Compassionate support is needed in schools to alleviate teachers’ mental health

two people having a conversation at a table while drinking hot beverages

The emotional workload of teachers is greater than people realise, with some getting home after a school day emotionally exhausted, according to a senior lecturer in child development at Oxford Brookes University.

The doctoral research, conducted by Dr Jonathan Reid, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, explored wellbeing support received by teachers.

Teachers interact with a wide range of people (pupils, colleagues, parents and carers, etc.). The range of emotions experienced through these relationships can positively or negatively influence their own wellbeing.

Consider also that 18% of children aged 7 to 16 years have a probable mental disorder, which rises to 22% in young people aged 17 to 24 (NHS Digital 2022). 

Wherever teachers are working, there will be a significant minority of children experiencing social, emotional and mental health (SEMH) needs that require more attention. 

Dr Reid carried out interviews in three special schools in the South East of England that support children with complex SEMH needs. 

One-to-one interviews were carried out with Head Teachers, teachers, and external visitors to explore the emotional work of teachers and support for their wellbeing.  

Focus groups interviews were then undertaken to explore, with teachers, the relevance of compassion to their experiences. 

The results show that support for wellbeing varied between schools

Dr Reid’s research suggests that compassionate approaches in schools could have a positive impact on the wellbeing of teachers, as well as with the children and the wider school community that teachers work with.

Dr Reid explained: “Compassion is associated with being aware of, and sensitive to difficulties or distress in oneself and others and being motivated to do something to prevent, reduce or alleviate such experiences. Importantly for teacher wellbeing, compassion can also be experienced from others”.

“Given ongoing concerns about the emotional wellbeing of children, young people and teachers, the importance of compassion in our schools should be amplified. Compassionate awareness, empathy and sensitivity can help others to feel emotionally supported and cared for. Compassion for self is also important for teachers, particularly given their role in supporting others”.

Dr Reid's research revealed that teachers' emotional work can be supported through regular, structured, supervision sessions. In these sessions teachers experienced non-judgmental opportunities to talk about their emotional experiences. 

Despite concerns about the financial costs of offering supervision in schools, such costs can be reduced or eliminated through encouraging groups of teachers to openly and honestly reflect together about aspects of their work that affect them emotionally. 

Compassion, therefore, can be instilled in the school’s organisational culture. It can be formalised into structured support opportunities by giving teachers time and space to talk about the emotional aspects of their work.

Dr Reid added: “Schools can use compassion to better understand the social,  emotional and mental health needs of children and young people when they experience distress. By responding to distress with compassion, children and young people experience empathy, sensitivity and care”. 

“Such attuned responses support more inclusive, authentic and relational interactions which improve self-regulation and increase feelings of calm, belonging and wellbeing”.

Dr Reid is turning his PhD research work into policy action and is calling on government to put compassion at the heart of education. 

Compassion Focused Education aims to ensure that community wellbeing is facilitated through preventing or reducing difficulties or distress experienced in schools. 

In recognition of the impact of increasing adversity on the mental health and wellbeing of children and young people both in the UK and globally, compassionate school responses are essential. 

As a Trustee for the Institute of Recovery from Childhood Trauma (IRCT), he regularly promotes the importance of compassion in schools. 

As part of IRCT’s work with the Secretariat for the Childhood Trauma All-Party Parliamentary Groups (APPG), he has written a briefing paper which will be shared with MPs at Portculis House on 15 November 2023. 

The paper recommends that child trauma can be supported through the creation of safe, secure, and compassionate environments.

Dr Reid also campaigns to eliminate exclusions in England, and wrote a Position Statement which listed a number of recommendations.

He is organising a 2024 Inclusion Conference for Oxford Brookes staff and students. The event focuses on supporting children and young people with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities with particular attention to mental health and wellbeing.

Dr Reid's event is supported by the Oxford Brookes Children and Young People Network, of which he is a member.

Access the PhD Thesis, “Teacher's emotional work, support for their wellbeing and the role of compassion: A critical exploration”. 

Join the #compassionedrevolution campaign on X and follow @JonReidOBU.