Mary Harris and Jenni McGahan
Mary and Jenni co-founded The Emotional Health Hub to help children feel heard and understood, even when they do not have the words. The hub combines research and practice to find the best ways to listen to young children’s voices to enable them to communicate how they feel. In this article, they share observations from working with primary school teachers in England.
The UK’s new normal involves a decline in children’s emotional health and wellbeing. Child and adolescent mental health services are overwhelmed. We face increased parental mental health problems, teacher burn-out, levels of poverty, and pressure for learners to ‘catch up’ on learning following COVID-19. In this context, schools are now viewed as an integral part of children’s wellbeing support.
Although challenging, the collective emotional shake-up experienced through the COVID-19 pandemic sparked a shared compassion and understanding. In doing things differently in our schools there has been a shift in thinking. Teachers are reaching out to their pupils, before expecting them to engage in learning. They make them feel comfortable and safe in their classrooms and acknowledge the importance of taking time during the transition to settle back in again.
Many schools are more compassion-focused, trauma-informed and reflective – adopting preventive approaches to emotional health and wellbeing. Through our work with schools, we have observed that many teachers want practical advice on how to support emotional health in their classrooms. We focus on three interrelated elements for this: 1) creating a safe, inclusive classroom, 2) building relationships, and 3) pupil voice.
Creating a safe, inclusive classroom
Schools can offer a consistent and safe environment in which children develop skills to protect their emotional health. Teachers can create feelings of stability and security (vital for mental health) by:
- ensuring predictable routines;
- being sensitive about change and transitions;
- teaching and modelling emotional regulation;
- changing the focus from behavioural compliance to emotional connection;
- modelling skills such as empathy, compassion, and curiosity;
- providing opportunities for pupils to experience mastery, agency and choice.
These are especially important for pupils displaying more challenging behaviours who have faced trauma, loss, adversity or have communication difficulties. Emotional regulation is a particular challenge in stressful situations due to differences in their brain’s emotion networks. Being mindful that feelings of helplessness, powerlessness, fear, threat and loss of control may result in these behaviours can help us see the child underneath and ensure inclusivity in our classrooms.
With children who have experienced trauma, we should aim to reduce activation in the fear centre of their brains to allow for healthier emotional expression. Some traditional behaviour management strategies – like time-outs, warnings, traffic lights – can make these children feel misunderstood, scared, resentful, and ashamed. Ultimately that increases relational disconnection. Through consistent, compassionate interactions, teachers can provide an emotional compass for children who do not have this type of relationship at home, setting them up for a healthier future.
Much of the discussion around wellbeing and resilience in education has focused on strengthening individuals. However, there is growing recognition that quality, meaningful relationships and supportive environments are more impactful. We need to reduce the pressure on pupils to “cope better” and focus on developing supportive relationships and positive connections. One way to do this is by offering frequent and varied opportunities that encourage reflection and communication of emotions.
The benefit of pupils openly communicating their feelings to a trusted adult is two-fold: it helps teachers identify pupils who might be struggling and need support, and it encourages children to consider, quantify and label their emotions. Many children mask their emotions and will not spontaneously ask for help or talk about it. We must create a sensitive environment in which all pupils can feel safe to do this.
Imagine a scenario where your manager asks you to write about a time when you felt extremely anxious. Then imagine being told to use your best handwriting because your experience will be posted on the staff room wall. This activity was recently used with a child in school during mental health awareness week. One nine-year-old pupil reported being uncomfortable, disengaged and “made it up” because he did not want everyone to know about his worries. This example highlights the importance of treating children’s feelings sensitively, and that trusting teachers is crucial for the impact of this work.
For it to have value, emotional health work within the classroom requires teachers to set different parameters to other subjects. Children are much more likely to fully engage when we explain why they are being asked about their feelings. They need to know what will happen with the information they share (including who else, if anyone, will know), and discuss how sharing might benefit them. Connection with trusted adults can be further improved by assuring children that all their emotions are normal and will be dealt with sensitively. Pre-empting questions such as “Who will see the worry that I write down in the worry box?” and “Why are you asking me to complete this questionnaire and who will see my answers?” reassures children that they can trust teachers with their feelings.
In capturing children’s views and needs on matters that involve and impact them, we too often rely on the observations of parents, carers and teachers, without considering the child’s voice. This is especially true for younger children who are often perceived as incapable of expressing their views accurately and effectively. However, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child reminds us that a child’s right to express their view is not dependent on this view being mature, just on them being able to form a perspective. We have found that with practice and encouragement in a safe and inclusive environment, young children can become incredibly articulate when generating ideas on what can help them with emotional health in the classroom.
Currently the priority in schools is catching up lost learning. However, far from being incompatible, the research shows that children’s emotional health and attainment are positively associated; happiness and connection relates to better educational outcomes. If we learnt anything from the COVID-19 pandemic, it was the basic human need for connection and its central role in our emotional health and wellbeing. While we observe a paradigm shift in schools towards relationship-based, compassion-focused, trauma-responsive education, teachers should not underestimate the impact they can have in a child’s life.
Mary Harris is a HCPC-registered Art Therapist, specialising in one-to-one therapy with primary-aged children. Dr Jenni McGahan is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Manchester Metropolitan University. More information about the Emotional Health Hub can be found on the