Have you ever felt like you were talking to someone about something important, but they weren’t really listening? Or have you ever explained something clearly on a Zoom call, only to be told you were muted the whole time?
It can be frustrating for us as adults (who have a vocabulary range of around 20-25000 words) to express our thoughts and feelings and then feel like we are not heard. Imagine how much harder it can be for young children to try and articulate themselves, with a vocabulary span of around 5-1000 words, but not be listened to by the adults around them.
There are some children and young people whose voices are particularly marginalised. For example, those who have a special educational need or disability, those who have experienced living in care, , those who are part of the LGBTQI+ community, and those from racially minoritised groups.
Oftentimes, children in care have little say about many of the things that affect them, and this lack of autonomy can have a huge impact on their mental wellbeing. When they cannot use their voices, young people may express their frustrations through their actions instead and then end up in trouble.
Over the past several years, we have seen children and young people’s health worsen, heightened by factors such as the pandemic and the cost of living crisis. An estimated 5 children in every classroom now have a mental health disorder and some of the time these children’s voices are left unheard when they try to ask for help.
This year, the children’s mental health charity Place2Be, have given Children’s Mental Health Week the title ‘My Voice Matters.’ They have taken the theme from article 12 of the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child which states:
‘Every child has the right to express their views, feelings and wishes in all matters affecting them, and to have their views considered and taken seriously.’
I had a proud moment a few months back when my foster son was asked to speak on behalf of care leavers at a local authority panel. They were discussing whether to make care experience a protected characteristic. At the end of the meeting, the councillors voted in favour of this, and it was wonderful to know that both the young people attending had played a part in making this happen.
As Place2Be points out, empowering children and young people can have a positive impact on health and wellbeing. Those who feel heard have higher levels of self-esteem, self-efficacy, a greater sense of community and ultimately, they learn how to work together to create positive changes for themselves and others. Feedback from the charity on what young people said, is that they would like to talk about mental health more, in a less scary, more student led way and not in one off assemblies. They emphasised that by making lessons more interactive with activities such as role play, quizzes, etc, they would be willing to engage more in speaking up about mental health issues.
So how can we help to give young people a voice?
Firstly, mental health lessons are now a large part of the primary and secondary RSHE curriculum, and all schools are required to teach these. The statutory guidance has more objectives for mental wellbeing at primary level than any of the other relationship and health education topics. The DfE guidance states that it should be at the core of all the units taught.
‘Teaching about mental wellbeing is central to these subjects, especially as a priority for parents is their children’s happiness.’ The new subject content will give them the knowledge and capability to take care of themselves and receive support if problems arise.’ (.DfE 2019)
Over the past year, I’ve been working with a number of children in primary school, who are on the autistic spectrum, to help them to recognise feelings and express words for them using a range of creative activities, from modelling dough faces, to playing emotional regulation twister.
The more involved the children feel, the more they can trust and connect with the adults around them. This is the unit of work I have probably invested more time into than any other, as I see it crossing over into all other curriculum areas. It is worth schools taking a good amount of time to look at the needs of their pupils and provide for this subject, to be fully integrated into their RSHE curriculum planning through a fun, yet sensitive, hands-on approach.
Secondly, schools should aim to involve pupils in important matters. Many schools now have class reps, a school council and even kindness or anti-bullying ambassadors which is really positive. This helps the children to feel involved in the day to day running of their school and to have a sense of pride in having that responsibility. Even small responsibilities can feel like something important to a child, as they may feel seen and heard for the first time. Involving students in surveys, lesson feedback and even curriculum development can be an amazing way to help grow a mentally healthy school. The Anna Freud Institute has some more ideas on developing pupil voice.
Finally, normalise the need to talk about mental health. Although it is wonderful to have a week dedicated to the awareness of mental wellbeing, it shouldn’t be reserved for just one week per year. Even if it is just five minutes at the end of each day, there could be opportunities built in to play a game, do some breathing techniques or reflect on a piece of music or art. Some fantastic schools I’ve been in, have worry post boxes or large worry monsters where children can write down their worries and post them. As part of our sessions, we also use anonymous question/thought boxes so if there is anything someone wants to say they can do so safely.
Picture books are another great way of stopping for a few minutes and tackling tricky topics by reading a story. A couple of my recent favourites are the books, “The Colour Thief” and “Rabbityness”, as they focus on themes of depression, getting help and finding hope after loss.
These are big themes for small people but with the aid of good resources and time for discussion, children can start to use their voices and find strategies for good mental health.
What might be some ways you could support young people with finding their voice this #ChildrensMentalHealthWeek2024?
Written by our schools worker, Rachel
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