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Let’s not forget the importance of social and emotional skills in the debate about children’s mental health


14 Dec 2017

Stephanie Waddell outlines the case for social and emotional learning (SEL) as a key part of any approach to preventing mental health problems among children and young people.

The government’s green paper on children and young people’s mental health, published last week, places a welcome emphasis on early intervention and prevention. It’s right that we should talk about early risk factors within the family, and about healthy attachment, early years development, parenting and interparental relationships as the foundations for mental health and wellbeing in childhood and in later life. We look forward to working with the government and to bringing our expertise to bear to support the delivery of their commitments in these areas.

The focus on schools within the green paper is also right. Schools have a unique role to play in supporting children’s mental health and wellbeing. The green paper puts the spotlight on the role of schools in identifying the early signs of mental health difficulties and helping to ensure the right support for pupils experiencing problems, and of course this is critical. It also recognises the importance of ‘whole-school approaches’, including mental health awareness-raising and the potential of the new relationships and sex education (RSE) curriculum and the possible personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) education curriculum. We welcome the government’s commitment to monitoring the new initiatives in ‘trailblazer’ areas – it is critical that rigorous evaluation of impact on children’s outcomes is put in place, to generate new evidence that can inform future policy and funding decisions and guide practice in schools.

For us, the green paper downplays the role of social and emotional learning in schools. Raising awareness about mental health is undoubtedly important but we also need to give children opportunities to develop the social and emotional skills they need to succeed in life. We know that skills like self-awareness, self-regulation, relationship skills, and self-efficacy are important for children’s future success and wellbeing. More specifically, our research has shown that emotional wellbeing and self-esteem in childhood are strongly associated with good mental health in adulthood. Similarly, social skills, self-control, self-regulation and self-efficacy appear to be important to later mental health and wellbeing as well.

Our research also shows that children from disadvantaged backgrounds tend to have lower levels of self-control and emotional health than other children, and that this inequality gap can be seen in children as young as three. This socioeconomic gap in social and emotional skills in the early years risks embedding a mental health gap as children get older and become adults.

There is a huge opportunity here. These social and emotional skills can be taught and developed throughout childhood, adolescence, and beyond. Schools play a central role in children’s social and emotional development, and there is strong evidence for the impact of high-quality school-based social and emotional learning programmes on the development of these essential life skills. Such programmes have also been shown to reduce the risk of negative mental health outcomes, including anxiety and depression.

We will continue to make the case to government that social and emotional learning should be given greater prominence within schools, and that high-quality, evidence-based provision should be scaled up. We believe that social and emotional learning should be a core part of the RSE and any PSHE curriculum, but it should also be embedded within everyday teaching and learning. We welcome the emphasis on teacher training within the green paper, but will be stressing the need for this to include training on effective teaching practices to support social and emotional learning.

This kind of universal social and emotional learning provision for all children needs to be integrated within a whole-school approach that also includes more targeted support for children with emerging mental health needs. The value of universal social and emotional learning programmes in combination with targeted interventions should not be underestimated. Universal support can provide a backdrop of provision, potentially reducing demand for targeted work and creating a supportive environment that can sustain improvements for children who have needed additional help.  The designated senior lead role proposed in the green paper may enable the coordination of training for mainstream school staff to allow them to deliver more targeted support – that is, for children with emerging mental health needs who do not meet the threshold for specialist CaMHS support.

Schools take their role in supporting children’s wellbeing and social and emotional development seriously, and the green paper offers a framework which should make it easier for them to do this. Nevertheless, to overlook the central role that social and emotional learning can play within any approach to preventing mental health problems would be a lamentable missed opportunity.

About the author

Stephanie Waddell

Steph is assistant director for impact and knowledge mobilisation at EIF.