This podcast, with Dr. Alice Jones Bartoli, focuses on school behaviour difficulties, school based interventions and inclusive education. Alice is a Reader in Psychology and Director of the Unit of School and Family Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London, and Editor in Chief of the British Journal of Educational Psychology. Alice’s work uses interdisciplinary methods to focus largely on school behaviour and mental health across a child’s school life.
Alice’s look at how well equipped schools and teachers are when it comes to dealing with child and adolescent mental health issues, and what more can be done to support teachers and leaders in creating mentally healthy schools, and in supporting the staff themselves.
She discusses her portfolio of translational research working with schools to develop intervention strategies that work for students with complex and chronic difficulties. Much of this work brings together education practitioners and associated third sector organisations with psychology and neuroscience researchers. Alice explains why this multidisciplinary approach so important in translating research into practice to help embed good mental health across school communities.
Alice has directed the Unit for School and Family Studies at Goldsmiths since 2011. Her work uses inter-disciplinary methods to focus largely on school behaviour and mental health; understanding the influences on socio-emotional development and functioning across a child’s school life. Alice has also built a portfolio of translational research, working with schools and third sector organisations to develop intervention strategies that work for students with complex and chronic difficulties. Alice is also the Editor in Chief of the British Journal of Educational Psychology. Alice’s work has been supported by external grant funding, including: ESRC, Nuffield Foundation, National Autistic Society and Mind. Much of Alice’s work is concerned with bringing together education practitioners and associated third sector organisations with psychology and neuroscience researchers. Bio and image via Goldsmiths University
Interviewer – Hello and welcome to the In-Conversation podcast series for the Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health or ACAMH for short. I’m Jo Carlowe, a freelance journalist with a specialism in psychology. Today I’m interviewing Dr. Alice Jones Bartoli, Reader in psychology and Director of the Unit of School and Family Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London. Alice is also the Editor in Chief of the British Journal of Educational Psychology. The focus of today’s podcast will be on school behaviour difficulties, school based interventions and inclusive education.
If you’re a fan of our In-Conversation series, please subscribe on iTunes or your preferred streaming platform. Let us know how we did with a rating or review and do share with friends and colleagues. Hi Alice, thanks for joining me. Can you start by introducing yourself?
Dr. Alice Jones Bartoli – Of course. Thank you so much for having me. I’m really excited. My name is Alice Jones Bartoli. I lead the Unit for School and Family Studies at Goldsmiths, which I’ve done since about 2012, and I’m the editor in chief of the British Journal of Educational Psychology. I work mainly to understand and intervene in child and adolescent risk factors for social and academic exclusion.
Interviewer – How did you come to be interested in child and adolescent mental health?
Dr. Alice Jones Bartoli – When I was at Sixth Form College, so a long time ago, I started working in specialist units for children with special educational needs and disabilities and also what used to be called EBD schools. So schools for children with what used to be called emotional and behavioural difficulties. I stayed working in those schools while I was at university and you know what it was in those settings that really felt like home to me. I really enjoyed working with children who were very sharp and very interesting and presented us as adults with some challenges, and the teachers I worked with they were frankly inspirational, but also very generous, I think with their time and their capacity to teach me a lot about what was going on.
In those classrooms I learnt very early on that you can see very clearly that learning can’t even start to happen unless children’s psychological needs are being put first. So for me, this kind of set up a career in wanting to better support children who were at risk of being excluded from school or being excluded socially across settings, not just those who were already outside of mainstream.
Interviewer – Alice, your work uses interdisciplinary methods to focus largely on school behaviour and mental health across a child’s school life. Why are schools such an important setting to consider in this regard?
Dr. Alice Jones Bartoli – I think schools are the ideal setting for us to think about, if we don’t even include early years and higher education, children spend upwards of 16,000 hours at school. They’re in school for five days a week, for 39 weeks of the year, and it provides us with all kinds of opportunities, both positive and negative, to have an impact on child development.
I’m really interested, I think, in the opportunity to build relationships with staff across that year and in subsequent years and also with other children.
Interviewer – How well equipped are schools and teachers when it comes to dealing with child and adolescent mental health issues.
Dr. Alice Jones Bartoli – I think that schools and teachers are increasingly well equipped to address child and adolescent mental health issues. You know, there’s been such a big surge in interest in preventative and awareness training. Several years ago, I was lucky to work with Lewisham and Bromley Mind, who led a bunch of local mind groups on a project called Mind Kid, a very good school based awareness training which was co-produced and led by young people who have their own lived experience of mental health difficulties.
The young people told us that they found the sessions really useful and really interesting and really inspiring, and really the main thing that came out of the evaluation from the perspective of both the young people and the teachers was that they wanted more of it. I think schools have been increasingly offering in-house mental health support for quite a long time and I think also Pastoral Leads in particular, are now much more likely to receive training in mental health areas where perhaps they didn’t previously.
We know that there’s been a real surge in interest in trauma based training. I think that extends to training now in self-harm, suicide ideation, in eating disorders and in kind of mental health crisis, as well as that preventative and more universal training, but I know that teachers often feel like the responsibility for the mental health of their students. They feel it very strongly, and I think especially recently, you know, in the past year, 18 months teachers have also been holding a lot of stress and a lot of extra work in their own lives.
I think that provides us with a real conflict in the real areas that it’s very important to address. I think schools certainly have the potential to support and provide a positive ethos for thinking about student mental health development, but that can’t happen, I think, unless they’re adequately supported.
Interviewer – And are they adequately supported?
Dr. Alice Jones Bartoli – At the minute no. I think most schools will tell you that they’re not.
Interviewer – What more can be done to support teachers then and school leaders in creating mentally healthy schools and in supporting the staff themselves?
Dr. Alice Jones Bartoli – And I think that’s one of the really important things, is about supporting the staff themselves. I think what schools want is more focussed support and within that more access to specialist services. Shorter waiting lists, for example. I mean, everybody listening to this podcast will be in agreement, I think, about shorter waiting lists or greater accessibility to child and adolescent mental health services, which will involve more funding in those areas, but also within schools.
That’s outside of schools. Within schools I think if we’re thinking about policy and sort of hopes for the future, something which addresses workload and culture. So we did a piece of work a few years ago that was looking at the importance of student teacher relationship. We’re looking at antecedents and consequences, and one of the things that we found was that very-stressed teachers find it more tricky to build good student teacher relationships. Now that not new news.
Right. That’s something and very common sense, but the upshot of that is that if you can’t build a good student teacher relationships then you also see difficulties in student mental health, sense of student belonging, all those things that we know are really important and that we’d want to prioritise in schools. So it seems to me that if we start with making sure that our teachers are mentally, emotionally, psychologically available, then we’ve got space to really think about the children and adolescents.
Interviewer – I’m going to return to your research. You’ve built a portfolio of translational research working with schools to develop intervention strategies that work for students with complex and chronic difficulties. Can you highlight some of the ones that feel most important?
Dr. Alice Jones Bartoli – There are two I think that it’s worth talking about. They’ve both been absolutely vitally important for me in terms of my learning, but I also hope for the schools, the teachers, the senior leadership team and for the children. So the first, this was the first piece of proper co-produced work that I did was a primary CMH school. So school for children with social, emotional, mental health difficulties who I worked with alongside a fantastic team of educational psychologists, Dr Laura Warren and Professor Nora Frederiksen, from whom I learned a complete ton about the practicalities of working with schools.
The school had a very experienced, a very dedicated senior leadership team but what they had noticed and what they brought to our attention was a real shift in their student profiles, and this is something which is still happening and which schools are still sort of reporting in terms of what needs looks like. As I told you at the start of this, when I started working in what were EBD schools, gosh, how long ago? 20 years ago, the profiles of students attending those schools are not the same as the students now attending what are the sort of developed version of those, the CMH settings?
So what we did first of all was to have a look at who those students were, to do some profiling. So we did some neuro-psyche testing with all of the children in the school and what we really wanted to do was understand the profiles of the children so that we could try and make sure that the school was going to meet their needs. Once we really thought about what those areas of need were and there were things like emotion recognition, regulation. There were thinks like working memory and inhibition.
So in this primary school, for example, 80% of the children had a working memory capacity below one standard deviation below the mean, which is something you really need to know about if you’re a teacher. We also discovered quite quickly, for example, that although really good work was going into things like the development of empathy and understanding of the people’s point of view, a lot of the children really didn’t have a clue about their own emotions, so they couldn’t label or discuss how they were feeling.
And I think until you can do that, being able to understand somebody else’s emotions feels like one heck of a jump, right?
Interviewer – Absolutely.
Dr. Alice Jones Bartoli – So we did a lot of work and the teachers did a lot of work. I cannot stress enough how creative and how really dedicated the teachers were in embedding these kinds of skills into curriculum in all kinds of wonderful and, sort of, really interesting ways. So taking national curriculum, making sure that these skills were absolutely embedded in the content that they were giving.
It was also possible and importantly to be able to talk to parents about the way that these skills were being embedded into the school, but also in kind of small and consistent ways that they could do this at home as well. We have, I think, really good buy-in from a lot of parents who were, you know, really interested in ways that they might be able to support their children and really happy to be able to see changes occur.
The change in that school quite quickly was just awe inspiring. We saw reductions in, for example, the amount of time children were out of class. A huge reduction in the amount of money spent on things like repairs. A greater number of students who were managing mainstream integration than had been in previous years and the school continues to absolutely thrive. It’s a work of real brilliance.
Interviewer – The reduction in repairs was that to do with behavioural issues in the children, in the pupils?
Dr. Alice Jones Bartoli – Yeah, yeah. The year before we started working with that school, I think they had a bill of something like several tens of thousands. You know, sort of repairs to teacher’ cars, windows, school property from children who would storm out a class become, you know, kind of quite upset. These sorts of incidents aren’t wildly unusual in these settings, but the school recognised that it really didn’t need to be like this and do something extremely positive about it. The year after we started working with them, by the way, that repair bill was zero, which always looks good to a local authority.
But is a real indicator, I think, of the amount of change in the school. The school had a system of corridor lockdown so that no child could really get out of school and kind of pose a danger to themselves. Those things really just stopped happening, which is really, really nice to be able to work in a school where the atmosphere feels a lot more relaxed than it did.
This was with the sort of whole family approach as well, where the parents were brought on board as well.
Yeah, as far as possible. Absolutely. Yes. One of the great things about working in sort of special schools in this way is that the number of children in the school is fairly small. So it’s more straightforward, I think, to try and really build relationships with parents and I think it’s completely necessary because what we know about a lot of these parents is that if your child has been excluded from mainstream school, your relationship with schools might be a little bit tricky and your own relationship with the school is based on your own educational history, may already feel quite anxiety provoking.
So being able to kind of meet the parents halfway and really push the idea of teamwork is really great. After we did this piece of work we moved into secondary. This is a school we started working, first of all, in a secondary SAMH school in Birkenhead. We took a very similar approach. So Kilgarth is very similar in the sort of presenting issues. Senior leadership team who were really interested in and taking an approach which is less function focussed, more kind of skills building relationship, building focus.
And again, we were profiling students, and we thought really hard with the whole teaching team about what a school that worked without sanctions might look like, and sensibly there’s a lot of anxiety about this because there should be if you’re going to do it properly, but working without sanctions never means that there aren’t boundaries. It never means there aren’t consequences of actions. All of those things always exist and should exist. So what we did over a period of time was look at what the evidence base says about supporting students with social and mental health difficulties, thinking about how we embed those opportunities into a secondary setting and then working on what we do instead of sanctions.
What does that school day look like if there isn’t an end of day detention “to look forward to”? We, alongside the school, thought about what their system would look like and really it thrived pretty quickly and within a fairly short amount of time that senior leadership team became responsible for two other specialist settings as well. Now, we also did a piece of work with that school looking at what the outcomes were for teachers, because it’s a big sort of ethos change, like this is quite a lot to go through.
And teachers sort of talk to us about initially feeling quite hesitant, feeling a little bit de-skilled, but also quickly seeing that they were able to re-skill and seeing the sort of consequences of working with students in a different way.
Interviewer – Can I ask what it did look like without sanctions, because you’ve emphasised that there were still boundaries?
Dr. Alice Jones Bartoli – Yes. So all the expectations of the school still exist, the expectations around kind of respect, around, you know, sort of doing the academic work that’s being set for you. It’s not a free for all. It’s not you know, sort of walking out of class whenever you feel like it knowing that there’s no consequence. All of those expectations always exist. What happens instead is the students, in this case the school decided to move towards a house point system and, you know, none of this is new, right?
Token, economy house points. It’s all basic stuff to move towards a house point system, but I think what was really important was making sure that any rewards that are given were given extremely clearly. So a child might have particular set of targets they’re working towards. Their own set of expectations about what was needed for them to be developing in the school, and if they met those then they’re rewarded, but in every case, and I think this is really important, the teachers puts themselves in the middle of the action and the reward.
So these kids aren’t pigeoned in a skinner box. In every case it’s sort of triangulated. So I’m the teacher in charge of your classroom. I see that you’ve done something awesome today. You know, you’ve really sort of tried to meet the expectations of targets that have been set for you, because you’ve done this kids you’ve made me really happy with you, because I’m really proud of you. I’m giving you the house point, the reward, whatever it is.
And I think it’s that triangulation where you start to see students then look up at their teachers in anticipation of, you know, have I done something good here? Am I impressing, rather than just well I did the thing now you must give me.
Interviewer – Some sort of responsibility, but with validation, really?
Dr. Alice Jones Bartoli – Yes, and that’s exactly what teachers talked about, students having their own responsibility, which is something that punishment sort of tends to remove. If you’re in detention well there’s not much… You don’t have much responsibility. You’ve just got to sit there and do it and feel aggrieved at the fact that you’re doing it and feel that, you know, you were right all along. Adults are the enemy and then just go on your way. No one has really learnt anything. We’ve all just wasted a time a little bit.
Interviewer – What was the impact?
Dr. Alice Jones Bartoli – The impact has been really positive. So we did a piece of qualitative work talking with students and with teachers. The students told us that they could see each other looking out for each other, trying to win points for their team. So there was sort of building of a sense of, you know, camaraderie and friendships are often quite tricky in these kinds of specialist settings for obvious reasons and for, you know, sort of more complex reasons as well. So starting to kind of see children working together is, I think, a real benefit of using that sort of team system.
It may not work so well in a primary setting, but in a secondary setting I think it was a really good decision.
Interviewer – Alice, I’m wondering about whether any of these schemes have been rolled out elsewhere, and really how do you go about translating your research into practice to help embed good mental health across school communities?
Dr. Alice Jones Bartoli – So I think when we are trying to roll out work, which looks in terms of the research evidence, like it’s kind of gold standard, some of the obstacles that we can come up against is that very research informed interventions are often quite costly or quite time burdensome. We don’t quite fit with what schools are able to provide in terms of resources available. School based interventions work best when there’s buy-In from the senior leadership team especially, but also when there’s support available for all staff.
So when interventions are happening, if there are questions, if there are feelings of doubt, that all members of staff feel like there’s somebody that they can ask and that’s probably somebody within the school who then might be able to feedback to a research team, but I think it’s really important to be able to voice those concerns or questions when there are some.
Interviewer – Alice, much of your work brings together education practitioners and associated third sector organisations with psychology and neuroscience researchers. Why is this multidisciplinary approach so important?
Dr. Alice Jones Bartoli – I think it’s important for precisely the reasons that I just started to think about. That translational research is not research is telling teachers or clinicians or anybody else about their findings. That’s very one way street, but what it really is, if you do it properly, is opening a space for communication and for co-production of future work, and it should happen between all parties. You know, we should think about priorities. We should think about obstacles and we should think about what aspirations are in the future.
I think most of my most important learning has come from teachers. I’m not a classroom teacher and I should never pretend to be one or pretend that I know any more than they do about their jobs, because I don’t, but what I do know is something different, and what I do know are things that really might help develop their practice but I can only communicate that effectively or pitch it right if I do it in kind of proper conversation.
Interviewer – Let’s look at effective communication then because you’ve been trained in science communication. So how do you disseminate your findings to have the greatest impact?
Dr. Alice Jones Bartoli – I’ve been really lucky. I love science. I think science communication is absolutely fundamental and I’ve been really lucky. I trained first of all at the National Science Learning Centre in York with Jeremy Airey who’s in the education school there now, and more latterly with my personal hero of science communication Vya Collins, who I have worked with in several projects. So starting with the, I’m a scientist. Get me out of here. That ran for quite a long time, which helped bring scientists to schools directly in all kinds of different ways.
So for children to be able to ask questions of scientists, but also there was a sort of special section which I really enjoyed, which was space for teachers to ask questions which were focussed around education, neuroscience, and that I think was really great because there was so much insight in one single week into what teachers questions are. They could ask anything they wanted. It was relatively anonymous. You can be starting at starts to you know, what about this kind of quite grand idea and everything in between.
And knowing where teachers’ minds are, I think really allows you then to pitch better when you want to start a discussion or think about how you want to start a discussion and, kind of, in what sort of way. The most important thing for me is about listening in the first instance and then being able to show where research has natural overlap with what might be happening in the classroom and where we both might be able to extend our practice. So both in the classroom, but also in terms of research. The things that I think have worked really well are co-productive conferences, for example, where researchers and teachers are put together around the same table in their space to workshop.
And all of this is about networking, and I think this is something that I really heartily recommend. It’s about kind of looking for people who might be able to help broker those conversations or think about how best to disseminate a message to professional bodies and not just your own. So I work with the British Psychological Society, but also I’ve worked with the Chartered College for Teachers, for example, and I’ve written for their professional journal, but also, you know, think about disseminating to decision makers, policymakers, sort of looking for calls for evidence for all party parliamentary groups or select committees.
There are opportunities frequently to sort of work with, Think Tanks or third sector organisations that are also interested in sort of brokering these kinds of connections, and I think they’re really useful ways of contributing to a conversation which should be ongoing.
Interviewer – So do researchers have to be proactive about those things?
Dr. Alice Jones Bartoli – Yes, I think so. I think there’s very little point to us working in very siloed ways. There’s quite a lot of pressure in research to go after increasingly small amounts of pots of money, and that’s a fact of the way that we work. However, I think we need to make the best of the networks that are available to us and that’s going to involve cross research group collaboration, but also really thinking about how we better collaborate with practitioners.
So absolutely, I think researchers probably need to do a slightly better job of making new friends outside.
Interviewer – Okay, we talked earlier about the need for better support for teachers and school leaders. I don’t know if you want to say anymore.
Dr. Alice Jones Bartoli – I think mental health schools or schools that are able to really think about mental health in a positive way of those who can take into account the needs of their students and cater for them in a confident way, in a constructive way. As we talked about before, I really believe that teachers can only do this optimally if they’re not overworked and overstressed and that they can feel confident in their skill set. So I think policy really needs to include staff in any discussion about school mental health.
Think about what the end results are, very high stakes environments and how they might be mitigated, and none of this is about, sort of, reduction in expectation, but rather what the culture looks like and what the ethos looks like around it.
Interviewer – Any specific changes that you would like to see in terms of policy decisions, resources and training?
Dr. Alice Jones Bartoli – In terms of resources I think it’s vital that child mental health services and associated services are well resourced, and by associated services I mean speech and language services, use of social services, so that children have good and timely access to the services that they need. One of the problems when access to services isn’t timely is that obviously those difficulties can snowball where they become far out of what schools may have been able to deal with, with good support in the first instance.
Interviewer – Alice, what else is in the pipeline that you’d like to mention?
Dr. Alice Jones Bartoli – Just recently I’m really happy to be working with mainstream secondary schools, which is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. So taking the work that we’ve done in specialist school settings and translating some of those findings. Some of those methods which we found worked well into a mainstream setting, so that’s work that’s ongoing. We’re also doing some really nice work in early year settings. I’m working with a lovely group called Tails Tool Kit, who have designed ways of developing early social emotional language, communication skills, and I think there’s plenty of scope for taking some of those ideas slightly into key stage one and possibly also into more specialist settings to good outcome.
Interviewer – And finally, what is your takeaway message for those listening to our conversation today?
Dr. Alice Jones Bartoli – I think if there’s one thing to take away, it’s that the key when we’re thinking about developing mental health in schools is that we need to focus on relationship building in schools. That’s about building relationships between staff and students, students and students, staff and senior leaders, between parents and schools and for our profession more broadly and to move our field forward it’s about building relationships between different disciplines.
Interviewer – Brilliant. Alice, thank you ever so much. For more details on Dr Alice Jones Bartoli, please visit the ACAMH website, www.acamh.org and Twitter at ACAMH. ACAMH is spelled ACAMH and don’t forget to follow us on iTunes or your preferred streaming platform. Let us know if you enjoyed the podcast with a rating or review and do you share with friends and colleagues.
agree relationship building is key, we are trying some innovative, technology assisted ways for doing that with early learners with special needs