© 2017, © Emerald Publishing Limited. Purpose: The purpose of this paper is to scrutinise two ostensibly disparate approaches to school-based mental health promotion and offer a conceptual foundation for considering possible synergies between them. Design/methodology/approach: The paper examines current conceptualisations of child and youth mental health and explores how these inform school-based prevention and intervention approaches. The dominance of discrete, “expert-driven” psychosocial programmes as well as the potential of critical pedagogy is explored using frameworks provided by contemporary dynamic systems theories. These theories call for a situated and holistic understanding of children’s development; and they look beyond static characteristics within individuals, to view well-being in relation to the dynamic social and historical contexts in which children develop. Findings: Psychosocial interventions and critical pedagogies have strengths but also a number of limitations. Traditional psychosocial interventions teach important skill sets, but they take little account of children’s dynamic socio-cultural contexts, nor acknowledge the broader inequalities that are frequently a root cause of children’s distress. Critical pedagogies, in turn, are committed to social justice goals, but these goals can be elusive or seem unworkable in practice. By bringing these seemingly disparate approaches into conversation, it may be possible to harness their respective strengths, in ways that are faithful to the complex, emergent nature of children’s development, as well as committed to correcting inequalities. Originality/value: The current paper is unique in bringing together contemporary psychological theory with critical pedagogy perspectives to explore the future of school-based mental health promotion.