Mental Health Awareness Week launches today with a focus on the importance of relationships in supporting good mental health. For looked after children in schools this is especially important. For a child who has been abused or witnessed domestic violence, adults can be scary people. Many schools assume that their pupils feel safe, but for an unfortunate few this is not the case. For these children adults have hurt them, let them down, failed to protect them or simply just not been there. They’ve learnt not to automatically trust adults and schools should appreciate the time it can take to build a relationship with these children. More importantly, schools need to recognise just how important it is to invest the time needed to enable these relationships to develop.
Relationships can help a child to heal and for some children in the care system the relationships they develop with staff in school can be some of the most significant in their lives. For children who have experienced transience between family members, foster carers, social workers and a whole host of other professionals on their journey to care, school often provides the main stability. To have adults in school that understand what they have been through, can contextualise their behaviour and provide a blue print for what a positive relationship looks and feels like is more important than many school leaders realise.
Relationships can make the difference between a child succeeding or failing in school. If schools value and invest in good quality relationships for their vulnerable pupils then everyone benefits – the vulnerable child who feels too scared to learn, the teachers trying to deal with escalating behaviour issues and the other pupils losing out on their learning when the vulnerable child feels overwhelmed. Schools are faced with some tough financial choices at the moment but somehow seem to find tens of thousands of pounds to pay for ‘isolation rooms’. Perhaps if some of this funding were to be targeted at well-trained mentors instead there would be less need for the ‘isolation room’ in the first place. If it’s the same handful of children accessing the ‘isolation room’ week in and week out, then maybe it’s not working.
Schools rely heavily on a child being motivated by rewards and sanctions but for a child carrying around an overwhelming sense of shame they are unable to access the sense of guilt required for this approach to be effective. What is far more motivating for these children is relationships. From the safe base of a good relationship comes the opportunity for change to happen. Where a child has someone acting as a conduit to other staff to help make sense of triggers and offer solutions, the pupil stands a much better chance of succeeding.
Relationships that can lead to change don’t happen overnight and if a child is moved to another school we reduce the chance of them experiencing these protective relationships. When a school suggests a ‘fresh start’ may be needed, we need to bear in mind what this means to a vulnerable child. What often happens is the child feels rejected, they lose those important relationships and feel anxious about having to start from scratch again with people that don’t understand them. Without the support of a trusted adult, the chance of the child succeeding in a new school is minimal.
If we are serious about the mental health of young people, we need to take their relationships with school staff seriously by valuing and protecting them. These relationships can be the key to a child or young person’s success both in school and throughout their adult life.