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Understanding and creating mentally healthy classrooms

World Mental Health Day takes place on 10th October every year. The Mental Health Foundation's focus for 2022 is Mental Health in an Unequal World. Find out more from them about how to get involved.

We've been thinking about what mentally healthy classrooms look like and what this subject means for teachers and pupils in primary schools.

Mental health is making the news a lot at the moment, from teachers’ stress levels to the impact social media is having on children. But what exactly is good mental health and what does good mental health look like in schools?

Well, The World Health Organisation defines mental health as:


“a state of well-being in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stress of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”


In schools, that could look like happy teachers who are able to cope with, not just survive, the daily ups and downs of teaching, and pupils who approach challenges with confidence and resilience and enjoy being at school.


Mentally Healthy Classrooms - Mental Health in Primary Schools

So what does the current picture of mental health in schools look like?

According to the Department of Health and Social Care, one in eight 5 to 19 year olds has a mental health disorder. That means, statistically, about 13% of your class are struggling – and it isn’t any better for teachers. A huge 54% of those surveyed by The Independent said they had poor mental health, with 81% saying their poor mental health has had a negative impact on the quality of their relationships with their pupils.

The statistics paint a rather bleak picture and it is clear that a lot of work needs to be done to address mental health issues in schools. Luckily, there are lots of small changes we can make in the classroom to help our pupils improve their mental health and grow up to be the resilient world-changers we know they can be – simple actions and practices that encourage children to be emotionally literate, confident and composed. Let’s share our calm, not our chaos, with them.

A good place to start seems to be understanding what it looks like, and feels like, to be in crisis. This can affect anyone. It is not limited to the children in your class, so keep an eye out and offer a friendly face to any colleagues you think could do with some help, too.


Mentally Healthy Classrooms - Fight, Flight or Freeze

Fight, flight or freeze. The acute stress response.

The phrase ‘fight, flight or freeze’ is well known, but what does it mean and what does it look like?

It is also called the acute stress response or flipping your lid. In very simple terms, someone who has reached this point is unable to engage the ‘thinking’ and ‘feeling’ parts of their brain. They are in survival mode.

This mode is very important in certain situations. For example, if you find a lion in your classroom, you don’t need your brain to engage how you feel and what you think about this anomaly – you just need to get out of there. Your brain will start doing this before you are conscious of your actions. This is great in circumstances where your life is in danger; it is not so great when OFSTED are visiting.


What might fight, flight or freeze look like?

  • Someone in ‘fight’ can look hot and bothered. They can be angry, aggressive, controlling or argumentative
  • Someone in ‘flight’ can look very busy, hyperactive or silly. They might be unable to cope with free time or literally remove themselves from the situation.
  • Someone in ‘freeze’ can look bored or confused. They can come across as forgetful or daydreaming.

We hope that you don’t see this state presented often in your schools but, if or when you do, remember that someone in this state cannot engage the ‘thinking’ or ‘feeling’ parts of their brain until they feel safe. Once they feel the threat has gone then you can begin working on making connections, rationalising the problem and thinking of different strategies to cope with it.


What can we do to improve mental health in schools?

The Mental Health Foundation wants mental health to stop being an extracurricular activity; this means embedding it into everyday life by making time to have conversations about feelings and emotions when they arise, before people have reached crisis point. These conversations don’t need to take a long time but they can have a huge impact. In fact, the sooner feelings are acknowledged and valued, the less likely they are to become overwhelming.

As adults, we can think back on past experiences to help us respond appropriately to stressful situations. That doesn’t mean we will always be able to rationalise situations but it does help us cope. Talking and remembering with the people around you can help grow new brain connections that teach us over time how to respond to stressors. It helps you to understand that feelings are transient which can in turn help to change mindsets. So when the dust has settled, talk. Remind yourself, your colleague, your students that things seemed pretty bad earlier, but they don’t any more. When reading books together, make it a habit to discuss how the characters feel, and talk about situations in which they might have felt the same way. The more your pupils are able to make connections between actions, reactions and feelings the better.


Children holding up expressions cards by a blackboard


Check out our blog on ‘10 practical ways to create mentally healthy schools' for simple and effective ways to embed these practices into your daily teaching.

Additional Support

Remember, just because someone feels one way today doesn’t mean they will feel like it forever. And if it all does seem too much and you feel you or someone you know needs a bit of extra help, there are so many organisations out there that are ready to offer support.

Support for people working in education

Education Support Partnership:

Support for children:

Play Therapy UK:

British Association of Play Therapists:

Institute for Arts in Therapy and Education:


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