs to be done. Instead, we should move toward integration of school and the rest of life, including life at home. Beyond the occasional parent’s evening and the threat of a phone call home for behaving badly, there is little connection between home and school life in the UK.
A small step has been made by some schools who have started collecting data about what adverse experiences their pupils may have been exposed to. Yet they don’t always know what to do with that information. That’s where the concept of a psychologically informed environment could help.
Psychologically-informed environments, or PIE, suggest that we learn about human development, how to communicate effectively with each other, and how to formulate reasons for why people behave the way they do.
Research and professional experience suggest that relationships involving warmth, care and empathy, are key to working through life’s difficulties. Quality relationships are also at the heart of PIE.
Does the current educational system allow teachers to dedicate time and energy to develop good relationships with students? Does the system attract employees, teachers included, who are fully committed and able to do so?
How about the physical and social environment of schools? Do they promote good mental health, independence, and a passion for learning?
There is of course much more to the idea of a psychologically informed environment, including reflective practice and self-care for teachers and staff. Most importantly, the focus is on multiple elements of a system rather than solely on, for example, a ‘disengaged’ or ‘problem’ child.
What is happening in Birmingham at the moment?
St Basils, a youth homelessness charity, has developed a PIE approach to supporting the young adults they work with, and trying to prevent homelessness occurring in the first place.
This approach is also being applied to provide training and reflective practice for teachers and staff within the Pathfinders project (see link below), which aims to rethink how students are supported through school.
It recognises that a child’s ability to engage at school, and otherwise build a healthy life, is impacted by unhealthy stressors such as ACEs. The project aims to put more holistic and longer-lasting support in place, involving the school, family and other professionals.
This progress is to be celebrated, and we await findings from an evaluation of the project.
There is so much more to say, but we must start somewhere. Consider sharing your own thoughts or requesting more articles on the topic.
I am aware that my opinions have been shaped by my own experiences of the education system, which were, in honesty, mixed. If your opinions do not match up to mine, please do share.
It’s important to reflect on our own experiences and to relate what we read to ourselves. Our experiences matter, and they drive us to pursue change.
If you connect with anything you read, learn as much you can, find like-minds, and think about how you could make an impact. Let’s not settle for less.
More about ACEs: https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/about_ace.html
St Basils PIE: https://stbasils.org.uk/files/2017-0102/PIEHLIN_CaseStudy_130_StBasilsPIE_v01.pdf
Find out more about Pathfinder: http://www.lumenchristi.org.uk/Birmingham-SEMH-Pathfinder/