The impact of school culture on children’s emotional wellbeing

School culture has a big impact on the mental health and emotional wellbeing of it’s pupils. If there is kindness, compassion and empathy woven throughout the school culture children are likely to feel safe and supported within school. They feel comfortable talking to members of staff about the challenges they are facing and they trust that staff will help them to manage those challenges.

It can cause problems when school culture is defined by behavioural approaches to children’s needs and when punishment and separation is used instead of empathy and connection. With a behavioural and punitive school culture children can feel scared about revealing their true feelings because they are uncertain about whether those feelings are welcome in school. Will I be told off for feeling like this? Do my feelings matter here? Punishments, shame and guilt can compound mental health and emotional difficulties for children.

We believe that the single best thing that you can implement in your school is a culture of healthy and trusting relationships where both children and staff feel safe and in control.

Everything at school is done within the context of relationship. The type of relationship that a pupil has with a teacher will determine how safe they feel in the classroom. The type of relationship that the Head Teacher has with parents will determine how they view the school. If you can harness a healthy relationship approach in school you will not only see happier children, but you will also have happier teachers who feel more confident and capable in the classroom.

As therapists, the relationship that we have with the child is the single most important factor in whether the therapy is effective. Why? Because if children do not trust you as an adult, they will not open up about things that are difficult for them. In the same way that we wouldn’t open up to a stranger about all of our deepest and darkest feelings; we must first get to know and trust someone before we feel safe enough to share.

When children do not trust adults they can behave in all sorts of ways that can seem confusing to us. They might act up to ‘test us’ and to see where the boundaries are. They might withdraw and become insular, not sharing anything about how they are feeling. They may not ever put their hand up in class or choose to share at all because they might fear how they will be received by their teacher.

Children’s experiences of adults will shape the way that they behave in school. Children regulate themselves around the adults in their lives. When we stop putting all the responsibility on children and start working on ourselves and the relationships we are creating with them, we can have a more positive impact.

What can we do to cultivate a culture of healthy relationships in schools?

The good news is that there are some really simple strategies that you can start implementing straight away to create a culture of healthy relationships at school – it all starts with you.

Children love adults who are playful, it is easier for them to connect with that playful energy. Adults who are very serious and who talk a lot can be experienced as quite scary and overwhelming to children. If you can create playful opportunities with children a space opens up where you can work on the relationship in a way that is really child friendly. Through play children will naturally engage more easily than they will through talking.

Clear Sky run a one day training called Space to Shine which focuses on cultivating healthy relationships for children and creating a school environment in which they will flourish. We recognise that there is little time within a school’s busy schedule to meet all the needs of all the children. Staff need simple to implement strategies and activities that can be used from basic level interactions with children in the classroom to creating playful opportunities in teaching and intervention work. We share theoretical information around relationships and attachment in an accessible way, allowing you to create the optimum secure relationships that children need to feel psychologically safe and able to learn.

Space to Shine uses a whole-school approach to children’s mental health and emotional wellbeing. This training is universal and can be used with all children by all members of staff. However, it is most powerful when staff feel fully supported by their senior leadership team. The training can be delivered in two ways; as an open session at Clear Sky HQ for individual staff members, or as a group training for an INSET day within the school setting.

To find out more about our training please visit our website or to book onto our next Space to Shine training course on 20th April at Clear Sky headquarters in the beautiful Oxfordshire countryside click here.