Can an online teacher training programme improve identification of mental health difficulties in primary school children?

Introduction to this Emerging Minds funded project by Emma Soneson, PhD student & Gates Scholar at the University of Cambridge.

Half of all children with mental health difficulties never access care and support. One of the main reasons for this is that key adults (like parents, teachers, and GPs) don’t always know when children are struggling with their mental health.

In our project, we are looking at how to help primary school staff spot mental health difficulties in their pupils. To do this, we are using an online training programme with teachers and teaching assistants (TAs) from 8 schools. In this training, teachers and TAs will learn how to spot the signs of mental health difficulties, talk with children and parents about mental health, and help link children to care and support.

We will test whether this programme helps teachers and TAs to be better at spotting mental health difficulties. We will also test whether it’s practical and acceptable for schools. If the programme works and schools like it, we will work with the designers to make it even better. We can then do a bigger study to see if it should be used in all primary schools in the UK.

We hope that this training can help teachers and TAs be more confident about pupil mental health. The earlier we can see that a child is struggling, the earlier we can support them to live happy and healthy lives.

Key messages

Following the end of the project, Emma Soneson shared the key messages of the findings and possible future steps

  • School staff members are eager to support pupils with mental health difficulties, but often do not feel prepared to do so. Training programmes that are low in time and resource requirements have substantial potential for supporting school staff to take a central role in pupil mental health.  

  • We tested one such training programme, At-Risk for Elementary School Educators, in six diverse UK primary schools. 

  • After completing the training, teachers and teaching assistants felt more confident and prepared to identify and respond to mental health difficulties.  

  • After completing the training, teachers and teaching assistants identified fewer children as having mental health difficulties, but they became slightly more accurate about whom they identified (compared with a standard questionnaire). 

  • After the training, a greater proportion of pupils identified as having mental health difficulties received some type of mental health support. Typically, they received support in their classrooms and wider school environments.  

  • In general, the school staff had very positive views of the training. They reported learning and using a variety of new skills that helped them better support their pupils. They thought that the training fit well with their own values and practice and the wider school context. 

  • There were not many potential harms identified. Those that were (e.g. that it would make staff uncomfortable or that it would give them too much confidence) were viewed as low-risk and manageable.  

  • Based on these findings, it would be useful to trial the training in a greater number of schools. 

You can keep up to date with further developments on this project via Twitter @Emma_Soneson