In terms of the emerging crisis of children’s mental health, schools who believe they have seen the tip of the iceberg have only really just noticed its getting a little chilly.

As more and more headlines herald the crisis and teachers scramble to be more roles to more students than ever before, the truth is that mental health and emotional wellbeing is still far down the priority list of most, if not all, schools. The causes can be debated until the end of time but the crisis is here and it is now. Schools continued focus on achievement and accountability has narrowed the causation of poor performance into a binary view of good teaching / bad teaching. If students have poor academic outcomes the finger is inevitably pointed at the teaching methods. Something was amiss, the marking wasn’t regular enough or the learning objectives not clear. Whilst this is not helpful to the teacher’s own mental health and emotional wellbeing, it is equally a poor assessment of the needs any given child.

Institutionalised ignorance

Class targets and data have, for a long time, trained the teacher to view students as identical commodities to be shaped and moulded into a work ready product. Students are taught in classes where all students are supposed to achieve the same grade at the same point in the year. Classes where progress is mapped out month by month which, at least, is some progression from only 18 months ago where progress was expected to be made and mapped over the course of a lesson. Teachers of the future will laugh heartily at our attempts to quantify and group students into narrow bands who are expected to behave in the same way at the same time. They will call us the “cavemen” (and women) of education, effectively using modern witchcraft to predict how the achievement of our unique, environmentally affected and biologically complicated students will map out over 1 or more years. They will joke at our generation’s arrogance and ignorance but pity their educational ancestors, held to account by a mysterious target setting demi-gods whose wisdom cannot be questioned. They will marvel at how these organisations faced no opposition in targets that were missed as these were the fault of the teachers, not the inaccuracy of the system. And they will weep for the effect it had on this failed generation of children.

Maslow and the classroom

To really get into what makes a student motivated we need to look beyond a lesson plan into the most basic theory of human motivation. Even those of us without any kind of background in this area will have heard of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. This theory suggests that humans require different levels of needs to be met in order to become and stay motivated to achieve one’s potential. Human’s first priority is their basic needs – the need to be fed, rested, hydrated and warm. When these are met we will become motivated to secure our safety and security. At this point humans seek love and belonging followed by self-esteem and respect from others. When all these are met we become motivated to achieve our full potential. This very concise and simplified explanation does not do Abraham Maslow the full justice of his research but the message is clear – humans have many needs that predicate the desire to learn.

This all begs many questions – how many of our students ever come to school with all these needs met? What do we do in schools to meet these needs? Do we even acknowledge these needs? The sad truth is that schools in recent times have been geared towards solely achievement. Progress at all costs. Progress means progress. Time is seen as the most important resource that informs progress of all students and because of this as much time as physically possible is dedicated to cramming information into as many heads as we can on any given occasion. Teachers are so overworked and overloaded that there is little time for much else but to march onwards towards information enforced self actualisation. Because of this teachers and students are never given the chance to take a breath and ask “Are you ok?” or “Am I ok?”. Vital indicators of many of the basic needs being unmet go missed. Students come in hungry and tired and we march on. Students arrive scared and we keep the beat. Students come in neglected and unloved and yet we still march on, not missing a step. In light of any problem schools see intervention hours as the great saviour of a student’s achievement and so prescribe them like the first antibiotics, not knowing we are exacerbating the problem.

The future

The government itself has dipped it’s toe tentatively into the mental health crisis, hiring a mental health champion that was dismissed for championing too loudly. They commissioned a youth select committee report that identified many fantastic recommendations (and some a little misguided – mental health levels is kind of ironic) but it is largely derelict now. In a case of what is “cheap” instead of what is “best” the government has previously pushed the idea of peer mentoring on to schools in order to help deal with the mental health crisis. Don’t get me wrong, peer mentoring has its place but nothing screams “safeguarding nightmare” than a student sharing his or her deepest darkest fears with a fellow student who has no legal obligation to confidentiality. Moreover, a student that has to make a gut wrenching decision to pass on information after a peer safeguarding disclosure against the mentees pleas will inevitably cause more emotional wellbeing issues.

Improving mental health in schools is about more than “having someone to talk to”. For too long we waited until the symptoms began before taking action. Further hampering the problem many students accept the feelings of anxiety or depression for months with a “that’s just me” attitude. Whilst students can see the physical differences between them, emotionally it is much harder to tell if you are different to others. Education is key to self-awareness and identification. We must also take steps to reduce the stressors we place on students through excessive, unrealistic target driven demands put on young minds. We need to be given the time to ask “Why?” when a student is unmotivated or not progressing as we might expect. We need to ensure our students are fed, warm, rested and hydrated. We must have strong anti-bullying procedures and a quiet place they can go where they feel safe. We must cherish our students, talk kindly of them and have high expectations of their character. We must make them feel welcome, promote in school community and ensure they know their own value within the school. Then and only then will we truly see the size of the problem and set about thawing the freeze on progress in schools.