Engaging children with social, emotional and mental health issues

Robin Johnson , 15.06.2015
Kedleston Schools has developed a template for working with museums
The main thing that I have learnt over the past four years working with children with social, emotional and mental health issues is that you need to have patience, flexibility and a sense of humour.

It is an endlessly fascinating and rewarding job especially when we work in partnership with museums, when the children’s learning is so much more inspired and enhanced.
We have a process template that seems to be successful when working with museums:

1. Identify a project to inspire our students (can be initiated by either school or museum).

2. Meet with museum staff to agree project objectives, learning outcomes and responsibilities.

3. Museum staff meet wider school staff onsite at school or museum.

4. Museum staff email photo of themselves to the school to show to children to ease anxieties.

5. School staff introduce the project and museum staff (virtually) to children.

6. Museum staff visit school to meet children and undertake some sort of interactive activity to launch project.

7. Children visit museum for project activity (possibly more than once).

8. Children undertake related work and classroom activities at school.

9. Children (not always, but recommended) display some aspect of the project in museum.

10. An event is held in the museum to celebrate project with a wider audience of stakeholders.

11. Museum staff visit school for post-project evaluation exercises.

12. School staff visit museum for project assessment workshop and review outcomes.

When working with students with social, emotional and mental health issues in museums it is essential that museum staff do not expect them to behave like a mainstream school pupil.

It is not unusual for students to talk over you, not look at you, walk around the room, even sit or lie on the floor and generally seem unengaged in what you are saying or doing.

Do not take this personally. Each child engages in their own way and within the parameters of their particular needs. Initially, this can be very off-putting for museum staff, but this is where the pre-project briefings come into their own, as school staff can prepare museum staff for pretty much every eventuality.

Having said all this, in the vast majority of cases, our student behaviour and engagement in museums has been exemplary simply because both parties are well prepared and briefed and the students utterly inspired.

Another absolutely crucial element to working with children with social, emotional and mental health issues is to keep a museum session or workshop fast-moving (both intellectually and physically), interactive and succinct.

Also, it is important not to undertake the most exciting element of the session (such as trying on costume) at the beginning as the children will find it very difficult to “come down” from this for the remainder of the workshop.  

We have also found that the best projects are ones in which the children feel that they are making a contribution to the actual operating of the museum.

At Nuneaton Museum & Art Gallery our students advised staff on how to improve one of their galleries for teenagers and contributed to an exhibition of Inuit culture, for example. 

At Tate Liverpool our students devised a new evaluation mechanism for visitors.
Working with children with social, emotional and mental health issues is a wonderful opportunity for museum staff, and I would urge museums to contact a local school to start talking about how they can work in partnership.

Robin Johnson is the cultural curator for Kedleston Schools