Representation Matters in Promoting Positive Mental Health
There is increasing awareness amongst education staff in all types of settings of the importance of representation in helping children and young people to feel a sense of belonging.
What do we mean by representation?
By representation we mean that education settings reflect the children and young people who attend them within the teaching environment (physical and emotional), the staff, and curriculum.
In this article we will focus on the importance of education settings representing the ethnic make-up of the communities they serve.
The non-statutory framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage articulates the importance of the environment very clearly:
Sometimes the environment, both physical and emotional, speaks more loudly than the policies, so it is important to consider how the environment in the setting enables the children and their families to view diversity positively. Children need to see representation of someone who “looks like me”, or “has a family structure like mine”, or “lives somewhere like where I live”, etc. Children absorb and develop ideas of what is possible for themselves from the images and materials around them.
We know that staffing is not diverse in terms of ethnicity with 85.6% of teachers having a white background and 92.7% of headteachers and this lack of ethnic diversity is more pronounced in some areas than others.
A more diverse staff team may enable pupils to feel they can relate to staff better, that staff understand them as individuals (Representation Matters PDF - video below), they may have improved self-esteem and feel included and valued.
A more diverse setting leadership can also lead to a more cohesive community of staff, children/young people, parents, and families.
Troy Denney, Birmingham City footballer, made an impassioned plea in an open letter to Nadhim Zahawri about the need for children in Britain to be taught a more diverse curriculum:
“I have seen more and more how important it is for my children to be able to see themselves represented in what they are being taught and learn about the contribution and background of people who look like them.The importance of education at an early age to inform identity and combat racist beliefs and stereotypes cannot be understated.”
His views are echoed by many people, including educators, children, and young people and reflect the frustration with the lack of diversity within the National Curriculum.
A nationwide study commissioned by the Runnymead Trust with Penguin Books showed that fewer than 1% of GCSE English literature students study a book by a writer of colour even though 34% school-age children in England identify as Black, Asian or minority ethnic.
How does a lack of representation affect children and young people?
Research undertaken with children and young people clearly indicates a negative impact on wellbeing:
In an YMCA study with Black young people, a lack of curriculum diversity, together with a lack of role models were cited as two of the biggest barriers to young Black people achieving in schools (43% and 44% respectively). The biggest barriers were teacher perception and racism in schools.
A lack of representation in the curriculum, environment, and staff (including leadership) can link to how inclusive a setting feels to its pupils, whether it motivates and fosters a sense of belonging, which we know is so important for all children and especially young people.
In a podcast on Representation from the Anna Freud Centre, Eve Doran, a researcher with BLAM UK, Black Learning Achievement and Mental Health, describes it as ‘draining’ to be taught a curriculum where you don’t see people who look like you, represented as writers/ thinkers/scientists and where there may be a limited focus on black history, such as the Slave trade or Black History Month. Such limitations can lead to stereotypes and negative images. It can have a serious impact on the mental health of Black and minoritized pupils leading to anxiety and depression.
Without being able to voice how they feel, as Eve Doran says:
It turns into the truth that you hear rather than a doubt…
If young people do not feel they belong to, and can see themselves as part of, the school community, it can affect how they see themselves and they may start to internalise and wonder what is wrong with them.
Representation really does matter.
Anna Freud (2022) - Talking racism and mental health in schools: https://www.annafreud.org/schools-and-colleges/anti-racism-and-mental-health-in-schools/talking-racism-and-mental-health-in-schools-podcast-series/?utm_medium=email&utm_source=govdelivery
Department for Education (2021) School Teacher Workforce: https://www.ethnicity-facts-figures.service.gov.uk/workforce-and-business/workforce-diversity/school-teacher-workforce/latest
Early Education (2021), Birth to Five Matters: Non-statutory guidance for the Early Years Foundation Stage: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1007446/6.7534_DfE_Development_Matters_Report_and_illustrations_web__2_.pdf
Elliott, V., Nelson-Addy L., Chantiluke R., and Courtney M. (2021) Lit in Colour: Diversity in Literature in English Schools. Runnymeade Trust and Penguin Books: https://assets.website-files.com/61488f992b58e687f1108c7c/61d6fc0b4a6b8786bd88d10b_Lit-in-Colour-research-report-min.pdf
The Guardian (2022) Diversity in the curriculum will foster a sense of belonging: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2022/may/25/diversity-in-the-curriculum-will-foster-a-sense-of-belonging
The Guardian (2022) Troy Deeney calls for more diversity in English schools’ curriculum: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2022/feb/22/troy-deeney-calls-for-more-diversity-in-english-schools-curriculum
Mind (2021) Not Making the Grade: why our approach to mental health at secondary school is failing young people: https://www.mind.org.uk/media/8852/not-making-the-grade.pdf
YMCA (2020) Young and Black: the young black experience of institutional racism in the UK: https://www.ymca.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/ymca-young-and-black.pdf