A joined-up approach to mental health, wellbeing and behaviour?

The Attachment Research Community (ARC) was set up by Virtual Headteachers, responsible for the education of children in care, and is supported by Sir John Timpson’s Alex Timpson Trust. The ARC’s mission is to ensure that ‘all schools are attachment and trauma aware by 2025’. The ARC works closely with the Rees Centre at Oxford University and the National Association of Virtual School Heads – NAVSH.

It is important - strategically and pragmatically - to be clear about the connection between mental health, wellbeing and behaviour, rather than see them as separate issues. Our behaviour is connected to our mental state, which in turn is a manifestation of our mental health. Our mental health gives rise to our behaviour, even if the link may not be immediately apparent. With certain types of behaviour, for example self-harm, it is easy to understand that there is a link to underlying mental health issues.

A holistic approach

With the angry or non-compliant child it may be harder to make the link, but it is just as important. In both cases it is important to be aware of and address issues in a holistic way. If one is seen as mental health and the other as 'just behaviour', the distinction may lead schools to pursue a behaviour management strategy that has little connection with its approach to mental health and wellbeing. An example is the child who regularly sits in isolation without understanding or being able to articulate the reasons why he or she is there. The child needs help to learn to behave differently and help to address the fears or anxieties that may precipitate the behaviour. Does isolation alone help with either issue? As Virtual Heads working with children in care this is a concern - abuse or neglect may have been normalised to the extent that children do not understand the emotions these experiences engender and struggle to manage their stress in ways that are acceptable.

The DfE advice provides some valuable challenges. For example (and the underlining is an addition):

“A school’s approach to mental health and behaviour should be part of a consistent whole school approach to mental health and well-being. This should involve providing a structured school environment with clear expectations of behaviour, well communicated social norms and routines, which are reinforced with highly consistent consequence systems. This should be paired with an individualised graduated response when the behavioural issues might be a result of educational, mental health, other needs or vulnerabilities.”

Be consistent

The guidance suggests that schools must be both consistent in applying consequences, whilst making adjustments where a child might have needs. Schools may need to consider reviewing their approaches in response to issues raised by the guidance (again, underlining has been added):

“… a child or young person’s behaviour – disruptive, withdrawn, anxious, depressed or otherwise – may be related to a mental health problem… under the Equality Act 2010, … some mental health issues will meet the definition of disability.… where a pupil has a mental health condition that amounts to a disability and this adversely affects their behaviour, the school must make reasonable adjustments… behaviour policies need to be consistent with the legal requirement that treating all pupils the same may be unlawful where a disability affects behaviour.”

The ARC gives a cautious welcome to the guidance. Schools and settings certainly need to give it close attention and we would suggest it should be reviewed alongside the draft Ofsted framework which promotes, “... a positive, respectful, school culture in which staff know and care about pupils”.

A possible response from schools would be to use the guidance as an opportunity to create one co-ordinated mental health, wellbeing and behaviour policy, with less risk or gaps, confusion or inappropriate or even illegal approaches.

Tony Clifford
Trustee of ARC
Posted: 14/02/2019 10:53:00