Why we must all support children to believe that their best version of themselves is good enough

Head of Wellbeing at Youth Sport Trust, Chris Wright, discusses the impact of social media on young people as part of Place2Be's Children's Mental Health Week

Children are now more social media savvy than we give them credit for recent research by the University of Birmingham found. But if we look at all the touch points children have access to across social media channels and the mixed messages that are broadcast to them in a typical day, can we really say that social media is teaching children to be themselves? Social media puts a filter on our lives – giving only a fractured view of what lies behind. On Children’s Mental Health Week we should all be shining a light on how physical activity can play a key part in nurturing happy, healthy children of the future.

The theme of Children's Mental Health Week this year is #BeingOurselves. Teaching children to 'bounce forward' from life's challenges and learn the ‘joy of missing out’ is key. The week aims to show that while we cannot always change children's circumstances, we can teach them the skills to cope with the difficulties life throws at them.

 I wish there was an easier way to get across to young people that they don’t need to be pressured into thinking that what you see on social media is the norm.

Throughout my work at the Youth Sport Trust, I often hear from teachers that the emotional and physical health of young people is declining and is a huge issue in schools. We know that stress can often seem inescapable and be hugely detrimental not only to academic attainment but also to all round physical and mental health wellbeing. Yet it is a reality for young people today.

Being resilient and tuned into the reality of social media isn’t necessarily something that young people are not doing already, but it is something that we as adults must all be striving to be better at in supporting children to learn about the joy of missing out. It has featured heavily in recent national headlines with the rise of social media and the impact it is having on young people’s mental health. At the Youth Sport Trust, we believe the role of PE, school sport and physical activity is critical to this. Extensive research both from our own charity and partners has proven beyond all doubt that physical activity can be an important outlet in decreasing stress and anxiety.

Young people have to cope with exam stress and face an enormous amount of peer, parental and school pressure. It is vital they have outlets like physical activity to counter this.

Off the back of the recent Green Paper for Transforming Children and Young Peoples’ Mental Health; we have just released a report on a two-year project in Northamptonshire that has evidenced how schools can create a positive impact on students' mental wellbeing through PE, school sport and physical activity. The PE2020 Active Healthy Minds programme, funded by Northamptonshire County Council, took a targeted approach to reduce the alarming number of adolescents who are being referred to specialist services for mental health illness across the county.

In line with the Green Paper, the project developed the role of Wellbeing Champions who are key members of staff driving the physical and emotional wellbeing of young people across their school and providing the conduit for delivering targeted interventions, whole staff training and community services to impact on the young people that need the most support.

Using physical activity and coping strategies for life to improve wellbeing and exam performance was another key outcome and from that concept our support package Get Exam Fit was born.  The findings from the Get Exam Fit report demonstrated that ‘most young people involved in the pilot (circa 70) reduced their referrals to wellbeing support and either matched or improved on predicted grades at GCSE’.

It is therefore clear that we must use PE, school sport and physical activity not just as an outlet for stress. We must also use it as environment for increasing young people’s capacity and ability to learn and build life skills beyond qualifications that are critical for young people’s future prospects.

From the PE2020 programme 90% of pupils reported that they had seen positive changes to their life skills, 67% of students said that their wellbeing had improved, and 59% said they felt a positive change in feelings towards school life.

We should all be taking every opportunity to encourage young people to be more active. By investing in this, we will develop creative, aspirational, resilient and empathetic citizens who are ready to perform, fit for work and healthy for life.


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