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Slippers, artwork, and advocates: how alternative education teachers focus on emotional wellbeing

Four children sit around a table eating lunch from trays. In the foreground, the closest child is holding a sandwich. None of their faces can be seen.

From Royalty and marathon runners to footballers and office workers, conversations around mental health are finally being given the media spotlight and platform they deserve.

The (often missed) fact is that we all have mental health. But far too many of us – and far too many children – have poor emotional wellbeing. It’s time we took the Government’s commitment to ‘transform’ attitudes to mental health and looked at how we can support children and young people with their mental health from the very start of their lives.

Catch22’s alternative provision academies, independent schools, and post-16 study programmes support children and young people outside of mainstream education to achieve their potential. Key to our work is understanding the emotional needs of our pupils so that we’re able to support their academic readiness.

Many of our teachers use innovative and supportive concepts to ensure that the children and young people feel safe, secure and in a position to be able to learn. These ideas are not radical or hard to do, but rather set out to complement existing learning strategies. Our teachers, child psychologists, SENCOs and assistants share what works for them:

1. Embed therapeutic approaches into your teaching style

Classes aren’t labelled as therapeutic, learners wouldn’t engage, but rather we ensure that we teach them pastorally and therapeutically. We had a learner who struggled with anxiety. He engaged with art classes in a way that was right for him and this helped him to focus his mind. He now keeps some art material in his bag so when he may be feeling overwhelmed or anxious, he can mould something to keep him centred.

2. Slipper time

One school provides slippers and a shelf for each of the children, giving them something that is theirs to look after. The sensory support of the slippers leaves pupils feeling much more relaxed, and creating a real sense of community. The learners are calmer and more engaged and those that were unsure about this at the start are now advocates. Plus the carpet is much cleaner!

3. Talk about your own feelings

Our staff feel confident about discussing with each other their own emotional wellbeing, breaking down the taboo around mental health and creating a culture and ethos of openness.

4. Teach the language of emotion

We work with children and young people to help them become emotionally literate; some of our young people only have basic feelings, so we do cognitive work with them around recognising the difference between emotions such as anger and anxiety. We also provide training around the vocabulary and wording around emotions, there is more than just happy, angry, or sad, you could feel insecure, overwhelmed, or anxious.

5. Clean slate

Every day starts with a clean slate; if you shout at me today I am not going to carry it over to tomorrow. Our learners often have this issue in mainstream schools, if they act up one day the teacher will expect it from them and hold them to a different standard. The next day we expect them to behave themselves, stopping them from having the excuse to live up to a reputation of being ‘the naughty kid’.

6. The advocate

Our structure includes a fundamental non-teaching role, the ‘Advocate’, who builds strong relationships with the learner, who advocates on their behalf with their carer and the organisations they work with, and becomes a strong role model and positive experience of working with professionals. The Advocate provides home visits, group sessions, and one to ones allowing common themes to be identified and giving them a unique insight into the pupil and forming a relationship with the learner, carer or family which grows into a therapeutic alliance.

7. Family meals

Eating breakfast and cooked lunch around the table with staff and learners creates a strong family environment. It gives young people a sense of connectedness and stability. It is also an opportunity for staff and students to share an activity together and see a side of each other they perhaps wouldn’t have done, empowering young people to speak up when they need additional support.

8. One-to-ones

Take time to have one to ones with learners that are not focused on discipline, but are an opportunity for them to learn about themselves and empower them to have an effect on their own life. Build a safe environment for a young person to discuss with an experienced staff member difficulties they are having in and outside school, letting the young person know someone is there to hear them.

9. Take time for tea

All learners know what time that we open in the morning. Some teachers have students that arrive to school over an hour early just to have a cup of tea and to talk at teachers while they do their prep! Many of our students don’t have secure adult relationships at home so it is vital for them to know they have someone at school that will listen to them without judgement.

10. How are you?

These tips won’t work unless teachers take the time to check in with themselves, speak to colleagues about how they’re feeling and ensure they are supported to deliver. We provide resilience training for our teachers, equipping teachers with the emotional wellbeing toolkit to support themselves and their colleagues. Catch22 is active in promoting a culture of staff wellbeing, making sure we take the time support each other and start our conversations with a genuine ‘how are you?’.

It’s important that these methods are embedded as part of our overall learning experience and are not singled out as ‘mental health provision’ or ‘therapeutic work’. Emotional wellbeing is not a bolt-on or an add-on for our teachers– it is a part of everything we do as a whole school community.