Mentally Healthy Schools – by Lorraine Petersen OBE

About Lorraine Petersen OBE

lorraine peterson obe 2We are thrilled to publish this piece written by Lorraine Petersen OBE. Lorraine has 25 years’ experience in the mainstream school environment as a teacher and Head Teacher. From 2004 – 2013 Lorraine was CEO of nasen, a charitable organisation supporting all those who work with children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities. As a result, Lorraine has many years’ experience of working with pupils with an array of special and additional needs and the teachers, SENCOs and support staff that work with them. Lorraine has had hands-on experience of the issues relating to caring for and educating children with special and additional needs as well as experience in liaising with a range of organisations within a multi-agency context.

Read more about Lorraine here.

Mentally Healthy Schools

The increasing number of children and young people identified with mental health needs is becoming a significant concern for schools. It is estimated that three pupils in every classroom may have a mental health need and require support at any one time. A child who has a learning difficulty and/or disability is six times more likely to have a mental health problem whilst at school.


The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines mental health as “A state of well-being in which the individual realises his or her own abilities, can cope with normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community” (WHO, 2007)


The new category of social, emotional and mental health (SEMH) needs replaced the old category of behaviour, emotional and social difficulties (BESD) in the SEND Code of Practice 2015. Many schools used the BESD category for all those pupils who appeared to have any behaviour difficulties from those who were withdrawn to those who had challenging behaviour. Often teachers were unsure of what was triggering the behaviours and so were not able to identify the underlying needs.


With the removal of the word behaviour and the introduction of mental health, teachers need to be able to identify the underlying needs of these pupils and offer support and strategies to intervene early to ensure that the pupil’s needs are met especially those who are experiencing mental health difficulties.


Mental health issues can present in a number of ways, and it is important to distinguish between a mental health problem, disorder and illness. Mental health problems are relatively common and may occur in 30 – 40% of all children during childhood. They will usually be short – term and mild and may arise from a number of different factors. It is these children and young people that we need to be able to identify and put in place intervention strategies to ensure they do not progress to having a more serious mental health disorder or mental health illness, both of which will require diagnosis and support from health professionals.

Mental Health is a whole school issue and is everybody’s responsibility

Staff should have their individual needs recognised and responded to in a holistic way with recognition of work-life balance and access to proactive strategies and systems to support them at times of emotional needs in both the short and long term. They should feel valued and have opportunities to contribute to decision making processes and celebrate and recognise success.


Pupils should have opportunities to participate in activities that encourage belonging, develop resilience and a sense of worth through taking responsibility for themselves and others. There should be many opportunities to celebrate academic and non-academic achievement and have their unique talents and abilities identified and developed. Most of all they should be surrounded by adults who model positive and appropriate behaviours, interactions and ways of relating at all times.


Parents should be recognised for their significant contribution to children and young people’s mental health and be welcomed, included and work in partnership with schools and other agencies. They should be provided with opportunities where they can ask for help when needed and be signposted to appropriate agencies for support.

Top Ten Tips for a Mentally Healthy School

  1. There needs to be a school wide commitment to mental health and well-being and strategies to support this should be integrated across all school practice
  2. The engagement of leadership and management is crucial in order to support and manage change.
  3. There should be a named lead for mental health promotion with the expectation that there is support and involvement and an ethos that ‘mental health is everyone’s business’
  4. A Whole-school mental health policy is developed with input from staff, pupils, parents and other stakeholders
  5. All other school policies, processes and procedures need to be developed with mental health as a key feature
  6. Senior Leadership regularly monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of the mental health and well-being of pupils and staff across the school
  7. The school culture, ethos and environment needs to reflect aspirations of the mental health and well-being policy
  8. Staff development and a recognition of staff mental well-being is paramount to developing a whole school process
  9. The school must develop strong partnerships with parents, carers, families and the wider community and offer support and guidance to key stakeholders where necessary
  10. The school has robust assessment , record keeping and reporting systems in place which support learning, measure progress but most importantly celebrates achievement

Supporting Mental Health in the classroom

There is a definite link between mental well-being and attitudes to learning. If pupils are experiencing distressing life-experiences, family discord, instability and disruption or educational distress such as anxiety about examinations or moving to another school they will all impact on the pupil’s ability to concentrate, learn and their academic performance and progress will suffer. Teachers need to be able to support these pupils by identifying their barriers to learning and offering support and implementing strategies to remove or reduce some of those barriers. There are a number of free tools that teachers can access to help them with this.


  • All schools have flexibility to create their own personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) curriculum. This may be used to develop resilience, confidence and ability to learn. The PSHE Association has produced guidance and lessons plans for schools on preparing to teach about mental health and emotional wellbeing.
  • The Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire is a simple, evidenced based tool to help teachers consider the full range of a child’s behaviour. This will give them an overview of the child’s strengths and weaknesses and give a judgement on whether the pupil is likely to be suffering from a mental health problem.
  • Mental Health and Behaviour in Schools is a DfE publication originally published in March 2015 and updated in March 2016. This departmental advice clarifies the responsibility of the school, outlines what they can do and how to support a pupil whose behaviour may be related to an unmet mental health need.


Schools have a duty to promote the mental health and well-being of the children and young people in their care. With this in mind, offering opportunities for each individual to develop resilience, coping skills and a sense of worth is paramount in the drive for increased enjoyment of school and a greater capacity for learning both leading to enhanced academic progress for all pupils.

Lorraine Petersen OBE, former CEO of nasen

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