10 tips for teaching about mental health safely sensitively

Teaching pupils about mental health and illness is a great way to promote understanding, help seeking and healthy coping – but staff whose specialism lies elsewhere often tell me they are anxious about teaching topics like self-harm or eating disorders for fear of causing more harm than good.

So in order to support you in your teaching, I have put together 10 simple tips to help guide you:

Imagine a vulnerable learner front and centre: When developing and delivering your lesson, imagine a pupil who is directly affected by the issues you are talking about sitting in the middle of the front row. If you adapt your teaching to keep them safe, you will keep everyone safe.

Let pupils know what’s coming up: Make pupils aware of the topics that will be covered in upcoming lessons. This will enable them to seek any additional help or support needed, or to ask to be excused from the lesson if this feels most appropriate. If a pupil misses the lesson, think carefully about how this will be communicated with peers and how to ensure that the pupil does not miss-out on the learning opportunity entirely.

Agree or reinforce ground rules with pupils: These should be agreed with pupils and might include respectful listening, the right not to participate and not making personal disclosures within the lesson. You may well already have ground rules in place for PSHE, in which case it is worth revisiting these. Ground rules are generally most effective if you are able to agree them jointly with pupils and when you ensure that there are good reasons for these rules to be in place.

Ask it basket: Pre-warning pupils about lesson content can also give them a chance to feed into the lesson anonymously. Have a physical “ask it basket” in your room, or set up an online equivalent, where pupils can ask questions anonymously or contribute their thoughts or ideas on the topic without having to do so in front of the whole class.

Inform relevant staff so they can support pupils: Letting colleagues know what topics you have coming up can enable them to support pupils for whom those topics may be difficult. Pastoral staff and your child protection officer are good ports of call as they may have knowledge of issues faced by pupils in your class that you have not been made aware of.

Review all resources every time: Even if you have taught the same session before, review your teaching materials every time you prepare to teach a session to ensure that they are age and stage appropriate for this group. Also avoid awkward moments by making sure that case studies don’t share names or other similarities with your pupils.

Refresh your knowledge of relevant policies and procedures: When we are teaching about difficult topics, a sign of a job well done can be that we receive disclosures from pupils. We need to be prepared for this and make sure that both ourselves and colleagues are up-to-date with the appropriate policies and procedures to follow.

Know what you will do if a pupil becomes distressed: Talk to pupils at the beginning of the lesson about what to do if the lesson content is in any way distressing for them. This could include zoning out from the lesson and thinking about something else, or leaving the lesson and going to a calm safe place that is supervised by an adult. If this happens, make time to check-in with the pupil when they are more calm to ensure they are okay.

Signpost support: Share sources of support both within and beyond school for pupils who are affected by the topic. Think about naming members of staff, sharing helplines and suggesting websites that are safe sources of support. Share these more than once and include the details in handouts to pupils or on your intranet or equivalent so that pupils can access them unobtrusively.

End on a light note: Your pupils need to be ready to engage with the rest of their day after your lesson, so it is often helpful to end on a light note to try and lift the mood a little if the discussion has been quite heavy.

Good luck – if you’d like further information, guidance or lesson plans, the Guidance on Preparing to Teach about Mental Health and Emotional Wellbeing from the PSHE Association is a good port of call (I'm somewhat biased as I was the lead author).

This post first appeared in print and online at SecEd magazine where I'm the resident mental health expert. You can download a PDF handout of this post here. You can download a range of handouts of my posts here.