Creating a therapeutic school: Some quick ideas

Written by: Shahana Knight | Published:
Shahana Knight, a qualified play therapist and director at TPC Therapy

In a new series, expert Shahana Knight advises on supporting the emotional and mental health of children and staff, offering easy whole-school and classroom-specific ideas and activities

The first half-term of the school year is an important time to focus on the plans you have to support the mental health and emotional wellbeing of your pupils, as many will be returning after a difficult summer break.

This is particular the case in light of the range of mental health and wellbeing challenges facing young people and since the government released its mental health Green Paper – Transforming Children and Young People’s Mental Health Provision.

Here are some ideas for both teachers and school leaders.

1, In the classroom

Classrooms are a great place to begin to develop a collective consciousness about wellbeing issues. Creating a class culture in which it is healthy and encouraged to discuss wellbeing, feelings and behaviour is essential for removing barriers around mental health and allowing young people to focus their attention on their own wellbeing. In order for young people to begin to explore these issues they first need to feel secure in the environment and believe that the classroom is a safe place to do this.

Try this

Use form time, PSHE or other subjects to begin discussions around mental health and wellbeing. Use different stimulus to help generate conversation and allow your students to begin to explore topics around feelings and behaviours, wellbeing, mindfulness, coping mechanisms, and anger.

This could be a 15-minute discussion at the end of a lesson or part of the lesson plan for a whole session.

  • Ask everyone to sit in a circle (this promotes eye contact and sense of togetherness).
  • Decide as a class what the rules are with regard to listening to one another, not interrupting, laughing or even being too abrupt when in disagreement. A good phrase is: “What is said in this circle stays in the circle, and we respect each other’s feelings and opinions.”
  • Present a stimulus of some sort, such as a video, magazine article, television broadcast, photo or song. Choose something that will spark a great discussion, for example this extract from Disney’s Dumbo is effective (see http://bit.ly/2xNRM52).
  • Ask the students to think of a subject matter they feel would link to this stimulus (for example, “what is mental health?”, “what are feelings for?”, “who controls our thoughts?”, “does family define us?”, “does family have an impact on our wellbeing?”).
  • Use the allotted time to discuss the question, offering ideas, concepts, experiences.
  • Allow the students to lead the session, managing for themselves how to communicate when they disagree with something or feel passionate about something.
  • Close the session with a quick breathing exercise where the class close their eyes/look down and breath in and out slowly five times following your instructions. As they do this say: “Breathe in the calm and blow out the stress.”

2, A calm classroom environment

Remember that many students coming in to your classroom this year will have experienced adverse experiences or trauma, such as loss, abuse, domestic violence and family break-downs.

These students are likely to have a heightened level of stress hormones running around their body which means their behaviour is likely to be more erratic and hyperactive.

Young people who live in a state of stress will often struggle with concentration and attention in the classroom. When they feel calmer, their heart rate will slow as will their blood pressure, and specific parts of their brain will switch on allowing them to access learning. Creating a calm environment that cultivates learning can have a huge impact and also shows students exactly what kind of environment helps them to study best.

Try this

Be mindful about the way your classroom feels and looks. The atmosphere you create can have a huge impact on the way in which they students engage and learn.

Try to keep the colours neutral or go with a colour scheme of two or three pastel colours. This will give the room a sense of order and calm. Remove any bright clashing colours from backboards, borders and displays. This will increase the feeling of disorder and chaos and students who are hypersensitive to that feeling will struggle. Try calming whites, beige, mint green, baby blue and greys. Introduce soft lighting such as lamps and green plants to create a sense of calm and encourage the students to feel peaceful when studying.

3, In the school

Many school leaders who have read the government Green Paper are worried about how they can implement these changes and support their children with very limited budgets. This is understandable but there is a lot you can do within the school ethos to begin to make a real difference that costs nothing.

Try this

School assemblies are a great way for headteachers to drive change, influence practice and inspire students and staff to do and be their very best. During one of your assemblies this term introduce a Headteacher’s Award, through which students can be nominated to receive an “Emotional Wellbeing Award”.

Ask teachers and pupils to look out for those children who are making a special effort to support others with their feelings. Maybe they have helped a friend calm down or offered to help someone when they were feeling low.

Maybe they identified when their own feelings were angry and found a way to calm themselves down without hurting others.

Those students who win the award each week, could wear a badge for the week and receive this in front of everyone in the assembly along with a certificate which could be displayed on an “Emotional Wellbeing Wall” in school (create a display).

By placing your attention on these sorts of attitudes and behaviours young people will begin to be more aware of their feelings and actions and be more aware of others. This develops self-awareness, peer relationship skills and empathy which all develop their emotional intelligence skill-set and have a positive impact on their wellbeing.

This sense of achievement will encourage them to continue to develop and be aware of these skills which form pillars for them in later life. 

  • Shahana Knight is a qualified play therapist and director at TPC Therapy, a therapeutic intervention service supporting children and schools with behaviour, emotional wellbeing and mental health. Shahana’s advice is linked to her Therapeutic Teaching Programme. Lessons plans will be available on the website along with stimulus ideas. For details, email tpctherapy@gmail.com and visit www.tpctherapy.co.uk

Further information

  • Transforming Children and Young People’s Mental Health Provision: A Green Paper (including consultation response and next steps) Department of Health and Social Care/Department for Education (last updated July 2018): http://bit.ly/2nOHFel
  • Creating a therapeutic school, Shahana Knight, SecEd, September 2018: http://bit.ly/2N56SbY


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