The public is sceptical of government plans that would see teachers tasked with instilling resilience through new mental health lessons being added to the national curriculum in 2020, an extensive survey conducted by Mental Health Today has established.
Mindfulness sessions are already in place at many schools. But an emphasis on teachers “cultivating” resilience is set to become mandatory within reshaped Relationships and Sex Education syllabuses, for both primary and secondary school pupils, in September next year.
As part of the proposed mental health national curriculum plans, students will be taught how to build – and practice - mental resilience.
The government’s current designs for mental health lessons state: “Relationships education is most successful where teaching about positive relationships is underpinned by a wider, deliberate cultivation and practice of resilience and positive virtues in the individual. These [virtues] should include believing you can achieve goals and sticking at tasks that will help you do so, even when the reward is distant or uncertain or you come up against challenges, honesty, integrity, self-control, courage, humility, kindness, forgiveness, generosity, trustworthiness and a sense of justice."
“There are many ways in which secondary schools should support the development of these virtues, for example by providing planned opportunities for young people to undertake social action, active citizenship and voluntary service to others locally or more widely.”
However, analysis of 1,200 responses to MHT’s Teach Me Well survey has found that a majority disagree with the government that resilience can be instilled by teachers. Strength of character, emotional control, and a positive outlook, seen as key factors in overcoming challenges in life, are thought by 42 percent to be inherent traits. 30 percent feel counsellors and cognitive behavioural therapists and counsellors can help develop resilience, not teachers. Just forty two percent felt teachers could be expected to do it alone.
How can resilience be developed?
We can learn to remain calm in the face of conflict and pressure. We can learn and adopt simple routines and practices to, say, help us stop smoking (restrain impulse) or to cope with anxiety (remain calm in the face of pressure).
The very earliest work in Resilience (Kauai, 1955) demonstrated that even in the most deprived environments, a third of at-risk children overcame their challenging environments to succeed. What these at-risk children did was to practice routines and exercises focused on the attributes mentioned above.
In elite sport, resilience is coached. Athletes are drilled to overcome defeat and to mentally move on, not allowing one outcome to damage their belief in their own abilities. A boxer who quit the sport after one defeat would be seen as a failing on the coaching side as much as any other factor.
We can learn to breathe better and calm our physiology. We can learn to exercise daily and secure a good night’s sleep. We can learn emotion regulation, empathy and to focus on the positives.
So the question then is, who is best to coach or teach this?
From the results of our survey, asking whether teachers are the most suitable candidates to carry this message to our future generations, it is an even split between yes and no.
It surely depends hugely on the teachers’ own belief in whether resilience can be coached. A recent survey by Mental Health Foundation Scotland found that 71% of teachers said they lacked the skills to help pupils with their mental health difficulties. Just over half of the teachers questioned said their job had either led to them developing a mental health problem or had made an existing condition worse. Nine out of 10 said they would like to see mental health training become a key part of initial teacher education. These teachers are demonstrating that, given the right training and preparation and support, they can learn to support the students and deliver the type of education set out in the government’s curriculum plan. What we cannot do is expect them to take this responsibility on without first being given the training they need to deliver.
So, as long as the teachers are trained and feel suitable prepared for the teaching, they are the most likely candidates to deliver these lessons. But what role do counsellors and CBT therapists have to play, who polled 14 percent and 16 percent respectively in our survey?
The role of counsellors and CBT therapists
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is defined as a talking therapy that can help you manage your problems by changing the way you think and behave: precisely the practices and techniques mentioned earlier as the key factors in teaching resilience. If a student’s negative thoughts are hindering them from progress and trapping them in a perpetual cycle of negativity, the teacher is not going to be able to reach them without the nuanced understanding that comes from CBT professionals. If teachers would like to see mental health training become a key part of initial teacher education, then it seems the best people to shape this are CBT professionals. The curriculum must be shaped by the experts and delivered by the teachers.
Counsellors fit into this marriage the same as CBT therapists. It is imperative that they are involved in the designing on the education, but to what extent will largely be down to local authorities such as local health boards and education boards.
The ideal, it would appear, would be to have the therapists and counsellors design lesson plans to educate the teachers to become more resilient. If many teachers feel the job is causing mental health problems to themselves, or has made an existing condition worse, then aren’t they in as much need of this teaching as the students? There would be little positive outcome from a teacher struggling with stress or anxiety or depression teaching resilience to a classroom of 30 children.
We want better mental health education for everyone involved in the process. If the teachers believe in the transformative powers of the lesson plans, the better the chances of the student’s buying into it.
However, it is also important to keep in mind, as highlighted by Jemima Olchawski in this piece from October, that we don’t focus so much on a narrative of overcoming an obstacle that we lose sight of the obstacle itself: what it is; why it is there. Ultimately, it would be better to remove the psychological hurdles in a child’s path, rather than teach them to climb over.
- See more: Mental health lessons long overdue, argues Jessica Murray, a trainee counsellor and mother who lives with borderline personality disorder
- See more: Denying the traumatic origins of Dissociative Identity Disorder denies those who live with it a recovery
MHT received over 1,200 survey responses to its Teach Me Well survey between 22 October 2018 and 2 January 2019. It has shared its findings with the government through its ongoing consultation on mental health curriculum content.
Updated curriculum plans are set to be shared by the Government’s Department for Education by the end of February.
The Department for Education is proposing that schools are required to teach relationships education at primary school, relationships and sex education at secondary school, and health education at all state-funded schools. Mental health content is set to feature within all three syllabuses.
MHT will publish further results from its polling over the coming weeks, ahead of the national curriculum plan being debated and finalised in parliament in the spring.