School staff may often be the first people that parents speak to if they have concerns about their child's mental health
Research by Green et al found that parents were more likely to seek support for their child's mental health from school staff than any other professional.
An emotionally healthy school culture can support meaningful relationships between staff, pupils and parents.
Building positive relationships with parents will encourage them to openly share their concerns. Empathic and supportive responses from staff can offer parents guidance and reassurance if they need to make the often difficult first step of seeking help from other services.
Open communication between staff, parents and the school is therefore essential to collaboratively support children who are experiencing difficulties.
This in turn can help to lower stress for staff, parents and pupils.
So how to develop an emotionally healthy school culture? Here are my three suggestions:
Begin with a clear framework and incorporate a shared language and understanding, modelled day-to-day by the leaders in a school. Get staff, pupils and parents to regularly review and evaluate the policies and practices which support the culture you are aiming for so as to monitor the lived experience of the different members of the school community.
Interviews for new staff can involve a clear message that this is how we work together in this school, with the pupils and parents. Working here means being happy to buy into this.
Training in this approach and a general induction will allow time for discussion, questions, modelling and observations of others so that new members of staff can gradually incorporate into the culture.
Staff need firstly to feel confident in their shared approach to building relationships with parents. Then they can begin with inviting groups of parents to a brief discussion session on a particular topic of shared interest, keeping it light, collaborative and respectful.
The above can develop into staff offering longer sessions for parents on other areas such as supporting children with their social media use, understanding the teenage brain, and taking ideas from parents for discussion about their concerns for their children.
When parents have experienced such discussions and have developed respectful relationships with members of staff, it can become possible to engage them in a series of workshops or a longer programme such as the Family Links Nurturing Programme.
In this way parents can feel empowered: sharing strategies for managing boundaries with their children, understanding that feelings drive behaviours, considering ways to step back and respond rather than react, and thinking about adults modelling self-care for young people.
It can also be incredibly powerful for parents in helping them to realise that they are not alone and also fosters supportive relationships between parents.
The daily culture of a school is in this way the key to a genuine partnership with parents. If the leadership team models the approach and staff are supported to do the same and parents are engaged then a whole school framework for an emotionally healthy culture will take shape.
This then can allow for a hopeful, positive, collaborative environment bringing empathy and a non-judgmental approach in harder times.
There are so many benefits for all members of the school community in having a genuine partnership with parents; working together to support the pupils to develop good emotional and mental health is perhaps the most important one.
If our emotional health is good, we might have the strategies and resilience to manage better when our mental health is poor. When our emotional and mental health is good, we are best placed to support others.
All members of a school community will experience challenges to their emotional health, but within a supportive environment where relationships are trusting, attitudes, competencies and strategies can be developed that can help to manage these challenges.
Head of Programmes
(Article originally written by Mary Taylor for Ambition School Leadership.)