Why the school environment is critical for students’ mental health

Why the school environment is critical for students’ mental health

A report last year found the number of young people reporting concerns around mental health has risen by 10% in one year.

Four in ten (43%) young people identified mental health as the top issue facing Australia today – up from 33% in 2017 and doubling since 2016. Mental health also entered the top three issues of personal concern in the annual survey which was completed by more than 28,000 young Australians.

While addressing this issue should be a top priority for every school, tackling anxiety and depression is not an easy task for educators and leaders – especially when the source of that depression is at home rather than behind the school gates.

But that doesn’t mean schools are powerless in the face of this issue.

According to special education consultant Tim Connell, the school setting is the most critical and untapped site for identification and support of school aged students with mental health concerns.

In his experience spanning more than two decades in a variety of special education settings, Connell has seen many approaches to supporting mental health concerns in the classroom and broader school community but emphasises the importance of fluent information sharing in creating effective school support.

“Having a structured, sequential process that begins when a student is identified as having a mental health issue can allay much of the stress schools experience in these scenarios,” Connell says.

On Friday 30 August, Connell will present two sessions as part of the Special Needs Symposium at the National Education Summit. The first will provide a comprehensive understanding of specific anxiety disorders and how these can impact learning and engagement for school aged students.

His afternoon session on day 1 of the Summit to be held at Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre is titled ‘School based planning and support for students with mental health concerns including information sharing, risk assessment and return to school planning’. It is aimed at school personnel seeking to develop structured processes to support students with mental health concerns.

With the prevalence of mental health and anxiety disorders in childhood and adolescence, and their ability to impair students' ability to work or study if left untreated, this is an area of significant challenge for many schools and teachers.

Tim Connell lists some of these challenges for educators in recent years as:

  • pressure to be default therapists - blurring of roles between teacher and clinician
  • pressure to recognise prodromal symptoms of mental health disorders without any significant training
  • fear of unintentionally triggering anxiety in students in their classes
  • not being given information in advance about students with these issues.

His practical advice for teachers balancing the provision of effective emotional support for individual students with the educational needs of their class is to not assume that the two are mutually exclusive.

“A positive classroom environment and good relationships with teachers is all any student needs. Try discussing an issue with the student privately and define a set of individualised adjustments. Some useful questions include;

  • What’s hard in class? - focus, concentration, retention and recall of information?
  • What helps? - clear communication, reduced workload on ‘bad’ days, a pre-agreed signal to leave if needed?
  • What self-management strategies have you been taught and how can I help you to generalise these to the classroom?”

The Special Needs Symposium is designed to bridge the knowledge gap, dispel myths, promote research, and explore the development of special needs in education settings.

The two-day program features academics, experts and health professionals including psychologists, behavioural specialists, a paediatrician and specialist educators sharing their knowledge and providing practical strategies for educators to implement in the classroom.

Four conference streams with a focus on making classrooms inclusive will run from Friday 30 August to Saturday 31 August ­– Anxiety; Mental Health and Childhood Trauma, Managing Challenging Behaviours; and Language and Processing Disorders.

To register for Tim Connell’s sessions and many others at the National Education Summit, visit nationaleducationsummit.com.au

National Education Summit

When: Friday 30 August – Saturday 31 August 2019
Where: Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre
More Info: www.nationaleducationsummit.com.au
Facebook: www.facebook.com/NationalEducationSummit