Battle for support for mental health in schools

Educational wellbeing coach from FLAX (mental health coaches in education), Ashlee Sturme. Photo supplied.

Teachers are struggling with mental health challenges and the Ministry of Education isn’t doing enough to help, says an educational wellbeing coach from FLAX (mental health coaches in education), Ashlee Sturme.

“The Ministry of Education has a long history of not supporting schools in the way that needs to be done. They must step up to support our teachers to get better outcomes for our tamariki.”

Ashlee conducted a workshop with teachers in January and asked them to write down on a post-it-note what their biggest concern was that was impacting them at the time.

She says it basically boiled down to three main categories: money, loved ones and their own health.

“Some of our teachers have quite significant health issues, but they’re still in the classroom each day.”

She says the causes for stress vary between schools and the needs of children, and often depend on school culture.

For some teachers, it was relationships with colleagues or management teams or managing the workload, for others it was changing nappies in primary schools or having a number of undiagnosed or unsupported children presenting with behavioural issues.

In her governance roles, Ashlee says she has heard many different stories about misbehaving parents, “keep bearing in mind that most parents actually want the best for their kids. They’re highly emotive or they don’t see anything wrong with barging into the classroom first thing in the morning and giving a teacher a piece of their mind”.

“It’s very stressful for the teacher and the other kids that are around them, and often doesn’t lead to an outcome anyway. School processes are designed to support parents, teachers and children best but they’re often circumnavigated.

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“I’ve heard stories of schools that are trespassing parents that come on to the school site and become abusive towards the principal and I’ve heard of parents that will lash out at other parents.

“They’ve got a perception that if your kid if your kid is bullying my kid then they can take matters into their own hands.”

Ashlee says the lack of financial support for students presenting with behavioural issues is a massive problem.

“The impact of outbursts, threatening behaviour and other incidents cannot be understated.

“All these different factors hugely impact the teacher’s wellbeing. It’s a huge circus of chaos.

“If we can support our school leaders, our teachers and our educators to be well, they’re then going to be able to go into the classroom and be well for their students.

“The Ministry of Education isn’t doing enough to try and support teachers and students.”

Ashlee says getting support from the ministry is hopeless.

“For example, to gain funding for a child that needs additional support, the teacher and principal has to jump through these ridiculous hoops trying to apply, usually to be declined. Yet the school and the teacher have an obligation to meet the needs of that student with no additional resourcing. Nobody’s winning here.

“Kids are coming to school with trauma backgrounds and poverty backgrounds. They’re coming to school unprepared, without food, they haven’t had breakfast, possibly haven’t had dinner. No pencils and highly elevated and emotional, sometimes an undiagnosed challenge.

“We’ve been putting these children that are already struggling with physical needs, low self-esteem and dysregulated nervous systems, and putting them into a school system that doesn’t meet their needs or cater for their needs. That’s when we see the behaviour lash out, teachers are forced to physically restrain, leadership teams have to deal with the fallout.

“They lash out at other kids, they’ll lash out at the teachers, they’ll lash out at equipment and destroy or break things in the classroom or playground.”

The wellbeing focus has to simultaneously support the students and the teachers, says Ashlee.

“Targeting children’s wellbeing with emotional regulation tools, better nutritious food, coping with stress, managing social media will make a difference to their behaviour and engagement, and therefore positively impact teachers.”

Likewise, supporting teachers with their mental and physical wellbeing has positive effects for the children they teach, leading Ashlee and a team of Prekure-trained health coaches who work in schools, with teachers, or directly with families, to support behaviour change for healthier outcomes.

“Coaching is giving you tools to support achieving your goals through accountability, information and skills, and students respond really well to it.”

FLAX also works with teachers in termly wellbeing workshops or one-on-one coaching with school principals.

“Children are on a path to nowhere and we have the opportunity to pivot them now, to change their future protectory, but schools cannot do this without funding and people.

“Last year we had an incident where a kid pulled a knife on another kid. This stuff takes weeks and months to resolve, which then impacts the teacher, the family and the school leadership.

“It largely comes down to a lack of funding, we need to remember no one thrives without their wellbeing.”

Ministry of Education comment

“Delivering mental health education is mandatory for all state and state-integrated schools in Aotearoa New Zealand, through the health and physical education learning area of the New Zealand curriculum and the Hauora learning area of Te Marautanga o Aotearoa,” says Ministry of Education hautū (leader) operations and integration, Sean Teddy.

“In 2022, we released Mental Health Education Years 1-13: A guide for teachers, leaders, and school boards, which encourages schools to take a whole-school approach, meaning that, alongside quality teaching and learning, there are supportive school policies in place, and there are strong relationships with the school community to respond to local needs.

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“We also released Te Oranga Mauri – Te Hā o Hinepūtehue: He Puna Oranga Mauri mā ngā Mokopuna, a resource that affirms existing successful practice in kura, offering a new way of aligning with regenerating ancestral practice by increasing awareness of your own mauri, the mauri of others and its impacts.

“The Ata and Oho resource collection is a resource comprising cards and activities designed to teach social and emotional skills.

“Awhi Mai Awhi Atu | Counselling in Schools was introduced to increase the provision of wellbeing and mental health support to learners, their families, and the education workforce, to support the re-engagement of learners into schools and to provide additional learning support services for those who need it.

“Awhi Mai Awhi Atu is a response to emerging wellbeing and mental health concerns.

“By drawing on a range of evidence-based therapeutic skills, approaches, and interventions to support ākonga wellbeing in the context of their whānau, kura, and community, counselling practitioners can play a key role in supporting ākonga hauora and wellbeing.

“The programme started in September 2021 and is delivered to selected primary, intermediate and some small secondary schools in eight regions: Te Tai Tokerau, Auckland, Waikato, Hawkes Bay/Tairawhiti, Taranaki/Manawatū/Whanganui, Wellington, and Canterbury.

“Schools receiving this service work with their local providers and the local ministry to shape support that best suits their school environment, culture, students, and family.

“In each of the eight regions receiving this service, we have selected schools based on the range of need in their communities. At the start of the 2024 school year, 243 schools are receiving this service from 42 local community-based providers.

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“The Mana Ake programme, funded by Te Whatu Ora and supported by the Ministry of Education, provides mental health and wellbeing support to primary and intermediate school-aged children in selected districts.

“Mana Ake services are currently available in Canterbury and Kaikōura and are being introduced in five new former District Health Board areas: Northland [Te Tai Tokerau], Counties Manukau, Lakes, Bay of Plenty and West Coast.

“Mana Ake services encompass a large range of different supports and interventions.

“The types of supports and interventions delivered to children include whole-of-school and whole-of-classroom wellbeing sessions, smaller group therapeutic sessions, and one-to-one counselling.

“Other interventions include sessions with whānau and parents, parent information and/or drop-in sessions, and development sessions for teachers and other school staff.

“Help is also available from our learning support practitioners, who can work with a range of needs, including mental health and wellbeing needs, to support ākonga, whānau and schools communities.

“This support includes a focus on the strengths and needs of school communities to help improve learning and wellbeing for everyone.

“Schools and boards are responsible for staff wellbeing. The ministry also supports through the following suite of wellbeing resources available to help schools and boards support their staff.”


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