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Hannah Watkins discovers that everyone needs a safe haven sometimes from this mad world, especially our children

“We have only just scraped the surface of what it is like to be a young person in today’s world,” were the words of Dr Stephen WInkley, Headmaster of Rossall School at the Boarding Schools’ Association Conference in May this year as, for our children, he sees the world we live in as far more complex, pressurised and scary than perhaps at any time before.

In 2006, Dr Anthony Seldon, Headmaster of Wellington College, an Independent secondary school, recognised this shift and announced plans to introduce a subject called “well-being” into the curriculum. Since then, the emotional well-being of children and adolescents has come into the public conscience.


Whilst some continue to have misgivings about the “systematic teaching of happiness,” calling it selfindulgent, fluffy or mollycoddling, results of research into the mental health of children over the last 15 years appear to show cause for concern and a need for action to be taken to provide our children with the tools to thrive and succeed: 

  • Research commissioned by the NSPCC found that a third of children are worried about something and that almost half of them find it stressful that they have nobody to talk to.
  • It is believed that 10% of five to 16 year olds have a diagnosable mental health disorder, according to The Office of National Statistics (2005 report). 
  • 80% of children who have behavioural problems develop more serious forms of anti-social behaviour and a staggering 90% of all young offenders had a mental health problem at the age of 7 (Office of National Statistics report).

Barry Carpenter, Professor of Early Childhood Intervention at the University of Worcester predicted recently, in an interview with the Times Educational Supplement (the TES), that, with the impact of events such as the current economic troubles, the number of pupils with mental health problems may even double within a decade. He believes that a fifth of five to 15 year-olds will have an emotional disorder by 2019.

A third of children are worried about something and almost half of them find it stressful that they have nobody to talk to

So, does emotional well-being really impact educational development and the growth of our children affect their readiness to face the challenges and adventures of grown-up life?

Benita Refson, founder and CEO of the charity, The Place2Be, that works inside schools to improve the emotional well-being of children, their families and the whole school community, believes strongly that it does and the earlier in a child’s life we address these issues of mental health, the better:

“Today’s children face all kinds of challenges that can throw them off course. Unless they are given the means to cope, their feelings of sadness, fear and anger can easily spill over in the classroom – and in society.

We know as adults that when we are confused, we can’t think clearly, our mind doesn’t work healthily. Children are affected by what is happening around them but they cannot articulate it so they translate it into behaviour. But it’s ok to feel stress and talk about it. It is a reality and there should no longer be a stigma.”

To the cynics, she says: “I would question whether addressing your fears and your anxieties is mollycoddling. It’s not soft, touchy feely stuff. It’s essential.”

The government has started to take note and acknowledge that the policy of narrow focus on academic achievement that was inherited from the 80s when secondary school counsellors were made redundant is no longer viable.

Bereavement, family breakdown, domestic violence, trauma and bullying; these are the kind of problems primary school children have to contend with, day after day

Initiatives such as Every Child Matters, Extended Schools, Healthy Schools and Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning are gradually being put in place. For example, the Every Child Matters framework aims to promote 5 essentials: be healthy, be safe, enjoy and achieve, make a positive contribution and achieve economic well-being. The National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) also issued a report in 2008 on the promotion of children’s social and emotional well-being in primary education which advocates the use of school-based approaches.

But the real coalface work of putting this into practice on a nationwide scale is being carried out by charities like ThePlace2Be, an organisation from which all sectors can learn. The charity was established in 1994 by Benita Refson, in response to her increasing concern about the extent and depth of emotional and behavioural difficulties displayed in classrooms and playgrounds. After volunteering in social work in her early career, her life took her down a different path, but once her children had grown up she trained to be a counsellor, working initially with adolescents. It was here that she sensed that the adolescents’ issues often stemmed from early childhood and the thought kept going through her mind: “If only I could have reached them earlier.”

“Bereavement, family breakdown, domestic violence, trauma and bullying; these are the kind of problems primary school children have to contend with, day after day. When children show difficult or challenging behaviour it is often the sign of a deeper problem. Day in, day out, teachers meet children who are angry, sad, anxious, violent, or unruly; children who can soon end up in far worse trouble. As a child’s formative years have a huge impact on their longterm development and prospects. The Place2Be works inside schools to provide emotional support and nurture unhappy troubled children. By giving children the chance to explore their problems through talking, creative work, and play, we enable them to cope now and make better-informed decisions about their lives and help prevent more serious mental health and behavioural problems in later life.”

The Place2Be model

One of The Place2Be’s missions is to provide therapeutic and emotional support to children in school which subsequently makes it easier for children to concentrate and learn. The Place2Be is an integral part of the school and their holistic approach allows the counsellors and the school to focus together on ‘the whole child’. The counsellors are visible and available to talk to kids, parents and listen to teachers. For teachers this visibility helps with their support and engagement with the service. For the parents, it gives them a link into the school.

A School Project Manager is assigned to each school to oversee the volunteer counsellors and work alongside the teachers, taking referrals and evaluating the children through nationally validated screening questionnaires.

Individual counselling takes place in a special Place2Be room within the school and lasts for between one school term and one school year. The Place2Be room is well thought out with materials, puppets, playdough, paints, tools, sandpits but most importantly it is a calm, safe place.

In practice, the idea is to provide a room with materials which the children can play with and express themselves through without being required to do anything, in the context of a safe relationship. The counsellors may often sit and watch to see what themes keep arising in the play to understand what the child is grappling with. They listen without putting their own views onto the child to try to help them make sense of their feelings.

The children feel that someone is there for them and that they are ‘of value’

The young children don’t often talk about why they are there but through playing they often show what is troubling them. For example, they will use dolls to re-enact what they want to say to their parents or to replay a scene that they may have experienced at home: “Children choose to use these tools to make sense of the world” says Peter Wilson, a child psychotherapist since the 1970s, who founded and directed the Young Minds charity for 14 years raising the awareness of mental health in children, and who now works as The Place2Be’s Clinical Advisor.

“Clinical,” he says, “has a medical ring about it and comes from an original meaning ‘by the bedside’. In The Place2Be, the clinical ethos is indeed to work alongside the child - by and on the side of the child. We give children up to an hour a week to be themselves, without being required to perform or achieve. This is a fundamental idea and the most important is the contract between counsellor and child – a built relationship of trust.” For this reason, the session will always be at the same time, in the same place and with the same counsellor. Adds Benita Refson: “The children have 60 minutes of a level of attention that they don’t get elsewhere. They feel that someone is there for them and that they are ‘of value’. It enables young children to trust adults and later in life know that it’s ok to ask for help. That relationship makes a big difference.”

The Place2Talk

The Place2Talk is a lunchtime drop-in service at Place2Be schools, where children can book short individual or group sessions. In the 2006/07 academic year over 37,000 visits were made to The Place2Talk. This is extremely popular as it enables children to explore a wide range of school and homebased concerns like difficult peer relationships, managing feelings, coping with bereavement, bullying, complex family relationships, parental separation, exam worries and managing disappointment.

Peter Wilson notes that these are: “more structured, solution focused, trying to find a rational way through an issue.” Said one child of the drop-in session: “Sometimes if you keep your feelings bottled up you want to shout at someone but this is a way of letting your feelings out about how you feel and why.”

A Place for Parents

A Place for Parents supports parents and carers of children who have been referred to or are accessing The Place2Be’s support. Studies have revealed that children of parents who have mental health problems may find their own emotional development negatively effected. For this reason, support is offered to parents as part of the support for the ‘whole child’. Matthew Audley, the Parenting Development Manager explains: “Practical skills are taught, as are confidence, understanding of boundaries and parenting skills. Usually the mothers come to the sessions although out of every 15 parents who come one or two will be men.”

The Place2Be Counsellor Training

The Place2Be provides three main types of training: internal training for Place2Be clinical staff, external training for school-based staff and a series of professional qualifications for people who wish to work therapeutically with primary school-aged children. These qualifications are available at Foundation, Diploma and Masters levels and are provided by practioners.


The charity has a highly developed research and evaluation strategy headed by a committee of academics and policy advisers. The most recent data show that in the year 2006/07, almost two thirds (62%) of children who attended The Place2Be sessions showed improvements including enhanced self-esteem, better communication skills and ability to develop stronger relationships.

When asked about the benefit of the service to the children in their school, 67% of school staff members said that they were aware of noticeable benefits within individual children and/or their whole class, and three-quarters (75%) said that they were aware of noticeable benefits to the whole-school environment.

Simon Marsh, former Head of Ropery Walk Primary School in County Durham, where The Place2Be is an integral part of the school, sums it up: “Schools are places where you learn and if by that we mean you learn how to deal with your emotions, you learn how to tell people how you’re feeling, you learn how to ask for help and you learn how to support each other, well, that’s the best school I can think of because if you can do that, the lessons come naturally and learning in an academic sense naturally follows. It is that simple to me. Unless you can establish the right environment for learning, learning is never going to really be effective.”

10% of five to 16 year olds have a diagnosable mental health disorder

For more information on The Place2Be contact: