As we come to the end of a successful Children’s Mental Health Week, I cannot help but reflect on the relationship between literacy/numeracy and mental health.
I remember feeling quite concerned when we all returned from lockdown. I heard many people say that the ‘academic’ side was not the priority because of the need to concentrate on mental health. Of course, the impact of Covid on our mental health was significant and I understood what people were saying but there seemed to be a lack of awareness about the link there can be between our ‘academic’ ability and our mental health.
We have all read about ‘maths until 18’ in the news recently. This government policy arises out of the fact that one third of young people do not pass their GSCE. As soon as children feel they have ‘failed’ they experience disengagement, low self-esteem…the list could go on. I cannot imagine that this large group of young people would want to extend that pain to the age of 18. The knock-on to their mental health can be significant.
The link between low literacy/numeracy and mental health starts at an early age. ‘Many children with difficulty in learning to read develop a negative self-concept within their first two years of schooling.’ (Chapman, Turner, Prochnow 2000).
With this in mind, image how these young people feel by the time they are 16 years old.
Obviously, there are a number of other significant factors involved, however there is a clear link between low levels of literacy/numeracy and mental health. As Boyes (2016) says, ‘reading difficulties are a key risk factor for the development of later mental health problems.’
We need to eliminate this risk by ensuring that children leave primary school fluent readers and confident mathematicians. But, how?
Teachers can, themselves, read and count confidently and often this leads to the mistaken belief that they must be able to teach it. This is not always the case. Any of you who have been through an intensive phonics training programme will know there is much more to it! Teachers (which includes all staff working with children) need to welcome professional development around these areas and they need to see it as an absolute priority. They need to have a growing understanding of the links between this essential knowledge and mental health; integrating this into their teaching.
Children who are beginning to show signs of difficulty need to be given targeted support. It needs to be at a level that builds their confidence as well as their knowledge. To do this the curriculum and intervention targets need to be broken down into small steps so each child experiences success at their point in the journey and does not become overwhelmed.
If parents engage, children will get regular practice and retrieval opportunities in school and at home. Engaging parents will help promote learning as a positive experience for all in the home. The best way to engage parents is little and often rather than one-off events to talk to them about these key aspects of learning.
As Children’s Mental Health Week comes to an end, ask yourself if your school community understands the link between low literacy/numeracy and mental health? Then, review your priorities and actions in light of this understanding. Are staff well-equipped, do children get the targeted support required and are parents engaged with helping their child to practice these skills at home?
We must work together to make education a positive experience for our children’s mental health.