Creating a positive culture of wellbeing in a school is no easy feat. Supportive and respectful relationships should form the basis of this culture – for students and staff alike.
Hannah Fowler talks to local schools to find out how they are placing wellbeing, mental health and resilience at the heart of children’s learning.
With one in six children aged five to 16 identified as having a probable mental health problem (Young Minds), it’s no surprise leaders are looking at ways to make their schools a safe, welcoming environment.
St Bede’s Catholic High School in Ormskirk was recently named Mental Health & Wellbeing Award winners at the Educate Awards 2021, in recognition of its wraparound mental health programme for students.
“It felt very special to win this award in particular,” says headteacher Phil Denton. “There is nothing more important in schools than safeguarding the physical and emotional wellbeing of our students.”
The school has implemented a number of initiatives which echo the school’s values of love, faith and hope. This includes percussion therapy for students who are dealing with past trauma or anxiety and art therapy which aims to open up students’ emotions through creativity. One standout project is ‘Make Talk Your Goal’ which is aimed specifically at boys and their mental health.
In England, around one in eight men have a common mental health problem such as depression, anxiety, panic disorder or obsessive compulsive disorder (Mental Health Foundation). But as with any mental health statistic, it can only tell us about the problems being reported, with many cases go undiagnosed.
This is particularly true when it comes to men’s mental health.
“Make Talk Your Goal’ brings together leading speakers and educators for one purpose, to encourage young people to talk more about their mental health and wellbeing,” explains Phil.
“The programme is unique in that it uses activities such as walking, sport, arts and group talk to facilitate conversations that help our young people self-regulate their wellbeing and become emotionally literate.”
Headed up by ex-Liverpool and England goalkeeper Chris Kirkland, who has been open about his own mental health struggles, the bespoke programme has been such a success, it is now being shared with schools nationwide.
“Our results are incredible, with the young people involved reporting lasting changes to their perceptions of themselves and others, who face challenges such as depression or anxiety,” says Phil.
“We tailor programmes to individual schools, colleges and other educational settings in terms of time, group type and cost. Our goal is simply to challenge the growing mental health issues amongst young people.”
With statistics indicating that mental health problems can emerge at a very young age, developing an awareness of mental health in early childhood is important. Whitefield Primary School uses an early intervention approach to improve children’s social and emotional skills.
“Research shows that teaching children to identify their emotions and develop tools to manage the highs and lows they bring is a big factor in developing positive mental health,” says deputy headteacher, Marie Beale.
“Our Growth Curriculum focuses on building children’s emotional vocabulary, supporting them to express their emotions and understand positive strategies to calm and soothe themselves. It also teaches children how to support each other and is built on attachment and trauma sensitive principles. We finish every day with “three good things” to reflect on what has gone well and focus on the positives of the school day.”
The school has been recognized for its whole school approach to mental health by achieving the Carnegie Schools Mental Health Award and Attachment and Trauma Sensitive Schools Award, both at gold level.
Marie tells me it’s this mentality, that “children’s wellbeing is a foundation to learning” that sets a positive culture for everyone. The school even got rid of a single teacher’s responsibility for ‘playground duty’, instead introducing play time with all class-based staff involved.
“As we returned from lockdown we decided to implement openended, loose parts play in our whole school break for half an hour each day and over lunchtimes,” explains Marie.
“We focused on training staff, making sure we could resource the play and teaching the children how to be together. All class-based staff join in the extended morning play time – this is no longer ‘playground duty’. Our challenge is to facilitate the children to have a rich, imaginative experience and this has supported their relationships and wellbeing.”
It would be impossible to explore the topic of wellbeing without stressing the important role staff play in fostering a positive school culture. This starts by providing staff with the right training to identify and deal with any issues as they occur.
“I decided a number of years ago to make Rainford High a great school to attend and work at and this means working in a way that considers individuals mental health and wellbeing – both staff and students,” explains Principal Ian Young. “To achieve this, it became clear that the school ethos of Everyone Matters, Everyone Helps and Everyone Succeeds needed to have meaning for staff, students and our whole community.
The secondary school employs a mental health and wellbeing lead and 26 members of staff have received mental health training. This training and development plays an important role in motivating staff to embrace a new culture and gives them the confidence to intervene when needed. Thanks to this approach, Rainford High runs a wide range of mental health initiatives, including therapy dogs, Lego therapy and an annual wellbeing week which provides taster sessions to all students.
Rainford High recognises that the mental health and wellbeing of staff themselves should also be a focus.
Against the backdrop of the ongoing pandemic, the issues of mental health, workplace stress and ‘burnout’ are more pertinent than ever.
“For all staff, Rainford High has mental health ambassadors who raise and support issues that come about and the school operates a supportive flexible approach to leave in order to support staff wellbeing and ensure a work/ life balance for all,” says Ian.
“This includes supporting staff to undertake personal challenges, be involved in family life and engage with other life opportunities other than work. Staff have access to the same support systems as the children including councilors and a flexible approach to their employment model when possible.”
There are life-long advantages of wellbeing that transfer way beyond the classroom. Research shows that happy people live longer, produce more creative ideas, work harder and help others more. But a culture of wellbeing does not grow spontaneously, it needs to be nurtured. “It is no coincidence that since we have driven mental health and wellbeing as a school priority we have seen improvements in relationships across school, attendance, behavior and attitudes,” says Phil.
“Due to the ongoing pandemic, I think it is hard to quantify the real impact of running a culture of positive wellbeing,” adds Ian. “But from what we know about business and life, it would seem to make common sense that happier staff and students will all perform better.”
By encouraging conversation, breaking down stereotypes and celebrating healthy and happy relationships, our region’s schools are showing that together, students and staff can drive positive change.
7 WAYS TO SUPPORT A CULTURE OF WELLBEING IN YOUR SCHOOL
Create a strong vision
Having a strong vision encourages people to collaborate and work together. So be clear on your vision and keep sharing it, so everyone in your school knows what values they should be working to. Remember to discuss these values with your team and make them meaningful through clear actions.
Listen to student and staff voice
Give students and staff the opportunity to share their ideas, opinions and feedback on current wellbeing initiatives, as well as input into future programmes. For students, this gives them an opportunity to be heard and will foster a collaborative approach.
Identify your wellbeing champions
All members of the school community, including governors and senior leadership, should champion your whole school approach to wellbeing. But having specific members of staff and even students, who are passionate about wellbeing will help raise awareness and embed a positive culture.
Make wellbeing visible
This could mean different things for different schools. Some ideas include a wellbeing notice board, whole school assemblies, embedding wellbeing into lessons and having mental health ambassadors who can engage with students and staff.
Offer CPD, training and resources
Giving staff the right skills to intervene and feel confident when dealing with wellbeing issues is half the battle. Opportunities for CPD and training will ensure wellbeing is supported in the long-term and provide your school with experts who can pass on best practice and knowledge to staff and students alike.
Link up with specialist services
While it’s important to train internal staff to embed a positive culture of wellbeing, don’t forget there are many charities and organisations who can support your school on its wellbeing journey. “We are fortunate to have therapeutic and specialist SEN staff from external agencies such as the ADHD Foundation, Autism Initiatives, YPAS and the Mental Health Support Team,” explains Marie from Whitefield Primary School. “They work across school with groups and individuals to support them.”
Measure your success
Regular surveys, key outcomes and feedback should be used to measure the efficacy of your approach. At Rainford High, student and parental questionnaires form a key part of their strategy. “After the last round of questionnaires, we identified 163 students who received direct support,” explains Ian.