Started offering training
Staff trained so far
All 18 specialist teachers and support workers
At the Inclusive Learning Service in Leeds, Liz O’Carroll and her team work with approximately 30 primary school age children. Many of the children have gone through abuse and neglect, and all display significant behavioural issues and have social, emotional and mental health needs.
The Inclusive Learning Service actively seeks to re-integrate children into mainstream education, as well as intervening to prevent pupils from being excluded in the first place. This innovative approach to education is funded by The South Area Inclusion Partnership, with money devolved from Leeds local authority.
Liz believes the training will give her team the tools to help the children better control their emotional outbursts, which can be destructive, violent and explosive. The outlook for these children, all previously excluded or at risk of exclusion from school, can seem bleak at times.
“The children we see have got huge emotional issues,” explains Liz. “Schools are expected to engage children like these in learning and hit government levels like every other child. But these expectations are unrealistic. They’re so emotionally damaged. How can you expect them to learn like any other pupil?”
"Teachers perform extremely challenging roles and it’s important to be able to cope with what are sometimes distressing circumstances. We’re also more supportive of each other now.”
The team has found the course’s structured approach to building up a child’s resilience has already reaped benefits. Developing ‘Wellness Recovery Action Plans’ for each individual boy or girl has started to significantly improve behaviour.
“All of the children have sat down and created plans for themselves with their key worker,” says Liz, a teacher with 20 years of experience. “The pupils are really engaged in it. Now, when a teacher sees a child’s behaviour deteriorating, they’ll draw on the plan to prevent things getting worse. They will build an activity in to the day which benefits the child, such as exercise, baking, a musical instrument or whatever works for that individual child.”
Liz's team does a lot of outreach work at schools with struggling children at risk of exclusion, working closely with their parents. She believes the training has helped here too. It’s enabled them to be more open, not just when talking to the children about their mental health, but also with their families, addressing issues head-on.
“Before there were questions that we might have shied away from asking because we were afraid of making things worse,” she says.“Now we’re all more confident about asking direct questions about how someone feels.
“There was one boy whom we suspected had been self-harming. He said he’d just fallen over. In private, his key worker asked straight out the question everybody had been asking themselves and he opened up about it, and why he was doing it. We would have got there in the end but this new confidence in talking about mental health stopped us worrying about what to do and it stopped things before they could get out of hand.
“This new confidence in talking about mental health stopped us worrying about what to do and stopped things before they could get out of hand... It was a real breakthrough with this family.”
“His key worker has also talked to his mum about it, and she now knows how to help him, which is great. Families and children tend to be very wary when you talk about their mental health. But he was able to talk to them in a de-stigmatising way in a language they could relate to, explaining everybody has got mental health needs. It was a real breakthrough with this family.”
One of the unexpected benefits of the MHFA training was how the team – including experienced teachers, behaviour support workers, and special needs teachers – were brought together by it.
“My team is pretty robust,” says Liz. “You’ve got to be fairly tough for this job. But during the course, they eased into being comfortable about talking about certain personal things. They’re a new team and the course helped them develop a better understanding of each other really quickly. They’re still talking about the course two weeks on, which is pretty unheard of for training in my experience.
“It also helped many of them to deal better with their own emotions. They perform extremely challenging roles and it’s important to be able to cope with what are sometimes distressing circumstances. We’re also more supportive of each other now. People are thinking more about how to look after each other, especially now we know more about how to help. We’re talking to each other more about what we find stressful at work and what we can do about it.”
“I’ve also noticed people will say to me ‘I’m really down today,’ for example, which they would never have said before. One said to me ‘you know that training couldn’t have come at a better time. I’ve been really depressed, but it’s helped me put things in perspective a bit and look after myself a bit better’.”
Liz is excited about the potential benefits for the children in their care: “I think we were all pretty good at looking after our children, but the course has definitely given us a lift and given us some really useful ideas,” she says.
“I hope we will now start getting a slightly greater proportion of our children back into mainstream education – and get them back quicker, whilst also helping schools to look at MHFA with all children in order to keep them in school in the first place. This is vital for us, it’s our mission. It’s how we can change children’s life chances, which is what we’re all about. I strongly feel this training should be done in all schools. It could help stop many children being excluded in the first place.”