Why focusing on children’s strengths is vital for their mental health


Every week is mental health awareness week

Last year ago I wrote about the importance of relationship in promoting mental health. In mental health awareness week 2017 I published the article again as my contribution, specifically about what practical support for children to add to our general awareness of their need for support.

In schools we need to critically examine what we do to make sure that our relationship with children is based on honesty and generosity, valuing children as active agents in their own lives. As adults with children we have a duty to both guide and to educate. Both, and. There is a wave of change in how we can balance the two responsibilities,  pushing back on the unhealthy overemphasis on control, segregation and exclusion that some people expound.

As teachers we promote the flourishing of children as an integral part of the job. Children’s health and wellbeing is expressed in many ways; physical, social, intellectual, imaginative, creative ….  this list seems to have taken root and be growing itself ….. dietary, reflective, sexual, mathematical, mindful, environmental. Mental health and wellbeing is on the list too, evident in the robust, confident, funny, sometimes sad, aura of ‘me in the world’ that most children have.

Of course sometimes children are unwell and as teachers we have special antenna that tell us about it and we react to what we sense. Mostly it’s sniffs and passing aches and pains, we know what to do and if it’s more serious we take appropriate action, let the office know, call home, call the ambulance, keep them safe and feeling safe.

It’s clear that we are not in the business of diagnosis and treatment of illness. That’s the preserve of medics, not teachers. And when it’s mental health we’re thinking about, there are some things that teachers can get involved in and others that bring out our uncertainty.

There are two questions we can ask ourselves;

Are we certain that what we do in schools promotes health and prevents distress and illness?

How do we change our thinking from what ought they to be doing about children’s health and wellbeing to what can we do about it educators?

The President of the British Psychological Society, Professor Peter Kinderman, supports this shift in thinking that puts health and positivity at the forefront and diagnosis and illness further down the line. In schools we’re first responders with the ability to promote wellbeing.

As well as sniffs and sneezes, children have the low-level kind of worries and fears that can catch any of us out from time to time. We know what to do here too, we encourage and empathise with their take on what’s going on or going wrong. With our support the child manages their distress and in so doing learns a bit more about how to cope with suffering, learning about stress and tension as challenges rather than barriers.

But sometimes the levels rise and we crudely categorise the effects materialising in school as defiance, disengagement, disruption, underachievement, staying on the surface of the signals children are sending us about their lives.

And then something very odd happens.

If you look at any Behaviour Policy online, (most schools publish them on their websites) you’ll see that generally we switch off the empathy and stop listening in small ways at first, to the extreme of zero-tolerance towards difference and distress in some schools. The very children who need an authentic, trusting relationship most are denied it as they are incrementally pushed away and out.

Which ones are over-represented in the lists of those not to be tolerated? Looked-after children, children with additional educational needs, children with disabilities that might affect their achievement. Do they deal with their failure with a phlegmatic shrug of their shoulders and so doing relieve us of our responsibility? Does the loss of their community cause them no sadness and distress? Is anything they might suffer balanced out in terms of the greater good? These are children remember, many of whom have experienced repeated losses and failures already and all of whom are subject to the gnawing effects of uncertainty.

It’s happened because no thought-out, practical and robust alternative to standardised behaviour management has presented itself, based on strengths rather than deficits, until now that is. Being kind to misbehaving children gets written off by some advisers as fluffiness and without a guiding structure it may well be. Of course children need clarity about community rules and reminders when they break them, but there’s more to teaching community values than that. Education has got stuck in the past while the rest of the world has moved on. It’s not nice. I’ve been in the position of the behaviour expert with only the tired old routines that had already failed children in need, and failed their schools too to be honest, fearful that I’m misleading people who were looking up to me as the guru, someone to wave the magic wand and do something different – and kind –  for the children they love. You can either work to change things for the better or toughen up. I’ve seen plenty of the latter but I went for the former and I’m happy Im doing that.


My mission over the last twenty years has been to develop my practice as a teacher supporting children struggling in school with a pedagogy that I can explain to others, a structured kindness. With good luck, time and effort, always in the cycle of theory and practice, I found a way of working that focuses on the strengths and successes that children carry around with them and into school. Now I know what I’m doing and work together with others following the same track. It’s called the solution-focused approach, which in practice is Solutions Focused coaching, a way for teachers to help students in difficulty in the here and now. And it’s not just about me, Dr Maggie Atkinson, ex-Children’s Commissioner is a long-term advocate of the approach, the DfES has published solutions focused guidance, and there is a growing community of solutions focused coaches and practitioners engaged in the work. Why not join us?