Jon Jones, our Relationship Manager for the North East and North West, has recently had an article he co-wrote featured in the prestigious European Physical Education Review Journal. The piece focused on how good physical education can benefit children’s mental health and best practice for teaching to ensure a holistic approach between the two. In this Q and A, Jon explains the key features of the research and offers an insight into how schools can use PE lessons to help improve pupils’ mental health.
Why did you and your academic colleagues decided to focus on the links between physical and mental health and the way they are taught in schools?
We decided to set up the programme and focus our research on the links between physical and mental health firstly through the growing concern and focus on children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing. In recent years, there has been a growing perception of children and young people’s mental health being worse than previous generations and that, in some cases, the situation in schools can be seen as a ‘crisis’. It was against this backdrop that we wanted to further understand prevention and early intervention work, and especially the role schools, sport and physical activity could play in the promotion of mental health. In particular, we wanted to understand ways that children can be engaged in the topic of mental health, the impact of positive relationships between children and young people and mentors, and new classroom and physical activity engagement methods that could encourage learning about feelings, emotions and mental health.
Traditionally, mental and physical health have been seen as separate, but more recently, this thinking has started to change and a holistic approach is becoming more common now. How much progress have schools made in this area? How much more needs to be done?
I think progress has been made and the fact people are discussing PE and physical activity as a way of learning about mental health and improving outcomes is encouraging. A holistic approach, or whole-school approach, to mental health is also reflected in the Ofsted inspection framework now, so it’s great that this is focused on in schools. One of the ways in which schools are expected to contribute to pupils’ mental health is through subjects including PE, and the various physical activities and sports in which children and young people engage as part of PE, the wider curriculum and extra-curricular activities. This is again encouraging, demonstrating the potential of PE, sport and physical activity to promote positive mental health and wellbeing and form part of the holistic whole school approach to support children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing. High-quality PE can contribute to a whole school approach to promoting healthy lifestyles through the physical learning context that it provides for every child and can support physical, mental and social aspects of health which contribute to children and young people’s quality of life.
I think there is still more that can be done and an increased focus on use of physical activity and movement in the social and emotional development of children. We talk about positive attachments and the impact that can have on children’s social and emotional development, releasing dopamine etc, so I feel there is a real opportunity to encourage physical activity and games even more so, to support the development of positive social and emotional development and build positive attachments. Whether that is through PE lessons, or just by going outside, exploring, playing games and being active.
What opportunities do you think there are to improve the way mental health and wellbeing is taught in schools?
There are great opportunities to embed it mental health and wellbeing across the curriculum. It’s good to see the PSHE and RSE lessons and guidance provided for schools, of which mental health and wellbeing plays a part, but there is a chance to support mental health and wellbeing in all lessons. This could be by building in movement to a geography lesson, for example, talking about feelings and emotions in other lessons, and displaying positive relational skills in all lessons to support children’s mental health and wellbeing. This is what Thrive® promotes and supports well – the embedding of relational skills and support for children and young people across the whole school and curriculum. I also think there’s an opportunity to deliver mental health and wellbeing lessons in a ‘non-traditional’ lesson format, which is part of our findings. New, engaging and fun activities suited to the preferences and needs of the children and young people can really engage them in these topics and encourage strong relationships. These opportunities are sometimes missed in traditional lesson formats, and this can put off some children and young people who do not engage in this way.
What barriers are there to this?
Barriers to this could be if the lessons, activities and format of this support does not fit with the school ethos and environment, leadership and management practices, staff development, work with parents and carers, identifying needs and monitoring of the impact. I think the effectiveness of whole-school approaches to mental health and wellbeing also depends on the wider social, economic and health context that the school is in, which must be acknowledged when providing this support to help ensure that is tailored to the needs and preferences of children and young people, staff and parents.
In addition, some other traditional barriers that exist will be time, both to do the activities and to see immediate benefits. The benefits may come through in other areas (eg attendance), which can take a little bit of time to demonstrate benefit, so it does take a commitment and does not happen overnight.
Another barrier may be training and support for staff, so that they understand the theory behind activities and the importance of relationships in supporting children and young people’s mental health, and to ensure they are comfortable in delivering PE, sport, physical activity and creative activities for children and young people. This is where Thrive training can come in!
How does exercise/ PE fit with the Thrive Approach® ?
PE, sport, physical activity and exercise fit perfectly with Thrive. Thrive provides you with the theory, strategies and activities to deliver creative, fun and play-based activities that best support social and emotional development. Creativity and play are easily incorporated into PE, physical activity and sport, and if based around the needs and preferences of the group, can further strengthen positive relationships and attachments, which in-turn can support development in confidence in children and young people to discuss feelings and emotions and to speak about their mental health.
More active exercise also increases the production of brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF), which acts like a fertiliser for brain growth and can improve mood. It has also been shown to encourage healthy agility, mobility and balance, as well as mental agility, and Thrive provides you with this information to understand how this can help you work with children whose learning may have been interrupted by fear or anxiety – so exercise and Thrive definitely fit together!
What can schools do to maximise the potential benefits of PE lessons on children’s mental health?
Our research suggests that children and young people were more likely to engage in lessons that focus on mental health and emotional wellbeing if they are of practical application and relevant to them. The learning activities delivered as part of Tackling the Blues (a sport, physical activity and education-based mental health awareness programme targeting young people aged 6-16 who are experiencing, or are at risk of, developing mental illness) led pupils to recognise and manage feelings and emotions, and identify strategies (eg problem-solving, communication, coping, conflict management) for managing impacts on their own and others’ mental health. So, schools can look to maximise opportunities to provide learning activities that help the proactive development of pupils’ skills, competencies and strategies essential to the promotion of mental health awareness.
How can good physical health impact on children’s mental health – and vice versa?
There is a strong relationship between physical and mental health, with both providing benefits for one another. For example, if you are more physically healthy and physically active, then you are more likely to have increased energy levels, sleep better and have a better diet through reduced cravings for fattier foods. This in turn can help mental health and support children’s feelings and emotions, for example – sleep allows our bodies to repair themselves and our brains to consolidate our memories and process information. Poor sleep can be linked to mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, with the amygdala, the part of our brain that acts as a ‘threat detector’ and helps process emotions such as fear, becomes rewired in a way that can reduces rational responses to external events. This could play out in children and young people’s behaviour as large emotional swings, which through supporting them to be active, creative and playful, could help support improved levels of physical activity and health and in-turn, positive mental health.
You mention the importance of establishing good relationships between children and the teachers/ mentors that are teaching them physical education. Why does this matter and what are the benefits?
Positive relationships between the children and young people and the mentors, or staff, is key to supporting mental health. If a positive relationship has been established, this increases the levels of trust in the child and provides them with more confidence to discuss feelings and emotions with the mentor or member of staff.
A positive relationship with a trusted adult has also been proven to act as a buffer for adverse experiences and allow for increased levels of resilience in children and young people, as they have that trusted adult to go back to and talk and share with.
Positive relationships also support children and young people in exploring and learning, with a further benefit potentially being improved learning outcomes as well as improved mental health literacy and awareness.
A key message is that, to support children and young people to be self-aware, adults must be self-aware themselves to be able to support them. This is vital, and central to forming a positive relationship, which could be the thing that helps develop a child’s social and emotional health, and the adult could have such a large impact as, unfortunately, they may be the only positive relationship that the child or young person has experienced with an adult.