How Well Do We Know Our Kids

A friend, Leyla Carter, asked me some pretty difficult questions today:

How much do you notice the ‘mental state’ of your students and how much can it impact their learning, or the learning of others around them?

Sarah Armstrong, Drama Teacher
Sarah Jane, Drama Teacher

She started up her own company called The Motivation Project which aims to tackle mental health issues amongst teenagers through the means of dance and movement. So, when asking me these questions what she means by ‘mental state’ is issues such as stress, anxiety, depression and eating disorders – which I think affect our kids today now more than ever. Below, I attempt to answer her questions indicating just how hopeless I feel as a teacher.

The key to understanding my pupils mental state is by building rapport, positive relationships and gaining trust. This is not easy to do because lately our children are, in general, less trusting. That said, I still feel confident in doing those things with lots of my students. Thus they come to me if needed and more importantly, I can tell if their mental state appears to change. Some children however, do not speak up and hide how they are really feeling. This is where being able to spot ‘typical’ behaviours is crucial. Being a teacher, where I have experienced difficulty is what to do with information both LEGALLY and PROFESSIONALLY. All teachers complete ‘safeguarding’ training annually and we are made aware of what to do should we notice anything. Along with everything else though, it has become yet another ‘tick box’ activity. You notice something so you email someone else. You never hear what unfolded. You never hear whether you have genuinely helped a child. With so much work under our job description it becomes difficult to see your impact beyond the classroom (which for me is not very often). I feel hopeless.

The biggest failure is that the expressive subjects; where relationships are built, mental state is explored and thoughts are expressed are seen LEAST on a child’s timetable. As a secondary drama teacher I only see each pupil once a week. Tragic in its own right. Their mentality could have changed over and over before I see them again. I therefore need to pay close attention to notice mood changes or lack of effort where they were previously engaged and try to tackle the problem there and then. Maybe a fight at lunch time or an argument with mum before they left for school has left them feeling anxious? These things could easily be resolved in the classroom with a friendly smile or a quick conversation. If they continue to act out following a chat, your hand is then forced to follow the ‘consequence ladder’ for behaviour choices because you have 29 other kids in the class and ‘behaviourism’ is a disease to the classroom learning environment. “Joe Bloggs sees anxious person, seemingly acts apathetic and refuses to join in too”. Nightmare. So, I would then type a quick email to their form tutor mentioning their odd behaviour and hope that they follow it up to check if anything more is going on. I feel hopeless as a classroom teacher.

As a form tutor, you notice students’ emotional and mental state daily by monitoring their mood and/or behaviour. You would think that this means you are in a better position to do something about it. There isn’t a lot you can do though, often you ‘pass it on’ to somebody else as this is policy. The conversation that follows with the student in question is awful to have, “I have had to pass on that you haven’t been yourself recently otherwise I will get into trouble”. Students feel like you have let them down and you have to work hard to rebuild lost trust. I feel hopeless as a form teacher. A better conversation would be ”I have noticed you have been down recently so I have signed you up for ‘The Motivation Project’ to see if that helps. It’s cool and fun and if nothing else, I know you will have a good time”.

Does negative mental health have an impact on their learning? Very much so. When a child is not feeling themselves they become withdrawn. In a subject like drama, this has a huge impact not just on themselves but the other kids too. As a teacher or even as a caring adult, if a child is disengaged or seems anxious, you want to help them and so you dedicate time to them and help them feel better. More kids than necessary then end up missing a lot of learning time; they find concentrating tricky and demonstrate negative behaviours and learning then becomes difficult for all. However, the worst feeling in the world would be NOT helping a child because you assumed they were playing up but actually, it turns out they have an underlying eating disorder or are under extreme stress. So, what do we do? I feel hopeless as a caring person.

Sarah&AndrewStruggles with sticking to the curriculum means that teachers are unable to explore the issues we want to through subjects like drama, which would massively help students to develop understanding, empathy and give them an opportunity at school to work through their anxieties. If ‘The Motivation Project’ helps teenagers to be more positive about themselves, then their learning would improve along with everyday life for themselves, their teachers and their parents. If people are more emotionally positive, they tend to have the capacity to be more positive about other people, cultures, issues, history, relationships and religion. Everyone is a winner. I want to see this across the UK. Make The Motivation Project happen.

By Sarah Jane.

Are you a teacher? Do you have experience of the issues discussed in this blog? Leave a comment or email to share your views.