Supporting Children to be Mentally Healthy

Supporting Children to be Mentally Healthy: A Whole School Approach (CPD Session)

Written by Elisa Fellone-Scott, Year 3 student trainee on the BA (Hons) EYE with QTS  programme

In this article I will be discussing the information for the recent training session ‘Supporting children to be Mentally Healthy: A Whole School Approach’. The speaker at the CPD Session, Professor Jonathan Glazzard was clearly passionate about mental health, being a Principal Researcher in the Carnegie Centre of Excellence for Mental Health in Schools. This is a great research project supporting schools in making positive changes to the educational system through providing information and resources on mental health (Leeds Beckett University, 2019)

The World Health Organisation (2003:1) defines mental health as ‘a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.’

Often people think about teenagers and adults when poor mental health is discussed, however, it is essential to understand how poor mental health can impact children from the early years of life. The National Health Service (2017) highlighted the child mental health is continually rising and reported that 5.5% of children between the age of two and four experienced a mental disorder. This raises questions as to why mental health is not discussed more in primary schools and early childcare settings if it is a growing concern (Nagel, 2016).

Potential Causes for Poor Mental Health

Poor mental health in children can be a result of a range of factors including, individual disability, family conflict, neglect, social deprivation, poor attachments and school culture. It is essential to acknowledge that children are often more aware of things happening in their environment that many people believe. Furthermore, school culture is a big cause for stress due to testing, expectations and being in a new and busy environment. Meyer’s (2003:8) model of stress explains that although stress may affect everyone, people of minority tend to struggle with more stress due ‘distal’ and ‘proximal’ stress. Distal stress occurs when an individual experience violence due to discrimination, on the other hand, proximal stress is experienced when the individual anticipates that they we be discriminated against. It is fundamental that practitioners are aware of the different types of stress to get a true understanding of the child’s lifestyle and mental health.

A Whole School Approach

To improve mental health, it is essential that all areas of school life are involved. This model taken from Public Health England (2015) highlights that leadership and management teams are fundamental in implementing effective strategies. To promote an ethos and environment grounded in respects and diversity, schools should represent all faiths and cultures. This can be done through multi-cultural displays and stories demonstrating different traditions and beliefs.  Curriculum teaching and learning can support mental health through providing opportunities for the children to discuss their feelings and reflect on their experiences. Student Voice is evident through providing autonomy in the classroom, this could be choosing stories to read to class representatives. The saying ‘you can not pour from an empty glass’ is clear when it comes to teaching. Teacher’s mental health needs to be healthy to ensure that they can help others around them. Therefore, the staff should be given training on how to support their own mental health as well as the children’s mental health and wellbeing. Identifying a need through recognising the signs of mental health issues and using interventions to help the child’s mental health. It is important to note that in specific cases the practitioner should refer them onto specialists to help the child. Finally, it is essential that practitioners work alongside parents to help them support their child in their home life, this support could include converting a part of the child’s room into a calming area or encouraging the parents to help the child reflect on their feelings.

Signs of Mental Health Issues

  • Physical signs for example, bruises, cuts.
  • Become withdrawn
  • Changes in behaviour
  • Decline in progress
  • Lack of personal care
  • Low self-esteem
  • Lower attendance in school
  • Self- blame
  • Tiredness/ lethargic



Ask the child to rate an aspect of their life, for example, their teamwork skill from one to ten. Once the child has answered the question, the practitioner should ask questions such as,

  • Where would you say you are now?
  • What are you doing that makes you think you are at this number?
  • What will tell you that you have moved one point up the scale?
  • What might you be doing then that you are not doing now?
  • ‘Where on the scale do you hope to get to over the next [e.g. week]?
  • What will you be doing then that’s different?’

Exception Finding aims to find a time where the child was not struggling to discover what could be the trigger for the problem.

  • When are the times that (the problem) doesn’t happen as much?
  • Tell me about a time when (the problem) happened but didn’t last as long?
  • When are the times when other people would notice you (e.g. behaving, working, being kind…) in a good way?
  • When were things a little bit better for you? What was different then?
  • Tell me about a time when (e.g. you stayed calm) in that difficult situation?

Complimenting is focusing on small things that the child has done well to help their self-esteem.

  • ‘It seems to me you’ve somehow been able to keep going with that, when things have been difficult, that you’re a person who can keep going even when things are tough. Is that true about you?’
  • ‘Something I’ve noticed today is that you’ve answered every question I asked you, maybe with an “I don’t know” answer, or maybe something else’.

Peer Mentors (Nagel, 2016) research found that children are more likely to talk to their peers about problems as they fear that adults will tell their parents. It is suggested that schools could train some pupils to be key listeners and understand when to inform the teacher of any problems.

Meditation helps children relax and gives them the opportunity to reflect on their day in a non-stressful way. These can be short daily sessions or long less frequent session.

Calming Jar- Put water and glitter into a jar and the child turns the jar and watches the glitter fall through the liquid, this is beneficial as it calms the child down.

Nature- There is a vast amount of research on the benefits of the outdoors on child mental health for example, children tend to speak to more children when they are playing outdoors meaning that they are more likely to build strong relationships.

Useful Links

  • Wellbeing Measurement Framework for Primary Schools (Evidence Based Project Unit, 2017) is a framework in partnership with Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families. This framework a method of measuring how mentally healthy children are by working with the child to answer statements such as ‘I break things on purpose’ based on a never, sometimes and always scale. Link:
  • Mentally Healthy School Website (2019) is sponsored by health charities such as Young Mind to provide information on mental health as well as resources to support children with mental health issues. Link:

How do you support children wellbeing in your setting?


Assessment overload play depravation- student’s voice

By Annabel Lewis, final year student on the BA Early Childhood Studies programme.

Early years is a pivotal stage of a child’s development, where learning is constantly taking place (Volchegorskaya and Nogina, 2014). The practitioner’s role requires the shaping and guiding of such learning in order for it to be meaningful and useful within children’s lives and to aid future development (Dubiel, 2014). An aspect of the practitioner’s role involves the assessment of young children; the process in which observations are carried out and recorded to make judgements on children’s developmental achievement (Dubiel, 2014). An example of this within early years education involves the assessment of children’s ability to identify objects that are shown on picture cards and observing how well they perform at this task. Thus, reinforces the deficit model that focuses on what children are unable to do, which then becomes the main focus for that child (Dubiel, 2014). Therefore, we need to question the importance and value of assessment within early years education and what detrimental effects this may have on children at such a young age. Through assessment practitioners are highlighting children’s weaknesses and making this apparent to young children themselves. In addition, Nutbrown and Carter (2012) state that children who sense early stages of failure are more likely to experience low self-esteem and therefore impacts further learning.

Although it is important and a requirement for practitioners to assess children’s levels of development in order to identify areas where children require further support, and the next steps for development can be planned to continuously encourage children’s learning and development (Drummond, 1993). In contrast, we need to understand what assessment means to young children and how it impacts their daily lives within educational settings. Research has found that school pressures which consists of testing children at a young age are closely linked to an increase in high levels of cortisol within children (Zeidner, 2007). It is also suggested that children develop feelings of fear, low self-esteem and failure in anticipation of a test which has detrimental effects on a child’s overall academic achievement (Ringeisen and Raufelder, 2012; Lohbeck, Nitkowski and Petermann, 2016). This implies that stress in young children caused by school pressures, such as assessments, results in children having a lack of motivation and engagement, and further portrays that children are less likely to perform well. Is testing children doing more harm than good? Children experiencing stress at such a young age can result in permanent effects to the developing brain such as having difficulties self-regulating their behaviour, being unable to concentrate and learn (Von Suchodoletz, Trommsdorff, Heikamp, Wieber and Gollwitzer, 2009). Further to this, persistent high levels of cortisol has been found to increase children’s risk of developing mental health problems in the future (Gunnar and Quevedo, 2007). It is evident that assessment has detrimental effects on young children such as causing high levels of stress, which in return decreases children’s academic performance. Practitioners are required to enhance children’s learning and to ensure that all children are developing to their best ability (DoE, 2017). In contrast, if practitioners are testing children at a young age; are practitioners encouraging children’s learning and development by causing anxiety and stress in children, or are there other ways in which children can learn and develop without the pressures of being assessed?

  • References
    DRUMMOND, M.J., 1993. Learning to See: Assessment Through Observation. York, ME: Stenhouse.
  • DUBIEL, J., 2014. Effective Assessment in the Early Years Foundation Stage. Early Excellence, Huddersfield.
  • EARLY EDUCATION., 2017. Development Matters in the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) [online]. England: Department for Education. Available from: [Accessed 22 May 2019].
  • GUNNAR, M. and QUEVEDO, K., 2007. The Neurobiology of Stress and Development. Annual Review of Psychology. Vol. 58, pp. 145-173.
  • LOHBECK, A., NITKOWSKI, D. and PETERMANN, F., 2016. “A Control-Value Theory Approach: Relationships Between Academic Self-Concept, Interest and Test Anxiety in Elementary School Children”. Child and Youth Care Forum. Vol. 45, no. 6, pp. 887-904.
  • NUTBROWN, C. and CARTER, C., 2012. “The Tools of Assessment: Watching and Learning” in PUGH, G. and DUFFY, B., 2013. Contemporary Issues in the Early Years. London: SAGE OFSTED. Subsidiary Guidance; Supporting the Inspection of Maintained Schools and Academies.
  • RINGEISEN, T. and RAUFELDER, D., 2015. “The Interplay of Parental Support, Parental Pressure and Test Anxiety – Gender Differences in Adolescents”. Journal of Adolescence. Vol. 45, pp. 67-79.
  • VOLCHEGORSKAYA, E. and NOGINA, O., 2014. “Musical Development in Early Childhood”. Procedia: Social and Behavioural Sciences. Vol. 146, pp. 364-368.
  • VON SUCHODOLETZ, A., TROMMSDORFF, G., HEIKAMP, T., WIEBER, F. and GOLLWITZER, P.M., 2009. “Transition to School: The Role of Kindergarten Children’s Behaviour Regulation”. Learning and Individual Differences. Vol. 19, no. 4, pp. 561-566.
  • ZEIDNER, M., 2007. Test Anxiety in Educational Contexts: Concepts, Findings, and Future Directions. In P.A. SCHUTZ. and R. PEKRUN (Eds). Emotion in Education. San Diego, CA: Academic Press. pp. 165-184.

‘Assessment overload’ – play depravation?

‘The child’s voice’
“I didn’t have time to play today. I wrote my name, I did some sums, I read my book to the teacher and wrote some sentences with full stops and speech marks. I painted a self-portrait and did lots of other things, but I didn’t have time to play today, or yesterday. Hopefully I will play tomorrow?”

Assessment in Early Years Education has received considerable attention in recent years. Children in England today are officially assessed five times by the end of their Primary School years (DfE, 2014. Reforming Assessment and accountability for Primary Schools). The information obtained from these assessments is translated into numerical figures and it seems as if the impact of play is lost amongst this culture of labelling. Although many have written about the consequences of some assessment procedures (Bradbury & Roberts-Holmes, 2017; Dubiel, 2016), what current discussions highlight is not a pledge towards the avolition of assessment in early years. The discussion is bringing to the surface the need for clarification and the actual use of assessment in Early Years Education and Care (ECEC).

Open the doors to play
We seem to have developed a ‘scary’ perception of assessment that has formality attached to it and sets out lists of goals to work towards when all that is necessary is to simply let play back in.
The themes drawn from the discussions I have had with practitioners from different backgrounds recently highlighted the absence of spontaneous play during crucial times. I found myself referring to the journals I had written years ago which told stories about the children I worked with. Those accounts of children’s progress ALL had a common thread which I had not identified at the time and this made me realise that we had allowed concepts in that had manipulated the value of play.

‘A dinosaur adventure’ that became real because Alex reminded us that spontaneous play has an impact that cannot be predicted. These photographs show us how Alex took charge of his play and let assessment and play walk alongside each other when he said, “dinosaurs are real”.

The formalised approach to assessment we have been forced to follow would encourage us to relate each part of the experience to the EYFS Framework or any other policy document that is used as a guide for assessment purposes. However, what happened to Alex when he brought play to life, had an impact that cannot be numerically measured. The introduction of scores to measure how children are progressing has influenced practitioners to justify the use of play. Alex’s adventure is evidence of the type of play that has no prescribed agenda. These types of experiences reiterate the importance of allowing spontaneous play count.

The current culture of progress justification has had an impact on how play is perceived by some practitioners and this is how pockets of ‘play depravation‘ have been identified. This is not necessarily because children have been deprived of play, rather because spontaneous play is often not understood and therefore manipulated to fit into the progress ranking agenda.

Play in its natural sense has never gone away, it has been hidden under a numerically measurable agenda. Turning that on its head is the starting point. Do we need numerical scores to justify that children are learning and developing (Gullo, 2005)? Assessment can be carried out whilst children have the freedom to explore the world through play. It is in fact recommended by many that we start learning about each child before we measure where they fit within these ‘ready-made progress scales’. Assessment does have a place in Early Years but, it needs to value strategies that help us as practitioners understand how children are developing. How about we assess children during play to really learn about who they are? Play can allow us to enter a child’s world where assessment can happen authentically. As we let children discover the world, we can witness how they flourish as unique individuals. This happens when children simply play (Nilsson et al, 2018; Martin, 2018).

Observing Alex play with ‘the dinosaur eggs’ he found in his allotment (which were dried out squashes) helped us learn about him. I know more about Alex because I was able to see him totally immersed in his play.

Whilst I write about the power of play
I do wonder what children might say
“Watch me, hear me! Let me be!”
It is through play that you’ll learn about me!”

Alicia Blanco-Bayo


BRADBURY, A & ROBERTS-HOLMES, G. (2017) Creating an Ofsted story: the role of early years assessment data in schools’ narratives of progress. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 38(7), 943-955.

DfE (2014) Reforming Assessment and accountability for Primary Schools. London: DfE

DUBIEL, J. (2016) Effective Assessment in the Early Years Foundation Stage. SAGE: London

GULLO, D. (2005) Understanding Assessment and Evaluation in Early Childhood Education. 2nd ed. New York: Teachers College Press.

MARTIN, S. (2018) Take a Look. Observation and Portfolio Assessment in Early Childhood (Seventh Edition) Canada: Pearson.

NILSSON, M., FERHOLT, B. & LECUSA, R. (2018) “‘The playing-exploring child’:Reconceptualizing the relationship between play and learning in early childhood education”, Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, vol. 19, no. 3,231-245.

OFSTED (2017) Bold Beginnings: A Reception curriculum in a sample of good and outstanding primary schools.

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