Primary school teacher’s responsibility to promote positive mental health
Holt, Deborah Anne
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Rationale As teachers play such a fundamental role in a child’s wellbeing, this thesis explores what positive mental health means to individual primary school teachers and how they perceive their responsibility to promote positive mental health within the Scottish context. The Scottish Education policy context is unique. The research study reported here is the first of its kind in Scotland and is important because it has been argued that effective mental health promotion is best determined by local need and practitioner strengths (Herrman, Saxena and Moodie, 2005, Clark, O’Sullivan and Barry, 2010, Hall, 2010) and so will be specific to the child and adolescent mental health context in Scotland. Since 2010, teachers in Scotland have been required to promote positive mental health, and health and wellbeing has been deemed to be the responsibility of all teachers. Therefore, a priority of this research project was to get the perspective not just those who had leadership responsibilities or an expressed interest in wellbeing, but also those with limited experience, low confidence or who had voiced doubt about the relevance or importance of positive mental health promotion to their role as primary school teachers. Sample Consequently, the sample was purposive in nature and consisted of 14 primary school teachers from 11 different schools located in 6 different local authorities who work in partnership with the School of Education. Seven participants were experienced and enthusiastic about wellbeing promotion which would include positive mental health. Six voiced a lack of experience in this area and one participant was cautious about her role within this. Thirteen participants were female and one was male. Five had leadership roles and four participants were in the first five years of their teaching career. Research Design Founded on constructivism, this research sought answers to questions about perceptions and individual perspectives in order to gain a detailed understanding of the participants’ experiences of positive mental health promotion. The following research questions underpinned the study: 1. What do primary school teachers understand by positive mental health? 2. What are primary school teachers' perceptions of their responsibility to promote positive mental health? In order to answer these questions, a qualitative research design was deemed most appropriate. Based on Guba and Lincoln’s (2008) definition of constructivism as an approach that believes reality is reached through a groups' consensus, this study used non-directive interviews to facilitate the acquisition of authentic rich data on the participants’ understanding of positive mental health and their perspectives on their responsibility to promote it. Extended discussion revealed the participant teachers’ hopes, concerns, priorities and key issues relating to their daily enactment of mental health promotion. The rich data gathered was analysed using an inductive approach that allowed themes to emerge from the data (Charmaz, 2006; Creswell, 2012; Huberman and Miles, 1998). Pillow’s (2003) strategies of reflexivity ensured that the impact of researcher, participant and the relationship between the two on data gathering, analysis and reporting was scrutinised. Findings and Conclusions The key findings reveal in depth for the first time two related but distinct features of these teachers’ work; firstly that they saw positive mental health promotion as intrinsic and integral to their overall role as teachers; and secondly, and perhaps more surprisingly, that this commitment to positive mental health promotion as an intrinsic element of being a teacher was present even in teachers who might be seen to lack interest, confidence and skills in this area. When asked about their perceptions, the participants described in detail how they enacted the role. It is clear that they perceived positive mental health promotion to be integral to the teacher’s role, challenging, personal, drawing on positive relationships, but also, the rich description of their enactment presents a vivid picture of how this may be achieved and what it looks like in practice. The primary school teachers participating in this study recognised mental health as a continuum influenced by a range of environmental, social and societal factors, such as poverty, relationships and home life. In effect, they demonstrated an understanding of positive mental health that was broadly in line with social models of wellbeing. Furthermore, consistent with policy and research (Bech et al., 2003; Bielsa et al., 2010; Jané- Llopis et al., 2005; Keyes, 2002; Levin et al., 2012; McDonald and O'Hara, 2001; WHO, 2001), participants acknowledged that positive mental health was more than the absence of mental illness. This research uncovered a range of factors at a personal and professional level which enable participant teachers to promote positive mental health. A whole school approach, where both teachers and children work in a non-judgemental and supportive environment and are immersed in positive relationships, was recognised as fundamental to positive mental health promotion. Even if lacking confidence about mental health promotion, every participant was committed to providing, offering or nurturing the key elements of positive mental health promotion; that is the fostering of positive relationships, the building of pupils’ social and emotional skills and the creation of a respectful and supportive ethos. Findings revealed that participants perceived positive mental health promotion to be one of the more personal and emotional elements of being a teacher. They endorsed the importance of positive relationships in the classroom, between pupils and also between teachers and pupils. Findings indicate that every participant found positive mental health promotion to be challenging. Consistent with prior research (Bricheno, Brown and Lubansky, 2009; Graham et al., 2011; Kidger et al., 2009; Perry, Lennie and Humphrey, 2008), participants raised concern about the impact that teaching generally and the challenges of positive mental health promotion in particular, had on their wellbeing. All participants emphasised the importance and value of working within a supportive environment in which their own mental health needs were met. Implications The participants’ understanding of positive mental health and their perception of positive mental health promotion as an integral part of the primary school teacher’s role has implications for schools, ITE and providers of professional learning. It might be beneficial to consider further this conceptualisation of positive mental health and its promotion alongside what it is to be a good teacher, particularly when teachers or students have a lack of self-efficacy in relation to positive mental health promotion. There is value in helping teachers less confident in positive mental health promotion to identify the elements of their current practice that are already consistent with what has been learned about positive mental health promotion within the context of this study. The personal dimension of positive mental health promotion and the impact of this on teacher wellbeing highlighted within this study, make it clear that there is a need to consider how the positive mental health of ITE students is promoted, particularly when considering the levels of poor mental health in adolescents and young adults in Scotland. Within the context of ITE, we should explore the extent to which our students are studying in a positive culture, conducive to learning and positive mental health promotion. Within the school context, this finding serves as a reminder or potential opportunity to increase the value placed on staff wellbeing. Participants conveyed their perceptions of their role in positive mental health promotion by providing detailed descriptions of how they enacted each element of the role. Within the context of ITE and teacher professional learning, this detail of enactment should be used to inform practice and illustrate the many elements of being a teacher promoting positive mental health. This may be invaluable to our student teachers in terms of furthering their understanding of the promotion of positive mental health and how to identify the often invisible work that mentor class teachers are doing to promote wellbeing all day every day.