It’s the little girl who was so anxious about coming to school she refused to let go of her mum or leave the car park.

Now she skips into the building with a beaming smile, full of confidence in her lessons and with her classmates and with her teachers.

It’s the boy whose anger was spilling out into the classroom and causing problems in the playground.

He now knows his triggers, is aware of how to control them and is getting on with his friends and schoolwork better because of that.

These are the real-life examples Ince CoE primary head teacher Jillian Hyde recalls when she reflects on how counselling has helped children at her school.

“We couldn’t manage without it,” she says.

Social and emotional needs

“Children’s social and emotional needs have to be met before they can even start to think about the work they are doing at school.

 “There are barriers to learning that children face; these may be problems at home, domestic violence, anxieties. The counsellors have the skills to be able to raise those barriers.”

And Jillian and her staff can see the difference in the children who are helped by the counsellors.

“We see a child who’s happy; a child who walks through the door and is ready to learn; a child who recognises when they’ve got a problem who can deal with it.

“Through counselling they have the confidence to articulate their emotions,” she adds.

The school’s pastoral manager Marjorie Banks agrees.

“The children are much more confident in school. That’s amazing to see,” she says.

Jillian Hyde and Marjorie Banks
Jillian Hyde and Marjorie Banks

The 450-pupil school has bought-in counselling from BACP-accredited service Wigan Family Welfare for many years.

It’s one of 46 schools in Wigan and Leigh supported by the service.

Two professional counsellors visit the school every week. And there’s always a waiting list.

But the staff are determined that the youngsters who need the service, have access to it.

The school takes its pupil’s mental health and wellbeing extremely seriously.

It has a pastoral service to support children. If any youngsters show the signs that they are struggling or displays a sudden change in behaviour, staff refer them to Marjorie who will decide what happens next.

Online alert system Tootoot

It also has an online alert system called Tootoot where youngsters can log in 24/7 and send a ‘toot’ if they are feeling low or anxious about something.

Senior staff can then respond and ensure the child gets appropriate help or reassurance.

But the staff also recognise that sometimes youngsters need more support than they can offer.

“We’re educators – we know we haven’t got the skills a counsellor has,” says Jillian.

While it’s teaching and support staff who are normally the first to recognise if a child may be struggling, it’s the counsellors who then get to the root of the problem in their sessions.

Some of the reasons for youngsters needing counselling relate to their family situations, domestic violence or because their parents have a substance misuse problem.

“When we looked at why children have counselling, the biggest ones on our criteria was domestic violence and alcohol abuse. Parents splitting up and the impact that had; children thinking it’s their fault,” says Jillian.

Head teacher Jillian Hyde
Head teacher Jillian Hyde

But now there’s a new breed of issues the school and counsellors are having to contend with.

Both Jillian and Marjorie agree that social media and computer games are affecting school pupils’ wellbeing.

Staff are witnessing the impact first hand.

Marjorie says: “It’s an addiction, a self-confidence issue.  They think the more hits they get on social media, the more likes they get, means they’re liked more. But in reality, it’s just a tick box. They don’t understand who their real friends are.

Manifests on their mind

“When children say something unkind on social media, that sentence is there forever. It manifests on their mind.”

Even though the school only takes children aged between four and 11, the staff say some of their pupils are already playing Fortnite, a popular 18-rated game.

They are worried about children becoming addicted to it, being exposed to violence, language and situations they are too young to understand.

And they have seen examples of children who are unable to tell the difference between what happens in a computer game and reality.

“They act out the game in the yard. It’s very addictive. They can’t put it down,” says Marjorie.

Marjorie Banks
Marjorie Banks

“Years ago you would see all this stuff in high school because being a teenager is a risk time. But that is happening earlier now, it’s happening in year 5, year 6. They’re not old enough to understand, they’re not mature enough to realise the dangers.”

Jillian adds: “They can’t focus. We ask ‘did you do your homework last night?’ The answer’s ‘no’. ‘Did you read?’ ‘No’. Parents are finding it hard to parent. Marjorie will have many conversations with parents where they say ‘he’s out of control, I don’t know what to do.’”

Youngsters also often face anxieties about moving up to high school.

It’s one of the main reasons children in year six have counselling at this time of year – to help prepare them for this change.

“They’re safe here, they’re secure here, they know who they can come and talk to.

“But they’re unsure of the unknown at high school,” says Jillian.

Jillian and Marjorie are both very vocal about the benefits of counselling to the children at the school.

But they both know that, with tight budgets in education, that funding is always a concern.

Priority

“We know that next year we’re going to have less money – but this has to be a priority,” says Jillian.

She’s keen that more attention is paid to children’s emotional needs in primary school.

“If we are really going to do something about the emotional well-being of children at school it has to start early. People have to recognise that we are putting a sticking plaster over high school. It’s got to start in primary school.”

She believes the support counsellors give the children now will stick with them through the rest of the lives and that it will also help prepare them for any difficult days or situations they may face when they are older.

That’s not just at high school, but in their work and family life beyond that.

“Our aim is to help children to be high-school ready,” she adds.

“It’s also to give them the emotional tools and skills to prepare them for what they will face in life.”

Read more about our work with children, young people and families.