For too long, the system has treated physical and mental health as separate entities. This Children’s Mental Health Week, Imogen Buxton-Pickles, Co-Founder of ‘Netflix-style’ schools active learning and PE resource imoves, says activity needs to be a key part of the resilience toolbox we equip students with to improve their daily and life-long wellbeing.
Mental health is a complex issue, and even more so when we’re talking about the emotional wellbeing of children and young people. There are many people who have a part to play in tackling problems when they arise – including parents, health professionals and of course teachers too.
With teachers spending large amounts of time with their pupils, and helping shape their futures in so many ways, it can feel as though a large proportion of the burden when it comes to identifying and then solving mental health and wellbeing problems is placed on them.
Building resilience, teaching young people to effectively deal with stress, maximising their mental wellbeing, and minimising the potential impact of any current or future diagnosable mental health problem requires equipping them with a toolbox of coping mechanisms. But how do we do this when time is already so stretched with everything else which is required of schools? And what should be in that toolbox?
A key element which is often overlooked when we talk about children’s mental health is the amount of physical exercise they’re getting, with the two often treated as separate topics. We all know there are Government guidelines to aspire to when it comes to daily activity levels (60 minutes a day, half of which should be achieved during school time), and equally we know getting active has a wholly positive impact on anyone’s wellbeing.
The direct benefits linked to activity (which I have seen first-hand within the 600 schools in the imoves family) include better concentration, enhanced motivation, and a boost in emotional resilience, social skills and confidence.
The impact of improving all these simply cannot be underestimated when it comes to mental health. Of course, it’s not a magic solution and won’t always cure diagnosable conditions. But it can build the inherent coping skills needed for pupils to face the stresses of school and later life in the most positive way possible. And it can help to minimise the symptoms of depression, anxiety and other illnesses such as poor sleep, poor motivation, and a lack of self-esteem.
And yet with so many demands on the time available at school and so many aspects of children’s lives which teachers are tasked with positively impacting, physical activity can easily slide down the scale of importance, relegated to a session or two within the week rather than being fully incorporated into every aspect of the timetable.
But physically active children will see both short- and long-term benefits. In the short term, they will see an immediate boost to their mental wellbeing and feeling of happiness in the classroom – this goes for teachers who join in with being active in the classroom as well! Activity increases levels of the ‘happiness hormone’ serotonin, as well as increased levels of dopamine and noradrenaline which improves motivation, perception and focus. As a result, the children will immediately feel more motivated, focused on learning and behave better even after just a few minutes of activity.
In addition, the activity also provides an opportunity to develop the supporting tools required for mental wellbeing; be they communication, teamwork, resilience, confidence and social wellness as the children work with each other.
In the long-term, inspiring a passion for physical activity – whether that be dance, Pilates, football, anything which they might enjoy and keep up with during later life – is a vital component for that wellbeing and resilience toolbox.
Working with schools to incorporate movement into every lesson – perhaps a few stretches when a class is struggling to focus during the afternoon lull, an active game when students are answering maths questions, or a five-minute warm-up to start the day off in assembly – has a huge impact not only on their physical health, but every other aspect of their holistic wellbeing too.
It’s such a simple concept – albeit that teachers need the confidence and support materials to be able to implement the programme into the school day – but it has the ability to transform the way pupils approach school, how they think about exercise, and the way they feel about themselves. In short, it adds a lifelong skill to their toolbox.
Opening the doors of possibility by making activity a key part of pupils’ lives early on means they will hopefully use going for a walk, dancing, or visiting the gym as respite from the pressures of life throughout their adult years too. So, rather than seeing exercise as a chore, it’s seen as a positive outlet for stress.
It’s estimated an overwhelming 50 per cent of mental health problems are established by the time a child is 14, and ten per cent of children aged between five and 16 have a diagnosable mental health problem.
Sadly, these numbers are on the increase – and we know from the Children’s Society that 70% of children experiencing poor mental health have not had appropriate interventions from an early age. To begin reversing the growing numbers of young people impacted, we need to ensure their wellbeing toolbox is full to the brim of useful coping mechanisms – to coincide with any professional support which may be needed.
Reaping the emotional benefits of physical activity is a huge part of that toolbox and incorporating regular movement into every classroom schedule goes a long way towards helping them understand the link between their physical and mental health. It’s our duty to equip pupils with coping mechanisms, and the importance and impact of activity simply must not be overlooked,” Imogen Buxton-Pickles.
For more information about how to support mental wellbeing in your classroom, please visit imoves to access a 45-minute webinar which will guide you through easy to implement steps on supporting mental wellbeing.