The important role of senior leads in mentally healthy schools

Dr Margot Sunderland, Director of the Centre for Child Mental Health(CCMH) – a non-profit organisation that provides mental health training in schools and Co-Director of Trauma Informed Schools UK – tackles mental health and wellbeing from a head and senior leads perspective, with an emphasis on improving outcomes for both students and staff. 


In ensuring their school is a mentally healthy environment, heads and other school leaders have really got their work cut out.


Exactly how do you support mental health in a culture of fear, pressure and disillusionment, where academic outcomes trump all else, where the majority of teachers suffer work-related stress and where heads are under immense pressure to achieve great results?


To quickly paint the picture of this Herculean task for heads: The important role of senior leads in mentally healthy schools


The unmet emotional needs of pupils 


There are currently one million children with mental health problems in the UK; 200 schoolchildren are lost to suicide each year (Papyrus Number 60 2017) and permanent exclusions are now 40 per day (children with special educational needs amounting to half of these) (DfE 2018/BBC July 19 2018). Permanent exclusion dramatically increases the probability of psychiatric problems and children who are suspended just once are twice as likely to drop out of school (Klasovksy 2013).On top of this, add exam stress and a narrowing of the curriculum, which includes a lesser focus on stress-relieving subjects such as drama, art and PE.  


The unmet emotional needs of teachers 


In Tom Rogers’ article in TES July, 2018 on toxic school environments, he states, “There is a bullying epidemic in schools. Teachers scared to approach their bosses, scared to say they are struggling, scared to not meet a stupid target’ It’s not surprising then that 70 percent of teachers this year have taken sick leave due to a physical or mental health problem related to work stress (Devon 2018/NASUWT 2016Teacher‘s workloads are very heavy, more than three-quarters of teachers are working between 49 and 65 hours a week (Guardian Teacher network Survey 2016) Teachers are also saying they feel devalued and that their wellbeing is not considered as important in school and that they seetheir school culture as being one of blame or criticism (71 percent) (Big Question Report, NASUWT 2016) 


But senior leaders also need their emotional needs to be met, onecould argue that while senior leaders are so overwhelmed and under pressure to obtain good test results at almost any cost, they are in no place to offer mental health support for teachers and children. And yet they must. 


Here are some suggestions how:


Senior leads need to prioritise their own psychological support


Heads must get psychological support for themselves. Twice weekly therapy or counseling, where they can off-load, weep, howl, rage in front of someone who truly understands and listens. We know that counselling brings down toxic stress (which is dangerous to the immune system and a key factor triggering mental ill-health) to tolerable stress. Without this, stressed out heads are not going to be best set to support mental health in their school.  


‘Psychological hazards’ health checks for teachers and a shift to psychologically aware, warm and empathic whole-school cultures


This will involve putting in place a system of valuing of teachers and taking away the psychological hazards of shame and blame. Research shows feeling valued is key to mental health, whereas shame triggers the same reaction in the body as when you have suffered a physical injury (Dickerson et al 2014), To this end, one head adopted the “I wish my headeacher knew”intervention. It’s a simple written note exercise for teachers (can be anonymised), which was originally used for pupils to write to teachers:“I wish my teacher knew”. Unsurprisingly the teachers wrote back: “We don’t feel valued”, this was a wake-up call for the head who then began to focus on making time to acknowledge and appreciate staff members. Practically speaking, this involves senior leads being more attentive to teachers’ successes and also issuing commendations to other senior staff and overseeing bodies. This head also started and ended the week with several small talking circles for staff to talk about their feelings about school and home (led by a teacher trained in group facilitation) 


A shift from a culture of blame regarding test results to a culture of support for teacher-pupil relational health will also have a positive impact on pupils’ mental health. Research shows the more securely attached children are to teachers, the better their behaviour and the higher their grades (Bergin and Bergin 2009)


Foster togetherness through supervision groups and group outings to address ‘lone’ teachers


There is a mass of research showing that single parents have a far higher risk of mental and physical health problems (particularly depression) than two adults who share parenting. It’s largely the loneliness, and the lack of another adult emotionally regulating you while you emotionally regulate the children. Loneliness triggers the PANIC/GRIEF system in the brain, which can lead to panic attacks – it’s no coincidence that nearly 20 percent of teachers say they suffer panic attacks due to their job. Due to funding cuts, many teachers do not have regular access to teaching assistants so they are often a ‘single parent’ to 30 children, some of whom will inevitably have learning difficulties and mental health issues. 

Senior leads should ensure that these ‘lone’ teachers have regular talk-time groups to ensure they have a place where they feel free enough to talk to colleagues about feelings of loneliness, impotence, abandonment and lack of recognition. 


Heads should also seek creative solutions to improve adult/staff ratios, such as using volunteers or teaching apprentices. Schools do so well on this front when they advertise for volunteer parent or grandparent helpers who are warm and empathic and a calming presence for both teachers and pupils.


Think neurochemically and accept that toxic stress is a psychological hazard in schools that must be addressed 


If teacher stress has got to the point of almost 80 percent of teachers reporting work-related anxiety problems (NASUWT2016), then we know we are in the realm of toxic stress. Toxic stress means chronic unrelieved stress, a key factor in mental and physical health problems. It plays havoc with your immune system and can even result in premature death. (Felitti,and Anda 2008) 


The important role of senior leads in mentally healthy schools Bringing down toxic stress to tolerable stress for teachers

Heads have a responsibility to find ways of bringing down teachers’ toxic stress to tolerable stress. A quick ‘there-there’ chat in the corridor before the teacher’s next lesson is not sufficient to reduce toxic stress levels. Rather, it’s important to ensure staff have access to an oxytocin (anti-stress neurochemical) releasing environment on a daily basise.g. a ‘reflect and restore room’ or sensory zone staff-only space (work-free zone) with time for using this built into the school timetable.It doesn’t have to be expensive to set up a room like this, and it needs to include some of the following elements which we know from neuroscience triggers oxytocin and opioids: 

  • Warm lights (uplighters)
  • Colour
  • Soothing music 
  • Lovely smells
  • Comforting fabric
  • External warmth heating the body (e.g. electric blankets)
  • Open fire DVD


 (Uvnas-Moberg, K. (2011) The Oxytocin Factor) 


Bringing down toxic stress to tolerable stress for pupils 


Due to troubled home lives, many children arrive at school in an emotional state not conducive to learning. There are many neuroscience research backed interventions designed to bring down stress levels in vulnerable children from toxic to tolerableThese arebest implementedat the beginning of the school day and include: 

  • Accompanied drumming 
  • Tai chi
  • Mindfulness 
  • Replacing detention room with meditation room (research shows improved learning and less bad behaviour) 
  • Sensory play
  • Time with animals or time outside

All of these interventions support learning and protect against toxic stress-induced physical and mental illness.


Train key school staff to become ‘emotionally-available adults’ for vulnerable children 


There is a wealth of evidence-based research showing that having daily and easy access to at least one specific emotionally-available adult, and knowing when and where to find that adult is a key factor in preventing mental ill-health in children and young people – it’s called social buffering.If the child does not take to the designated adult, an alternative person should be found. 


Create a policy around testing and exam stress 


Heads need to ensure pupils understand that their self-worth, and the worth of others, cannot be measured simply by tests and exams. This needs to be communicated very clearly to ensure that they have got the message, coupled with a formal valuing of each individual child in terms of their special qualities: e.g. kindness, generosity, perseverance, explorative drive. 


Discipline that actively teaches pro-social skills rather than just punishes 


We know that punishment, e.g. isolation rooms, don’t work and mostly punishes those who have mental health problems or a high adverse childhood experience (ACE) score. Furthermore, countless research shows that isolation, sensory deprivation and feeling shamed is very bad for both mental health and physical health (Dickerson et al 2004). In contrast, the use of restorative conversations in schools has been found to be highly effective in both decreasing behavioral problems and exclusions and developing pro-social skills and life-long ability to manage stress well (KLasovsky J  2013)




But we cannot lay all the responsibility for mental health in schools on heads. If schools are to become mentally healthy places, for both teachers and children, the value of wellbeing has to start at the very top, with Department for Education, Ofsted and the Regional Schools Commissioners balancing the scales between outcomes (test scores) and emotional wellbeing. There needs to be national recognition of the importance of monitoring the mental health culture of every school, and governing bodies, trust boards and directors need to make staff wellbeing, as well as pupil wellbeing, key performance indicators for our schools.


For further information on stress, child mental health and training please call 020 7354 2913 or visit: For information on Trauma Informed Schools UK, visit www.traumainformedschools.