Punitive behaviour techniques harm mental health of children: Time for a new approach

Khulisa submitted a response to the Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition’s recent call for evidence on behaviour and mental health in schools. The inquiry sought to explore the links between mental health and behaviour, how current school policies on behaviour are impacting young people and their families, and the role a whole school approach to mental health and wellbeing can playin in improving behaviour, mental health and wellbeing. 

Our response drew on a robust evidence base to emphasise the need to move away from approaches which rely on sanctions to manage behaviour towards more relational and trauma-informed approaches which prioritise nurturing relationships and student wellbeing. 

Disruptive or challenging behaviour is often a manifestation of a child’s distress when their needs are not understood or supported at school. Sanctions made without engaging with young people to understand why they are acting the way they are, only exclude and further trigger a young person in distress furthering the cycle of disruptive behaviour. Comparatively, our response evidenced how taking a relational approach which focuses on understanding and responding to the root-causes of behaviour, and helping young people develop their social and emotional skills is proven to reduce both school exclusions and incidents of students being sent out of class. Such a relational model works because it reduces the need for rewards and sanctions in supporting behaviour by empowering students and improving relationships between young people and the adults around them. 

With the pandemic exacerbating many of the underlying drivers of pupil behaviour, mental health problems have risen by 60% in schools, and with schools’ budgets struggling to support these complex needs, there is a critical need to adopt evidence-based (and cost-effective) approaches to pupil behaviour. 

Our key recommendations to the government

  1. A whole system investment that promotes wellbeing on par with attainment. Many schools feel unable to prioritise pupils’ wellbeing due to time, resource and capacity constraints in a system that places attainment targets above wellbeing.
  2. Include social and emotional learning (SEL) in the curriculum. SEL is proven to have a positive impact on student wellbeing, behaviour and attainment. SEL is also particularly effective for disadvantaged and/or low-attaining pupils.
  3. Provide schools with the right tools and resources to support children with SEND and those who are struggling with their mental health. While the government’s investment in Mental Health Support Teams (MHSTs) is welcome, we would like to see the roll-out expedited. 35% of schools having an MHST by next year, while great, means that two-thirds of schools will still be without support. We’d also like to see more mental health and trauma-informed training for all school staff.
  4. Increase funding for, and improved access to, Child and Mental Health Services (CAHMS) and other local services. Many of these services are underfunded and oversubscribed resulting in many children falling through support gaps.

Our key recommendations for schools

While many of the issues schools are dealing with are systemic in nature, there are some factors which schools can control as they think about culture, expectations and inclusion as they recover from the effects of the pandemic. 

  1. Focus on developing relationships. Research shows that relational skills can help resolve low-level disruption without escalation through structure and support. Our response included a number of practical tips and techniques on how schools can do this.
  2. Provide different levels of support to children depending on need. Whilst consistency of approach is important for children and young people to feel safe and secure, it is also important to differentiate expectations and approach according to a child or young person’s abilities, needs and experiences. Our response included recommendations on how to include this in behaviour policies.
  3. Provide training for staff on how to look after their own wellbeing. Studies show a close link between the wellbeing of young people and their adults in their lives. Given this close link, and recent evidence which suggests teacher wellbeing levels show signs of clinical depression, this is imperative to improving children’s mental health.

The difference a whole school approach can make

Over the years we have learned that in order to create lasting change, we needed to ensure all young people are cared for by adults who are trauma-informed, and in systems that are responsive to their social and emotional needs.  Following the evidence, we made a decision in 2018 to pilot a whole school approach to improving the social and emotional wellbeing of young people. 

In delivering this work, we also invested in a range of evaluations which seek to evidence the positive benefits of working in this way. A review of our pilot programme (which in addition to providing targeted support for the most vulnerable pupils, included a 21-day programme of training, coaching and supervision for school staff) found:

  1. Nearly 9 in 10 teachers (88%) reported that Khulisa’s trauma training programme improved their understanding of trauma-informed care and the importance of self-regulation strategies.
  2. Pupils reported improved levels of resilience, wellbeing, and emotional regulation
  3. On average, wellbeing levels for pupils participating rose from below national average levels to above national average.
  4. 81% of pupils reported using coping skills learnt on the programme (compared to a programme average of 71%).
  5. There was a 62% decrease in negative behaviour incidents between 18/19 and 20/21.
  6. The number of exclusions nearly halved between 18/19 (170) and 20/21 (81).

While this is our experience, global and national evidence on whole-school approaches also shows a similar link between improved wellbeing (for both staff and students), stronger relationships with trusted adults and improvements in behavioural outcomes. 

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