Mental Health Issues in Young Children – and what we can do about it   1 comment

Over the last couple of weeks, I have been ‘dipping in and out’ of the Department of Educations document on ‘Mental health and behaviour in schools’ which came out in June 2014

If you have not seen it yet you can access it via THIS LINK

I am not sure if I am pleased the the Government has issued this advice to support schools – or horrified that they have felt the need to issue it.


I suppose it is a bit of both

However what I find shocking is that – in my opinion – current Government policy on childcare and family issues is going to make things worse – much worse, in the future and for our schools, the children and the staff.

So to explain why I think this, I am going to write about it in my usual reflective / questioning style. I will use text from the document in black bold, my main thought / question  (as usual in blue bold ) rest in ‘normal text’,  and if needed I will signpost to other available information.

Off we go then ……

This is advice from the Department for Education. All pupils will benefit from learning and developing in a well ordered school environment that fosters and rewards good behaviour and sanctions poor and disruptive behaviour

Do the Government really still believe that sanctions for poor and disruptive behaviour really do work – and especially for those whose life experiences are complex and confusing?

I will use my own recent experience as a foster carer – child  has past experience of such a complex and confusing life so far; history of exclusions from school (the sanction) prior to being placed with my husband and myself as his new foster careers.  Child does something at school that would normally result in such a sanction AGAIN – sanction carried out – two day exclusion. Returns to school – again does something that indicates exclusion is needed, suggest to school that sanction not working – suggest child remains in school. School agree –  child does not do anything again to indicate exclusion needed as behaviour has been modified, due to fact that been made clear that no matter what happens,  exclusion will not be implemented. Of course it is not as easy as that and there will be blips and slips back to previous behaviour because change takes time – but on the whole if you stick with the belief that change can happen – it will.

Now I am not a child – but if I was, my thinking would be – ‘ don’t like it here – what do I need to do to get me away from here for a few days?’ OR ‘Don’t want to do this piece of work, what do I need to do to get out of doing it?’

And if the first thing I try to avoid doing what I don’t want to do, does not work – I would just do something more extreme until I get the adults to modify their behaviour and act as I expect them to.

It is when a child is clear about the consequences – ie no exclusion – you will be going to school – that you can implement the rewards – but these rewards have to be about the child wanting to achieve for his or her self – not about a short term reward or to please others. Complex work – difficult to work through, difficult to engage with, requires short term additional funding – as behaviour may indicate that child need constant one to one support. However it is only relatively short term until the child realises that he / she can change things. Sanctions – including ones like loss of playtime, standing outside the heads office do not work, in the long term.

What these children need is self esteem and a reason to try – not reasons to try to ‘buck the system’

As a link to my own thinking and reflection, I took a look at the Government guidance to schools on Behaviour and discipline in schools LINK HERE and read this bit of the guidance on rewards and sanctions

When poor behaviour is identified, sanctions should be implemented consistently and fairly in line with the behaviour policy. Good schools will have a range of disciplinary measures clearly communicated to school staff, pupils and parents. These can include:

 A verbal reprimand.
 Extra work or repeating unsatisfactory work until it meets the required standard.
 The setting of written tasks as punishments, such as writing lines or an essay.
 Loss of privileges – for instance the loss of a prized responsibility or not being able
to participate in a non-uniform day (sometimes referred to as ‘mufti’ days).
 Missing break time.
 Detention including during lunch-time, after school and at weekends.
 School based community service or imposition of a task – such as picking up litter
or weeding school grounds; tidying a classroom; helping clear up the dining hall
after meal times; or removing graffiti.
 Regular reporting including early morning reporting; scheduled uniform and other
behaviour checks; or being placed “on report” for behaviour monitoring.
 Extra physical activity such as running around a playing field; and

 In more extreme cases schools may use temporary or permanent exclusion.


Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear – those sanctions might work for a child who was like me at school – was a ‘goody two shoes’,  someone who hated the limelight and would avoid sanctions, because sanctions drew attention to self. However for many children they believe drawing attention to self is good and needed – and the sanctions are  therefore ineffective. For some children being able to avoid break times, going home, being at home at the weekend is desirable – such are their experiences with peers and at home.

Let’s be honest when a document is issued to look at Mental Health and behaviour – we are not talking about the well adjusted students who have on the whole had positive life experiences and so for those children we only really need a verbal reminder – and they will conform to expectations – BECAUSE they know it is in their best interests to do so. We are talking about those who do not self regulate because they do not know it is in their best interests.

There maybe a few who might come under the ‘do as little as possible’ group, and who therefore need to be asked to re do work that is not of their personal best (rather than not of the required standard)

But on the whole – the rest of the advice about sanctions – in  my opinion – needs to be scrapped

Iinstead of missing break time;  a reward for completed a task, or not being disruptive could be to help set up a break time activity – and to leave class 5 mins early to do so – this could also enable child to use the toilets without fear from peers, plus have a role of responsibility and a ‘good’ reason why not outside during a break. To do this sort of work you need to know the children REALLY well and to follow their lead – one step at a time – as of course you may not get to the bottom of an issue for sometime – but you have to start somewhere.

Instead of setting EXTRA work – reduce the work requirement – put in support so the student can have success – look at reasons why not able to stay on task, look at the child as a whole – do not expect them to do their best when the rest of their lives are at crisis point for some reason. Sometimes to go back a stage or to revisit missed stages – pays dividend in the long run.

The list of sanctions to my mind says to the child you are no good – all of this is your fault, you are not trying hard enough -and actually for those children tottering on the edge of the  line of Mental Health issues, and those who have  complex and confusing life experiences – nothing could be further from the truth.

Government / schools –  try putting yourself in their shoes and seeing things from their perspective? Could you do your best if you were them? Would you respond well, if you were told that you should do better – and as you are not – here is your sanction?

Continuing with my look at the Mental Health and behaviour guidance document

I have noted that the advice on Mental Health and behaviour in schools will be reviewed in October 2014 – just 4 months from the publication of the current review which was published in June 2014 – I have to ask why? Are they expecting things to improve in that time scale or to get worse? My concern of course is, like with so many Government proposals at the moment there is not enough time allowed for impact to be known or for review to take place.

On page 6 of the document there is some very useful information

Factors that put children at risk
1.1. Certain individuals and groups are more at risk of developing mental health problems than others. These risks can relate to the child themselves, to their family, or to their community or life events.

1.2. Risk factors are cumulative. Children exposed to multiple risks such as social disadvantage, family adversity and cognitive or attention problems are much more likely to develop behavioural problems.



The document then goes on to talk about risk factors and children’s resilience, and why some children are more resilient than others; and it says;

Research suggests that there is a complex interplay between risk factors in children’s lives and promoting their resilience. As social disadvantage and the number of stressful life events accumulate for children or young people, more factors that are protective are needed to act as a counterbalance. The key protective factors, which build resilience to mental health problems, are shown alongside the risk factors in table 1, below.

Not rocket science is it? The more you have to cope with – the harder it is to cope – and this applies to adults as well as children. The saying ‘The straw that broke the camels back’ is very true – and it is often something quite small or insignificant that leads to being unable to cope any more.

The report goes on to say –
1.5. The role that schools play in promoting the resilience of their pupils is important, particularly so for some children where their home life is less supportive. School should be a safe and affirming place for children where they can develop a sense of belonging and feel able to trust and talk openly with adults about their problems

In an ideal world this would be the case – but teachers and support staff have a lot of other things to do, and large classes – finding the time can be difficult, ensuring the needs of so many students are met can be difficult.

And also having behaviour policies such as those mentioned above with sanctions as described, hinder not help.

BUT – even if teachers and support staff had the time, the resources, the smaller class sizes and the training – their impact would not be enough – because when you add up the total number of hours a child spends in school (actually in class) in a year, against the total numbers of hours at home, or in the care of others – you quickly get the picture that number of hours in school is rather insignificant.


In the report there is a very good table / list of risk factors – and a not so good list of protective factors because some of those given are school based and currently almost impossible to achieve.

There is mention of the need for things like good housing, high standard of living – but although important these are not really protective factors because actually even children who have these things can still develop behaviour problems and mental health issues.

It is this part of the list – that comes under ‘In the family’ that I think needs more consideration with the first one in my opinion  being essential

At least one good parent-child relationship (or one supportive adult)
• Affection
• Clear, consistent discipline
• Support for education
• Supportive long term relationship or the absence of severe discord

You see it is my belief – and indeed that of many others that it is the demise of quality family life that is at the route of many of the problems in children and indeed in society.

It is not about just about money – although having a living wage, suitable housing and being able to make real choices about what to eat and what to do are based on  personal choice not lack of income is important  – it is time that is the real issue – and that all important ‘one good parent / child relationship (actually I would say one good family adult / child relationship – as it could be Granddad, or aunt or foster carer)

Some of this lack of time is as a direct result of changes to working patterns, some to financial pressure and the need for two incomes, some the fast pace of life and the belief that every minute should be filled with activities outside the home, some because of lack of understanding of the value of family time together – especially the relaxing and playing together times – and much of it is connected to Government policy – particularly the drive to get more women into work and therefore more children into childcare.

Add to this the government policy of increasing ratio’s in early years settings / schools by promoting the idea of graduate led workforce and 1:13 ratio’s, and relentless drive for ‘school readiness’ and a adult led curriculum – so children do not have so much time to engaged in unstructured play either at home or in their early years setting  – and we have a recipe for things to get worse,  much much worse  – don’t take my word for it – look at some of  Peter Gray’s work via THIS LINK or watch this You Tube clip on the decline of play 

You may also like to take a look at the Save Childhood Movement Early Years Manifestio – a document that I had some input in Save Childhood Movement Manifestio Putting_children_first or  the Primary Charter  CLICK HERE

If you are a member of a  membership organisation or a trade union that supports those that work with children and young people, take a look at their websites to see what they have to say – organisations such as Pre school Learning Alliance, PACEY, Early Education – to name a few.

Any internet search will bring up a lot of documents, You Tube clips, research papers, all saying the same thing – and surely all of those experts and people like me with years of hands on experience – can’t all be wrong!

I will end with another of my personal reflections – as a foster carer I am very aware of the benefit of a loving, stable family life for children – and have experience of how a loving, stable family life can make a huge difference to children and young people – including their educational attainment and indeed behaviour at school. If young people who have had complex and confusing life experiences are best placed in secure, loving family homes where one adult is usually at home  – why is the connection not being made by the government – that all children will benefit from secure and loving family homes where one adult  is at home – especially in their early years?

In addition I have seen for myself the huge benefits of unstructured play in supporting those with complex emotional needs;  to help work their way through things that are troubling them; to help fill in gaps in their development that they have missed for whatever reason; to help relax and simply ‘chill out’; to help  become less stressed, less worried and therefore able to change things and to go on to achieve their personal potential.


In my opinion the Government have got it wrong – it is not schools that are going to alter the decline in children’s mental health, it is not schools who are best placed to support children’s functioning skills – and it is not schools who will improve the attainment of children, who have not had the best start in life.

Speaking in general – as  ‘in most cases’;

This is not a reflection on teaching staff and support assistants – they are doing a brilliant job and if  they could have classes with more students who are ready and able to learn, they would be able to get on with their job and not have to spend time trying to pick up the pieces of Governments interference in family life and children’s early years experience.

It is also not a reflection on colleagues in the maintained nursery sector as they are also doing a brilliant job – and as the  children are only in those settings usually for 3 hours per day – the rest of the time the children are in family homes – including those of registered childminders who due to the high adult:child ratio and home based setting do provide a similar experience to a family home – they get the best of both worlds

Nor is it a reflection on colleagues of group based early years settings – who on the whole refuse to operate at the suggested 1:13 ratio – even if they do have graduates working in their settings – and so each child gets individual attention including support for their family.

What we need is;

What we need is a choice of high quality early years settings that maintain a maximum of 1:8 ratio with 3 – 4 year olds, and a 1:4 ratio with the younger children age over 24 months and who have an ethos of providing play based learning environments

What we need is a real choice for parents about if they work and use childcare that meets their needs and their children’s needs OR if they stay at home and care for their children themselves

What we need is investment in family life and in unstructured play opportunities within the home and the local community.

What we need is for all skills to be valued and not just academic skills because at the end of the day it is those caring skills and that understanding of young children gained through experience (included passed on knowledge through families) and academic skills (including on the job non exam based training) – both in families and in early years settings, that actually makes the difference to children’s well being.

What we need is for the acceptance than most parents and most early years practitioners do a good job

What we need is for support to be provided to families who for whatever reason need support to learn about family life, so they can stand on their own two feet and be proud of themselves and their families – and this is more of a time investment than just pouring in money.

What we need for those children who are already bearing the cost of poor quality family life and and and an education system based on a one size fit all academic based curriculum – is to step back a little and allow them to experience family life, and play – and to have time to catch up and fill the gaps in their life experiences.

In my opinion we are on a slippery road to complete and utter failure of our education system, family life and society as a whole.

If only the Government would stop their interference, and their insistence that they are right – and listen to those who have the knowledge, experience and professional reasons to ensure the children of this country are supported to reach their individual potential –  Rather than selfish, politically driven short gain reasons based on trying to save government expense and increase government tax revenue



And then  they would have no need – in the long term  – for documents such as guidance on Mental Health and behaviour in schools



I have now had chance to look at and sign up for MindEd which I found to be be useful and interesting – and will be returning to find out more and complete the sessions provided.

If anyone else is interested PLEASE FOLLOW THIS LINK


One response to “Mental Health Issues in Young Children – and what we can do about it

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  1. Oh dear – the part about rewards and sanctions is deeply depressing. Perhaps we could introduce HM Government to and the concept of a non-punitive approach and consequences rather than sanctions. How ironic that this features in guidance on mental health in young people…

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