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Trainee teachers ill-prepared to tackle pupils’ mental health in the classroom

Trainee teachers would struggle to spot signs of mental illness in pupils, according to new research by Leeds Beckett University.

Trainee teachers ill-prepared to tackle pupils’ mental health in the classroom

And the vast majority of trainee teachers would feel ill-equipped to handle the issue, even if it were detected.

The worrying findings have been revealed following a survey of trainee teachers carried out by the the Carnegie Centre of Excellence for Mental Health in Schools.

The UK-wide survey of 300 teachers was carried out in response to the increasing instances of mental health problems among the nation’s youngsters. It has been estimated that 10% of school children have a diagnosable mental illness.

Professor Jonathan Glazzard, of the Carnegie School of Education, carried out the research. He said: “While teachers are not health professionals, they are well-placed to spot issues and respond quickly to prevent problems from escalating.

“Despite the increased public awareness of mental health issues, not enough is being done to prepare the next generation of teachers to identify and then respond to health issues that can have a profound effect on a child’s education and life in general.”

According to Professor Glazzard’s research, almost 60 per cent of trainee teachers did not feel confident about identifying mental health needs in students, while 70 per cent did not feel confident in supporting children and young people with mental health needs.

When asked about whether mental health was given sufficient priority, 73 per cent felt that mental health was given insufficient priority in initial teacher training.

“The figures clearly indicate that there is a need to ensure that Newly Qualified Teachers (NQTs) are better prepared to identify and support the mental health needs of their pupils,” said Professor Glazzard.

“At Leeds Beckett University, all our trainee teachers receive specialist training in supporting children and young people’s mental health in partnership with Minds Ahead. We believe this model should be replicated across all trainee teacher programmes to better prepare them to deal with mental health issues in our schools.”

It has been estimated that 16 million people in the UK experience a mental illness, with 50 per cent of illness taking hold before the age of 15.

According to new NHS figures, around one in 10 girls aged 16 or 17 were referred to specialist mental health services in England last year.

Earlier this month, a survey by the Scottish Association for Mental Health (SAMH) suggested two-thirds of teachers felt ill-equipped to deal with the issue, and just one per cent of respondents recalled doing detailed work on mental health when they were student teachers.

Many teachers who took part in the Leeds Beckett survey felt passionate about the issue. Their comments included:

  • “Mental health is being increasingly acknowledged as society sees a rise in mental health cases. Emotional support is massively important, and it has been overlooked in the past compared to things like physical health which people can literally see. However, people may find it harder to help someone struggling emotionally because of the absence of physical symptoms.”
  • “Mental health is a big issue across all aspects of our society. To have a better system in place for our youngest members of society will benefit society in the long run.”

The trainee teachers also demonstrated unique insights into the issue:

  • “It is a case of teachers being aware of subtle changes in students’ behaviour. For older children, they need to know the importance of maintaining their emotional wellbeing. Skills like resilience and self-regulation must be developed in students from a young age.”
  • “There is a need to educate pupils to have an awareness of their own mental health and the mental health of those around them. Educate them to understand and that it is not embarrassing or something which needs to be hidden.”
  • “There should be more of a focus on the 'whole child' beyond the early years. It is important to not just focus on academic outcomes for children but on their development socially and emotionally as well.”
  • “Counsellors should be available to talk to in school and school nurses should visit schools weekly. It is important to talk about it and reduce the stigma.”
  • “I think mental health needs to be tackled directly. Mental health education needs to focus on removing stigma, teaching children that everyone experiences ups and downs, that it is okay to feel ‘down’ but also the importance of opening up. I think pupils must be taught that people with mental illness are not to be feared and need full support. Discussion must be open and honest without any sense of judgement.”

The Carnegie Centre of Excellence for Mental Health in Schools opened in 2017, with all trainee teachers at Leeds Beckett receiving specialist training in supporting children’s mental health alongside access to a range of professional development opportunities.

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