The new Code of Practice for Special Educational Needs and Disability (2014) has introduced a new area of need – Social, Emotional and Mental Health.
I have waited 30 years of my teaching career for this moment.
I am permanently scarred by the response of a Headteacher in my second teaching post. In my class at the time was a 14 year old girl, Helen, who was profoundly deaf. I had been teaching Helen to sign, and she was communicating really well through this medium.
However, she suddenly changed to this aggressive, morose young woman, who would physically attack me if I went near her for our signing sessions. My observations led me to the conclusion that Helen was depressed. I shared this information with the Head and asked if we could refer Helen to what would have been the equivalent of CAMHS then. The Head’s response was, “Wow! You are not a Doctor or a Nurse. We don t do Mental Health!”
I am sure such a situation would not arise now, but as a teaching profession we do not have a background in dealing with children and young people with Mental Health needs. It has not been a component of initial teacher training or even postgraduate specialist training: (although it is a training focus for the new Schools Direct programme I am tutoring at Chadsgrove School in Bromsgrove).
It is the terminology that, whilst not new, is significant – Mental Health. Even as a Headteacher , chairing an Annual Review meeting , if I mentioned that we were doing some works around a child’s mental health needs, I wouldn’t be allowed to go far before the Psychologist or Psychiatrist would say , “ I think that is our territory now”.
So an exciting, much needed challenge, but one where we do not have a strong pedagogical skill base or a clear curriculum framework. (Both of these issues I will be addressing in my Keynote Lecture at the Osiris Conferences.) Our paramount concern has to be that, in this 21st Century the children in our classrooms are presenting with needs in this area that we have not seen, and we can no longer fail to make a meaningful response.
The language we use is important here. Mental Health is a diagnosis; it is not a curriculum area. The Curriculum are should be christened Emotional Well Being, and even in schools that have a strong PSHE curriculum, it needs to be revisited as previous constraints will mean that we have not adequately addressed the area of Mental Well Being.
The aim and purpose of this new area of the curriculum will be to build, strengthen and promote emotional resilience in our children and young people. Our motivation should be the simple question, “how do we make our children emotionally strong?”
It is a busy, fast moving world out there. Our children need the emotional skills to navigate that world alongside the more academic skills we impart, that enable them to be physically, socially and cognitively resilient.
Of course, if you have Special Educational Needs these challenges are even greater. Children with SEN are a much more vulnerable group; for every 5 children on a School SEND Register, 3 will have a mental health issue.
At the SEND Conference 2015 we will define the range of mental health needs and what it actually means, and also look at the more vulnerable groups in greater depth , e.g. those with ASD, FASD, or born prematurely.
Professor Carpenter is the author of over 100 articles and books on SEN topics. He works across the globe to improve education for SEN children and is the co-founder of the National Forum for Neuroscience in Special Education. He is currently presenting at the SEND Conference 2015.