It’s Good To Talk

Growth mindset, learnt optimism, mindfulness – these are just some of the current buzzwords around pupil wellbeing, but how are schools tackling our children’s future mental health and what issues are they most concerned about, asks Georgina Blaskey.

For many parents, the thought of their child being unhappy, stressed, anxious or worse is a very real concern. In a competitive school environment, we want our children to benefit from their education, not to be swallowed up by a relentless demand for good exam results and optimum performance. “In a city that is a bubble of King’s College School competitive exams throughout a child’s education (sometimes starting at the age of three), it is difficult to get a grip on reality and what is right and wrong for the wellbeing of your child and their enjoyment of learning,” says Janie Richardson of Yellowbird Education. The pressure to perform well in exams remains a burden for many families to deal with, thanks to an intense, on-going assessment system and the unforgiving battle for school places – a threat to children’s wellbeing. Understanding how to deal with these high-pressure moments is the key. “We reassure pupils that they should aim high and work hard for their grades but that academic success is only one measure of a pupils’ worth and value,” says James Johnson, Deputy Head of Ardingly College.

BUILDING RESILIENCE

Learning to thrive no matter what life throws at you is an essential skill. One element of the Wellbeing Programme at Thames is to encourage pupils to develop resilience when faced with change and difficult circumstances.

Build positive relationships. Staying connected with supportive family and friends is key as it encourages and builds you up.

Be courageous. Don’t listen to your fears as they often turn out to be unfounded. Maintain an optimistic outlook and turn your anxieties into an opportunity to grow.

Value small positive changes. Certain circumstances cannot be changed. Focus instead on changes you can make, however small, which will make a difference over time.

Maintain a long term perspective. Avoid focusing on your problems and talking about them constantly. Try to be more outward looking and keep a broader perspective
Care for yourself. Build activities into your life that you enjoy. Keeping active is beneficial, as is taking time to relax.

Source: Thames Christian School

Working and supporting children through these intense times requires a collaborative approach from both teachers and parents. At The Laurels School, this relationship is key. “We see the parent/teacher relationship as the pillar of the school,” says Head Linda Sanders. “And I interview parents for admissions to make sure we’re on the same page.”

At Alleyn’s, pupils are taught that education is more than where it takes you, it’s what you bring with you. “There should be a sense of progress,” insists Andy Skinnard, Senior Deputy Head. “In real life this means coping with doing some things less well. We recognise what pupils find difficult and adapt time and thinking to meet that.”

At Mayfeld School, learning to fail successfully and build on one’s mistakes are elements of the development of self knowledge. “We help them understand where their strengths are and celebrate
those while also understanding what they’re not good at and giving them the tools to improve,” says Head Antonia Beary.

Parents can help too; by learning to manage their own anxiety, ensuring the role they are playing is of gentle support and encouragement rather than co-pilot. “Pupils will often talk about how ‘stressed out’ their mum or dad is about the maths exam the pupil is sitting!” reports Fionnuala Kennedy, Deputy Head, Pastoral of Wimbledon High School.

Potential wellbeing issues start early in a child’s educational journey, and introducing the concept of mental wellbeing in the formative years is useful so they have the language, confidence and understanding to express their worries and concerns from a young age. A happy child in a happy environment is more likely to learn.

Hilary Wyatt, Headmistress at Eaton Square, Kensington, has been studying the impact of emotional contagion, the phenomena of one person’s emotions and related behaviours directly triggering
the same in others. “Creating a happy environment is key to learning,” she says. “If a teacher is stressed it increases the stress hormone cortisol in children. Equally, a sad or negative child can affect the whole class.” Wyatt works closely with her staff to ensure any personal stress and negativity never enters the classroom. She has also introduced ‘Tea and Toast’. “Every week, the Year 6s come to my study for a cup of tea and toast. The smell of toast has been proven to release positive endorphins and we talk about future  schools, their fears or their worries; the setting gets them talking.”

Future schools; now that’s enough to worry most children, particularly in prep schools, when pupils are sitting pre-tests and Common Entrance. One London head is trying to tackle this particular issue head on. Alison Fleming, Head of Newton Prep, is so concerned about children’s mental health and wellbeing and the idea of pretesting in Year 6 followed by the pressure to do Common Entrance – 13 or 14 exams over a three-day period – when they are only just 13 years old, that she is calling time on the process.

“If it’s not needed, let’s not do it. Let’s take that level of anxiety away from children and indeed their parents. At Newton Prep, we are now retaining only the core subjects of CE and, instead, are focusing on a combined humanities ‘Newton Diploma’ for next year’s Year 7s.”

Other heads are using other strategies to mitigate stress. Tony Lewis, Headmaster at The White House Prep School, says: “Around the 11+ there is increased anxiety, so we meet regularly from early on to advise families and I run workshops on the transition from junior to senior school.”

At Woldingham, they’ve tried to diffuse the exam frenzy through timetabling. “We spread exams throughout the year followed by activity days, for example Tough Mudder for Year 10, to release any stress and get everything in perspective. It means pupils can learn from mistakes and move forward within that year, rather than having the exams right at the end of term.” Fortunately, conversations around children’s mental health are open and many schools have a well-developed network of staff to support pupils, usually dedicated school counsellors, school nurses and
chaplains. “We have a very strong pastoral care network to make sure our girls can access the help they need through a number of channels,” says Samantha Payne, Deputy Head, Pastoral at JAGS. “Extensive support is available from a dedicated team of qualified school staff with each Key Stage overseen by an assistant head, supported by heads of year and form tutors.” At Wetherby Senior School, mental health and wellbeing are a focus, “and we do not hesitate to bring in professional counselors for one-to-one and group help,” says Head Seth Bolderow. “This allows us to offer support that truly reflects the challenges that young men face in the modern world.” Peerto-peer mentoring is becoming a popular way of easing this issue. “At Dulwich College, our commitment to promoting wellbeing is provided in a range of age-appropriate ways, from circle time in the Infants’ and Junior School to the peer-mentoring scheme run by sixth formers for younger pupils,” reveals Nathalie Coppin, Head of Wellbeing.

This development is in no small part down to the biggest concern facing parents, teachers and pupils today – the impact of social media on mental health. At Alleyn’s, pupils in Years 7 and 8 receive a package from older students about behaviour online. In tutor time they discuss the issues. “Our house structure allows older children to talk to younger children and they work together on cyber bullying  and bullying,” explains Skinnard.

At JAGS, sixth formers, as part of their curriculum, lead a Digital Council, including peer-mentoring, and present wellbeing topics to the lower years. At Putney High School, they have trained peer-mentors (volunteer pupils who are formally trained and go on to train junior girls) and there’s a Big Sister programme in which pupils wear a badge to show who they are. There are weekly meetings where pupils can talk and share in a relaxed environment, maybe over making friendship bracelets as doing an activity can make it easier to talk.

Connecting has been a key message at the school. “Our Wellbeing Within programme this year focused on human touch and making connections,” says Head Suzie Longstaff. “Our taught programme is about understanding emotions and the different challenges we face. It’s about finding genuine connections in a cyber-connected world. How many of your ‘friends’ are real
friends, for example?”

The E-safety issue is a massive topic at all schools and impacts on wellbeing. With every teenager in possession of a mobile, they are switched on 24/7 and the unrelenting bombardment of messages and communication they experience leaves them vulnerable in an unprecedented way. Students need to be guided, says David Adkins, Head at Thames Christian School. “We want them to have healthy relationships and conduct themselves in a healthy way around social media. The speed of communication these days is so fast, they don’t have time to think about what and how they are responding. It’s vital that they understand how to use social media responsibly and positively.”

Moreover, many teachers (and parents) agree that when it comes to social media and smart phones, they just want children to turn them off. Judith Brown, Director of Pastoral Care at oldingham, says, “We haven’t seen a spike in bullying through social media use but we have seen it impact self-esteem. We talk about the reality of the images they are seeing. Our Thrive programme is about resilience, character education, keeping safe, health and e-safety. It’s important they are content with themselves, learning that wellbeing comes first.”

Similar workshops, programmes, talks, and assemblies help keep the communication open in many schools, enabling staff to support the most vulnerable. “I am concerned about social media and its negative impact on young men in particular,” cites Petrouchka Stafford, Vice Principal at MPW. “We’re aware of it and we talk about it. Nobody should feel ashamed. We encourage people to be open and honest because we want to help. E-safety is a huge issue for everyone.”

At secondary school level, it is proven that getting teenagers to look outwards rather than inwards is a huge part of the puzzle of positive mental health. At Woldingham, girls do one day of community service where they go to an old people’s home, a church or a school. “‘Look outside yourself and give to others’ is part of our ethos,” says Brown.

Emanuel has outreach and community partnerships in the local area and from September 2019, all sixth form pupils will be involved in regular sessions of community service in place of lessons. “It’s important for young people to have a sense of the world beyond the school gates – to look out as well as in,” says Headmaster Robert Milne. “I see our pupils’ wellbeing growing through meaningful contributions to the local area.”

The concept that stress impedes learning is easy to get on board with, but not all negative emotions are to be feared. Fionnuala Kennedy of Wimbledon High observes, “One of the things we are battling against is the idea that all negative emotions are a threat. They are not: they’re necessary, natural and helpful, and the goal of permanent and unwavering happiness is unrealistic and even damaging.” Andy Skinnard at Alleyn’s agrees: “I think mental health is better now as children talk more than ever before.”

But he cites parents listening and having realistic aims for their child as crucial in this finely balanced relationship. “Whatever happens, it should be about what you take with you in your  personality, what you’ve become, not your A levels. If things don’t go to plan, there are still options and opportunities.”

While children’s wellbeing is a major issue, it’s also useful to remember that the majority will go on to have rewarding lives, they’ll go to university or apprenticeships and embark on exciting careers, and this should rightly be celebrated. “The risk of achievements,” warns Kennedy, “is the mistaken belief that we are what we achieve, rather than understanding that we achieve what we do because of who we are.” Valuing the individual above all else, letting children fail, encouraging them to try again with courage and resilience, is a priceless gift that will take them well beyond their school years.”

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