The changes we’ve seen within education recently regarding the DfE’s and schools’ stance on PSHE and student wellbeing are huge steps in the right direction, however, this does leave teachers with the challenge of tackling these sensitive subjects in class. The need to educate students on mental health and wellbeing is driven by the fact that students need to be aware of their own and others’ emotions, as well as strategies on how to tackle poor wellbeing in themselves or others.
The prevalence of mental health issues in young people is what drives the need for better education on mental health and wellbeing to be provided in schools, to also raise awareness of what poor wellbeing and mental health look like, and how common it is. From the perspective of the teacher, not only do they need to know the importance of educating their students on this matter, they also need to know how to look after their own wellbeing and be in a positive headspace at the time of the lesson. This blog offers guidance on how best teachers can cover sensitive topics that will be explored in PSHE lessons, so both you and your students are comfortable.
Create a safe teaching environment
In order to effectively teach students about wellbeing, we need to create an environment in which they feel safe to share their thoughts and opinions without judgement. You can help foster this environment by creating house rules that you and your students should follow during lessons such as PSHE, where sensitive matters are covered. These ground rules should include how students are expected to treat and respect one another, and the correct way to talk about wellbeing and all instructions should be easy to understand for students. Make sure these ground rules are easy to understand for students and are communicated in a way that is clear and effective for students.
We’ve created a poster that provides you with guidance on how to teach students about mental health and wellbeing with a focus on turning your classroom into a safe environment for students which you can download below.
Ensure the safety of ‘at risk’ students
The safety of our students is always of the utmost importance, and extra measures need to be taken to ensure this when teaching students about topics such as mental health - this is specifically necessary for those students who are at risk and/or vulnerable. When covering these topics, be sure to:
- Inform pastoral or safeguarding leads of the content you will be covering ahead of the lesson - this will ensure they are able to inform the student(s) ahead of time, and give them the opportunity to withdraw and/or discuss with parents
- Avoid any language that may be triggering to individuals
- Make sure examples or case studies used within the lesson are non-specific
- Ensure examples used don’t reflect the current or past experience of the individual in your class
Provide clear signposts for support
To ensure you’re prepared to teach about student mental health and wellbeing, you as the teacher need to be aware of the support available and have a responsibility to communicate this with your students. To ensure you’re prepared for this do the following:
- Make sure you’re familiar with your school’s safeguarding policy so you can share appropriate parts when necessary
- Make students aware of the support that is available within school
- Ensure students know how to access support when needed
- Make certain you know the steps that should be followed if a student confides in you
- Inform students of how they would go about seeking help
Distance learning from students’ own experiences
When teaching sensitive topics it’s best to distance the subject matter from students as best you can so they are better able to engage in the lesson, and are more comfortable in discussing issues relating to mental health and wellbeing. To help foster this learning environment, don’t ask students to draw on their own personal experiences as this can lead them to feeling uncomfortable or withdrawn within the lesson. Instead, when discussing scenarios or situations, use profiles of students who are ‘like them’ and instead ask them what that person may feel. In order to help students relate to this person, create a profile that is similar to them in the sense that they’re a similar age, goes to a similar school or could have similar interests. This will help students to relate, but not feel as though they have to disclose anything personal. It’s also extremely important to ensure that when using case studies or resources in class, that these do not provide an inadvertent ‘how to’ guide for vulnerable students, and instead are focused on raising awareness and showing students how to get help.
Reflect on your lesson objectives
Your PSHE lesson, as like any other lesson, should start with a learning objective which sets out what you would like your class to achieve by the end of class. However, as PSHE and teaching about mental health and wellbeing isn’t just about imparting factual knowledge - your objective should reflect this and assess the following:
- An increase in awareness
- An increase in understanding
- A change in belief
- A richer vocabulary
- An increased competence in skills
- A changed or challenged assumption
- An increased confidence
End the lesson on a positive note
Covering mental health and wellbeing is not an easy task, in fact it can be incredibly emotionally draining for both you and your students. To help take the edge off, try and finish the lesson on a positive note. Working in a light-hearted activity can help to shift the mood in class so students have a clear head ready for their next lesson.
It’s also worth considering making yourself available after class, and informing students of how they can get hold of you, in case something covered in your lesson was upsetting to one of your pupils or they want to make a disclosure.
Look after your own health
In order to be fully effective in educating students on their own mental health and wellbeing, you must first be in good mental health yourself and understand the complexity of the subject matter you’re teaching about. This includes understanding that teaching about this subject can take its toll and affect you personally. Throughout the time in which you’re teaching your students about how to look after their own mental health and wellbeing, it’s important that you seek support from your colleagues if you’re feeling overwhelmed. Don't hesitate to ask for guidance on how to handle disclosures from students as well as what to do if the role becomes too much.