Mini-series: Positive mental health promotion in schools and Initial Teacher Education

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In this mental health and wellbeing mini-series post, Dr Deborah Holt, Bicentennial Fellow in the Moray House School of Education, discusses how she promotes learner wellbeing both for school teachers and for school pupils…

Positive mental health promotion in education is defined as action taken to increase the social and emotional wellbeing of learners and their capacity to experience and maintain positive mental health. It is holistic and context driven.

Throughout my years as an educator, both in schools and university, I have prioritised the promotion of learners’ positive mental health. To me, nurturing social and emotional wellbeing has always seemed the most important part of my job. I now lecture in health and wellbeing in primary education. This means that in addition to carrying out research into how best to promote learner wellbeing, I help student teachers develop understanding of the components of positive mental health promotion, looking at theory and how it is enacted in a range of different school contexts.

What I teach

Positive mental health promotion in primary schools is achieved through:

  • Creation of environments supportive of wellbeing; those in which there is trust, respect, a valuing of the individual and the safety to talk about and explore feelings. This is not just in specific health lessons, but embedded within the daily policies and procedures of the school and classroom;
  • Positive relationships between teachers and pupils. The teacher has to build positive relationships with every pupil, to know them well and be trusted;
  • Positive relationships between pupils;
  • Capacity building: the individual skills, confidence and attitudes that need to be nurtured in each child so that they have the potential to have positive mental health;
  • Making time for fun and enjoyment;
  • Promotion of teacher wellbeing.

The most important resource in primary schools is the teacher who needs to be a role model for each aspect of positive mental health promotion.

How I carry out my work

Just like the school teacher who is role model for socially and emotionally healthy behaviours and attitudes, as lecturer in health and wellbeing education, I seek to embody positive mental health and act in ways that promote wellbeing of the students with whom I work. I also make explicit how I am doing this when relevant, so that I am teaching the students about positive mental health promotion whilst doing it.  Because wellbeing promotion is core to my concept of what it is to be an educator, working in health promoting ways seems to come naturally to me. For example, I hold positive regard for every student and make them aware of this. This can lead to some interesting chats in seminars on the challenges of getting balance and the difference between having positive regard towards a learner, (not necessarily their behaviour) and being or being seen as a pushover.

I have been programme director on Initial Teacher Education programmes, and now have a School role. I continue to have mental health promotion as my focus in these roles, not so much in role-related actions as in how I am, how I relate to students and colleagues. I strive to be the consistent trustworthy person who has time to listen (within the role’s remit). I am still saddened when students come to me as their Personal Tutor or Programme Director and voice their surprise and gratitude for what I have done, for what to me has been respectful and professional behaviour on my part. When I make explicit the link between what I am doing and what I teach, I often get a response along the lines of, “Well I know you say that, but I didn’t expect you to do that for me!”

This leaves me motivated to do my best to empower our future teachers as promoters of positive mental health whilst, by stealth, continuing to try and embed positive mental health promotion into every part of my work. Whether in schools or higher education, positive mental health promotion is a community act, the responsibility of everyone, not a specialism for specific members of staff or experts. I believe that we will not get it right for students if we separate positive mental health promotion from the business of teaching, learning and research. We need to promote wellbeing as well as provide support for those who are experiencing poor mental health. We are getting much better at the latter but there still seems a way to go with the former.

Deborah Holt

Dr Deborah Holt is a Bicentennial Fellow in the Moray House School of Education. Since 2010, she has been working in a range of Initial Teacher Education programmes as lecturer, course organiser and programme director. Her research is in positive mental health promotion in education and she specialises in pupil wellbeing and  health and wellbeing teaching in primary education.

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