Spotting the signs of poor mental wellbeing in students in secondary schools

Spotting the Signs of Poor Mental Wellbeing
Trying to spot when a young person is struggling with their mental wellbeing unless they verbalise it is one of the toughest parts of working in inclusion in a busy secondary school. The reason why? All of the tell-tale signs can be linked to puberty and natural developments. For example, all of the below are potential signs of poor mental wellbeing – 
  1. Poor concentration
  2. Distracted
  3. Worrying more
  4. Loss of interest
  5. Low mood
  6. Overwhelmed
  7. Weight gain/loss
  8. Struggling to regulate emotions (i.e., teary, angry). 
  9. Tired and sleepy (a great book to read is ‘Why We Sleep’ by Matthew Walker) – adolescents’ circadian rhythm is shifted forwards compared to ours and therefore asking them to get up at c.7.30am is like asking us adults to get up at c.4.30am!
  10. Avoiding activities previously enjoyed
  11. irritability and short temper


None of the above would be out of the norm for a teenager. Hence, spotting and then acting upon concerns can be difficult. However, there are some steps which schools can take by utilising mentor/tutor time. 


How can Mentor/tutor time be used to support young people's mental health and wellbeing?

Empower mentors/tutors/form teachers

In some schools’ mentor/tutor time is an add on, not valued by staff or students. If anything, the time is wasted and viewed with derision. However, if properly utilised it can become a powerful tool to support positive mental health and wellbeing.


Firstly, mentor time can be used to assess individual students/cohort’s mental wellbeing. This can be done via paid tools, such as Thrive or PASS, or developed in school. A simple questionnaire can help get a gauge of mood within a class, year group or cohort. Through this, you can then break it down further and begin to see a picture of what occurs over time. Have a student’s scores dipped from one term to the next? Has their attendance dropped? Has poor behaviour increased? Has attainment dropped? Schools are often data rich and time poor. However, build in an opportunity for pastoral teams to identify issues and it will have a significant impact, not just on the student but also the school (better attendance, better attainment, better results).*

Provide Time

In order to avoid tutor time being wasted time, some schools absolutely fill them. Try and create some capacity for tutors to get to know their students. This could be via a quiz, a check in after a weekend, a get to know you mentor board competition and so on. The better the tutor knows the student, the more likely they will be to identify issues before they arise. 

Provide Training

Train tutors in what to look out for but make it year group focused. What should they be watching out for in Y7 is very different to Y11. Understand what your local context and issues are – is county lines an issue? Is child sexual exploitation? Is substance misuse a problem? Don’t hide this from your tutors – empower them.

Strategic Calendar

Developing a strategic tutor time calendar is vital to supporting positive mental wellbeing. Look, for example, when Love Island is going to be broadcast, as figures suggest there is an increase in eating related disorders when it is on. It may be that you proactively address this issue in mentor time or give tutors the heads up about it in advance so they can monitor students.

Share Key Information

Often schools can be wary of telling staff key information about students. Staff, in particular tutors, should be empowered with information. This can be done via internal communication systems, such as CPOMS. Alternatively, meet with them one on one at the end or start of the day.

Build a Team

Try and create tutor briefings, where staff can come together and share ideas but also where they can raise their concerns about a student. Avoid packing this meeting with ‘things’ – try and make it focused but also allow time for staff to catch you and discuss key students.

Build a Structure

All too often structures in schools are not utilised, mainly because staff are not empowered. If a student is showing signs of poor mental wellbeing, it does not immediately have to be picked up by the inclusion team. Instead, empower the mentor to support them. They will probably know them best, see them everyday and are the ideal person to do daily check ins. If we do not do this then the inclusion team can quickly be overrun and then miss other issues which need dealing with. 

All of the above is easier said than done and in a busy school environment, where you are trying to balance competing interests, it can be a real struggle. However, adopting a couple of the above could make a real difference and support a change of culture in your year group/setting.

*It is worth acknowledging a social desirability bias and thus that they’re not perfect.

Picture of Author: Adam Gillett
Author: Adam Gillett

Assistant Principal - Inclusion
Penistone Grammar School
Learning and Development Specialist at Minds Ahead

Masters degrees to strengthen mental health in your school

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