There has recently been an increase in coverage within the media about the emotional wellbeing and mental health of children, and with good reason. Recent reports have identified that within each classroom, up to three children are at risk of poor emotional and mental health.

Children with Speech, Language and Communication Needs are at a greater risk of experiencing challenges with emotional wellbeing. The impact of these challenges are not only seen in the short term, affecting children’s achievement, participation and friendships but, if unrecognised and unsupported, can develop into serious conditions that can have a significant influence in later life. Indeed, autistic young people recently told researchers that, whilst at school, they lacked confidence, felt depressed, worthless, and were under strain and unable to overcome their difficulties. Many of these young people felt as though these problems were related to the pressure of having to act ‘normal’ in a ‘neurotypical’ world.

Creating a sense of ‘belonging’

Social support is a protective factor for emotional wellbeing. Therefore, ensuring that all children feel a sense of belonging within classrooms can prevent them from feeling isolated and misunderstood. The quality of child/adult relationships is critical in facilitating inclusion. Adults can structure activities to promote children’s collaboration both at work and in play, sensitively model ways to solve disagreements, and acknowledge children’s emotional states.

Everyday discussions about emotions

Research has shown that children who struggle to learn vocabulary associated with emotions may also have difficulties in recognising and managing how they feel. Whole class strategies like ‘The Zones of Regulation’ and ‘The Incredible 5 Point Scale’ can give children opportunities to learn an emotions vocabulary, grade feelings and discuss coping strategies throughout the day. The Danish frequently place highly in child-wellbeing rankings and one approach, ‘Klassen Time’, allows children to take it in turns to bake a cake each week. This cake is then eaten together whilst discussing classroom challenges, successes and how to be a more supportive community.

Wellbeing is everybody’s responsibility

Most mental health conditions develop between childhood and adulthood. Teaching teams are well placed to recognise and support those children who might be experiencing difficulties. Classrooms are an ideal place to give children the tools they need to discuss and manage their emotional wellbeing. Adults who employ simple strategies consistently, such as employing a nurturing approach, naming emotions and building peer relationships, can enhance children’s emotional resilience.

Promoting a sense of ‘belonging’ in your classroom

  • Maintaining the wellbeing of staff is important so that they can be ’emotionally available’ for children.
  • Give roles of responsibility to help children to feel a valued member of the class community.
  • Teach children to recognise when their peers might be isolated and teach them how to include them in games and class activities.
  • Children with Speech, Language and Communication Needs can spend a high proportion of time by themselves or with teaching assistants – create opportunities for playing and working with other children.
  • Foster open and regular conversations about mental and emotional health.

Scot Greathead is an independent Consultant Speech and Language Therapist and Dr Rhiannon Yates is an Educational Psychologist working in Kent. Together they have published research on how to include children in shaping the decisions that influence their lives. The images used in this article are from their resource, “What is my School Like?”, which has been designed to help children talk to teachers about their experiences of school.

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