How Schools Can Help Tackle Mental Health

A recent poll by the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) has shown that twice as many schools in England, 66%, are having to commission professional support and in-school counselling compared to 2016. Despite mental health being a high priority for the UK government, schools face growing numbers of pupils with mental health issues while support services are increasingly hard to procure. In this post, we’ll look at ways that schools can help tackle mental health in-house.

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A whole-school approach

One of the first ways a school can move forward is to develop a school-wide approach to positive mental health. This includes the mental health of all the community: pupils, staff and parents. Mental wellbeing needs to be embedded not just in the curriculum, but in the entire life of the school, including in classroom practice, rewards and sanctions, play/free-time management and in enabling a work-life balance for all. At the same time, schools should try to encourage behaviours and attitudes that improve wellbeing.

Designated mental health coordinator

Creating a designated role for mental health gives the issue the important status it needs at management level and means that a whole-school approach can be better coordinated. The person in charge will have the authority to implement best practice and procedure as well as to monitor progress and evaluate impact. It also means systems can be centralised, reducing the chance of invisible cases.

A designated coordinator can also be the face of mental wellbeing within the school, being the first point of call, while also supporting staff, parents and pupils. They can also be the representative of the school when liaising with support services or colleagues from other schools.

Mental health training

67% of schools now undertake mental health training for their staff and this is vital to increase awareness of the various types of disorder that pupils may be affected by. It helps teachers to identify signs of mental illness so that those with potential disorders are given speedier help, and it enables teachers to improve classroom practice so that general wellbeing is enhanced and that those with disorders can cope better during the school day.

Training, of course, can be implemented in several ways. Schools can invite professionals in to address the entire staff or individual teachers can attend courses out of school and then feedback to the rest of the staff at a later date. Local clusters may also have support groups who deliver training in your area.

One key area of training is how to deal with a child who is having a mental health crisis. The NAHT survey reported that only 44% of headteachers felt confident their school could deal with such a situation.

Enabling openness

The first step to getting help is telling someone about your mental wellbeing. In schools, there are three hurdles which need addressing to enable this to happen. First of all, children need the language skills to enable them to talk about their problems. They need to know how to express their feelings so that they can tell their friends or their teachers what is happening to them. If a child lacks the ability to articulate how they feel, they may be unable to seek help.

Secondly, schools need to do everything they can to remove the stigma of mental health. This might not be such a major issue for younger children, but as they get older and more self-conscious, fear of other people finding out can make issues worse and prevent help being sought. This is equally true of staff who may also fear that their jobs are at risk if they come forward.

Finally, people need someone to tell. Although the mental health coordinator is perhaps the first port of call for serious concerns, all members of the community should be encouraged to support others, whether it is a friend, a pupil or a colleague.

Fun, outdoor exercise

The school playground can play an important role in improving mental wellbeing. Simply getting outside into the fresh air and away from the classroom is a natural mood-lifter in itself. However, if free time is made fun, it can help with issues of anxiety and depression and counteract the stress which classwork puts children under. That, of course, means equipping your playground with apparatus that will engage pupils in fun activities, whether that’s playing football, roleplay, making mud pies or digging up a sandpit .

Even more beneficial for mental wellbeing is when children are provided with opportunities to engage in physical activity. Sports markings, climbing frames, outdoor gyms, etc. all help children to take part in moderate or strenuous activities which have been proven to help prevent serious mental health issues developing and which make it easier for those with existing conditions to cope.


With 12.8% of pupils suffering from a mental health condition and a lack of external help, all schools are under increasing pressure to cope. Hopefully, the ideas mentioned in this post will help your school improve provision for your pupils.

If you are looking to make breaktimes more fun and to encourage more children to participate in physical activity, check out our wide range of playground equipment.


How Outdoor Play Improves Pupil Attainment

As we continually struggle to find new and better ways to improve pupils’ attainment, the one area of school that is frequently neglected is the playground. However, a recent report by Public Health England, “The link between pupil health and wellbeing and attainment” may make you think again as it shows how outdoor play equipment can have surprising benefits for your pupils’ attainment.

Break time problem-solving

According to the report, “pupils who use problem-solving skills to overcome obstacles do better academically.” One way to increase the time devoted to problem-solving skills is to encourage pupils to do it through play. This can be easily achieved by installing an outdoor trim trail in your playground.

Trim trails are fun obstacle courses which require children to problem solve as they negotiate their way around. Using the easily interchangeable trim trail equipment we supply at ESP Play, you can change the course whenever you like, giving the pupils the constant challenge of solving new problems.

Of course, using a trim trail is not restricted just to break times, it can also be used in a more structured way during lessons.

Healthy hearts mean healthy marks

Another significant finding in the report was that “Children and young people who are aerobically fit have higher academic scores.” Aerobic fitness is an issue with today’s young people: the increase in child obesity is as much to do with lack of exercise as it is to do with poor diet and many children don’t get the opportunities to play outdoors or participate in sport at home.

One way to overcome this and encourage aerobic exercise is to install playground markings. There’s a huge range of playground markings available today, many of which are designed to help with aerobic fitness. These include football, netball, tennis and basketball markings as well as fast feet, hurdles, and zig-zag steppers – to name a few. All these can be used during break times and PE lessons to improve aerobic fitness and obtain the resulting academic benefits.

Reduced disruption, better progress 

As every teacher knows, poor behaviour disrupts learning and slows the progress of the whole class. This is why behaviour is such a big focus for Ofsted. The Public Health England report explains that “Physical activity has been linked to improved classroom behaviour across the whole school. Notable among the benefits are improved pro-social behaviour and peer relationships, with resulting reductions in disruptive classroom behaviour.”

If the reduction in disruptive behaviour is due to physical activity that improves social relationships, then it makes sense to give pupils more opportunities to do this during their free time. Most outdoor playground equipment is designed to help pupils play together in an active way, whether this is done through climbing equipment, sports equipment or roleplay equipment. Installing these in your play area could have positive benefits on behaviour and progress.

Hugely improved GCSE results

Significantly improving your pupils’ GCSE results increases their potential to succeed in life and is a great boost for school morale. For most schools this is a big ask but, according to research discussed in the Public Health England report, “pupils engaging in self-development activities (including sport, physical activity) achieved 10-20% higher GCSEs.”

10-20% is a whopping increase that could make big differences to the life chances of significant numbers of pupils – especially those who lack the opportunity to participate in sport and physical activities.

The wide range of school playground equipment available enables you to cater for the diverse interests of your pupils. We have multi-sports playground markings or individual markings for cricket, tennis, futsal, football, netball, basketball and rounders. We even have an outdoor gym: a unique, body-weight only, fitness facility designed specifically for secondary aged children.

And for children who aren’t sports minded there is plenty of fun based outdoor play equipment designed to increase physical activity, such as climbing walls and even a Team Adventure Zone

Does school playground equipment increase physical activity?

Whilst research mentioned in the Public Health England report proves the link between increased physical activity and improved attainment, no doubt you’ll be questioning whether investment in outdoor play equipment will actually lead to improved activity levels.

The good news is that it does. Independent research by Liverpool John Moores and Roehampton Universities has shown that 70% pupils in schools with outdoor playground equipment spent more time being moderately and vigorously active.


As teachers, we’ve long understood the physical benefits of outdoor play and to some extent its importance to pupils’ well-being. However, the research mentioned in the Public Health England report now confirms that giving children the opportunities to take part in physical activity in the playground, during free time and as part of lessons, can have a positive impact on their attainment. Our role, here at ESP Play, is to provide you with the best outdoor resources to meet their needs.


The movement movement; it’s child’s play!

There is a movement happening around children’s development that has caught my eye recently and bodes well for future generations. We seem to becoming more aware of the developmental movement needs of children in the early stages of their development- some may say that this is just one of those cycles that comes round time and time again. I believe that sentiment to a certain extent but this time I think that it’s different; this particular movement movement seems deeper and more wide-ranging. From many examples, I will highlight two contexts that have contributed to me thinking this way in which I have had the pleasure of working in recently.

I have commented before on the benefits of a new UK Coaching framework that has children’s participation as one of four key pillars and that this has demanded that National Governing Bodies of sport think carefully about the differentiated provision for this specific audience within their ranks. I have recently completed the authoring (along with Bob Muir from Leeds Metropolitan University) of the newly introduced Level 1 coaching award (Becoming CAYPABLE) for the Rugby Football League (RFL) aimed specifically now at children’s coaches. The RFL made an expressed commitment to providing more movement-based opportunities to provide the foundation for subsequent participation and performance within rugby ( . There has been a sacrifice here; there is perhaps not the same direct coverage of the core skills of rugby, but the RFL believe that this developmentally appropriate approach is right for their young players.

The new National Curriculum is beginning to take shape and I have recently been involved in a number of working groups that have been tasked to respond to the consultation papers that have been published in relation to Physical Education. An understandable starting point for groups to begin their reflections has been at Early Years and Key Stage 1 of a child’s education. Once again, there seems to be a consensus that developmentally appropriate movement experiences are paramount and form the foundation for lifelong participation in physical activity. Whereas the RFL have had issues of tradition and culture to address I have always felt that the subject area of Physical Education has been blighted by an over-reliance on activity areas, such as athletics, dance, gymnastics and particularly games, as the main delivery vehicle for the concepts that we feel are important to develop in children. The problem is now that the use of activity areas is so prominent that the wider developmental concepts, such as movement, have become relegated to an inferior position to the extent that the tail is wagging the dog! However, there does seem to be an acceptance that movement development and child-centred, rather than activity-centred, learning is more appropriate, particularly within the early, formative stages of a child’s development.

These two examples are both heartwarming and encouraging to me as a practitioner who is constantly searching for more inclusive and engaging forms of developmentally appropriate physical activity for children and young people. Of course, at the core of these new directions is the child’s right and need to play and what could be more simple and meaningful than that.

Dr David Morley is Head of Education at ESP, a consultant for a range of national organisations and NGBs of sport, and holds Visiting Fellow positions at both Northumbria and Leeds Metropolitan Universities.

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