Review: Mental Health and Wellbeing of Children and Young People with Learning Difficulties. A Guide for Educators (Giveaway)

This post is in paid partnership with Jessica Kingsley Publications.

As an educator myself, Dr Kirstie Rees’ book, Mental Health and Wellbeing of Children and Young People with Learning Difficulties. A Guide for Educators was an easy one to review. I wish I’d had this when I was a new SENCo; an educational psychologist on the bookshelf is needed now more than ever. While books can’t replace diagnostic assessment or bespoke, personalised approaches, this one gives a strong starting point for supporting mental health for children with learning difficulties. Great for the less experienced teacher, and a brilliant aide-memoire with new learning peppered throughout, if you’re decades in post.

Whatever your role, when was the last time you really explored your beliefs around inclusion, mental health, the social model, medical model, or the biopsychosocial model of disability? (Ahem, LA councillors). Carving out much-needed reflection time is well-framed within the book. This matters, because subconsciously held attitudes drive decision-making and day-to-day interactions that impact children and young people’s (CYPs) mental health and wellbeing. The clear definitions of terms used and explorations of models of disability, give your brain a useful reflective nudge, getting you up to speed with more recent developments and terminology. Our own beliefs about disability are frequently the greatest barriers our children face, drilling down into your thinking is worth it.

Getting the best out of the book

The layout works. It’s accessible, clear, and packed with useful resources with thought-provoking questionnaires. Part one deals with beliefs, attitudes and understanding around mental health. Part two deals with practical strategies and preventative approaches, while part three takes a closer look at more targeted work for specific areas of need.

You can follow the signposting of where and how to ‘dip in and out’ as you need, or read cover to cover, exploring theories of child development and disability along the way. Chapters end with a useful summary of key learning, helpful for busy educators without protected non-contact time purely for reading, reflecting and research. Dr Rees supports education's ‘keeping up to date’ challenge.

Prevention is better than cure.

I love the ‘Toolkit of Support’ with its clear explanations of intensive interaction, visuals, social stories, and relaxation techniques. The toolkit presents a way forward for parents and teachers to work together effectively, likely the only way out of our current crisis, with no end in sight to cuts, service waiting lists and capacity issues. We don’t have time to waste where mental health is concerned and need interventions we can weave into everyday parenting and teaching. The toolkit chapter offers tools to work in partnership on, hopefully without blame and shame.

Don’t skip Part 1!

It’s tempting to dive into practical work, but exploring our values and attitudes, of what is understood about models of disability, inclusion, of cultural influence, and the terms we use is sorely needed right now. Part one offers a great starting point to guide informed debate, and perhaps align very divided and differing perspectives. It brings much-needed challenges to outdated thinking and offers a platform from where authentic and considered improvements can flow. We can move beyond sometimes well-meaning, but frequently one-sided echo chambers of social media algorithms. If you are influencing or making decisions about children, as a parent, educator, LA SEN officer, advocate, or local councillor, explore part one and take the time to lift the bonnet on your own thoughts and understanding.

Changing the Conversation.

As Dr Rees writes, “…our values are set against a political backdrop of capitalism and competition”. Enter ableism! Part one helpfully challenges the ‘this didn’t exist in my day’ commentary, often delivered through rose-tinted memories of bygone days, using education without aggression. Understanding changes the conversation, considering the very real impact on mental health, of growing up in today’s environment, this fast-paced, digitally driven world. We can find informed solutions for these modern times, acknowledge the benefits to be gained by promoting the relationship-based approaches and the celebration of difference central to this book.

The book covers recent findings of neuroscience, knowledge that simply didn’t exist in the not-too-distant past. Dr Rees guides us through what has been learned about sensory needs, disrupted attachment, anxiety, trauma, and behaviours of concern, all the while tweaking our language away from pejorative, divisive statements. It addresses competing demands, the complexity facing schools and the interaction of layered and complex factors.

After a good read, perhaps we can begin to recognise not only what a difference individuals can make, but what a significant difference environment makes. How the lack of suitable settings and provision impacts on children with learning difficulties. How important it is to think about the child’s needs in the context of where they are, not where we idealise them to be. Perhaps those with real influence can finally and wholly accept that schools need ‘to be better set up’ (p31) to achieve the avalanche of aims we have set for them in our society. Dr Rees has packed a lot in, and in my view, it’s a must-read for educators. I have no doubt, once read, it will become a well-thumbed copy.

You can buy the book on Amazon here*

Enter the giveaway

* This link earns a small commission for SNJ at no cost to you.

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Susan Lenihan

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