How do we promote a culture of school wellbeing among staff and students?
Addressing wellbeing in schools
The measures put in place to protect people during the Covid-19 pandemic have had a significant and long-lasting impact on student wellbeing. This observation has been appropriately called the Pandemic Paradox (Bradbury-Jones & Isham, 2020) - the methods used to protect our physical health have directly harmed our mental health.
Now that the periods of lockdown are over and the coronavirus pandemic is largely under control, we must start to address the global decline in pupils' wellbeing that is being seen as early as primary school.
Research has shown that students' wellbeing is deteriorating as they move through secondary school and college, with female students being more likely to experience mental health issues than males (Arslan & Burke, 2021; Owens et al., 2022).
The number of students leaving secondary with a mental health condition has doubled over the last three years. We need a recovery plan to prevent a new pandemic of mental illness in young people; one of the most effective ways we can do this is if senior leaders in schools and colleges make wellbeing a strategic priority.
Wellbeing intervention research
Historically, it might have been challenging to find relevant research for developing whole-school approaches to wellbeing. There is now an abundance of research into whole school wellbeing programmes, advice for school leaders, and interventions available to promote positive mental health, physical health and emotional health in schools.
It is well-documented (and unsurprising) that students' learning and achievement at school deteriorate if they have poor mental health (Van Zyl & Stander, 2019). It is less well-known that teachers' wellbeing also has a detrimental effect on pupils' mental health (Evans et al., 2022).
For this reason, it is essential that any whole school wellbeing programme or policy recognises the importance of teachers' wellbeing. School leaders should incorporate strategies to support the wellbeing of the whole community in their strategic development plans.
With this in mind, you will find below summaries of evidence-based strategies that have been shown to improve wellbeing in schools.
How can I improve my own wellbeing?
We must prioritise our own mental health before we can effectively help others to improve theirs. Think of wellbeing as operationalised happiness. Psychologists have identified traits that are associated with preventing pathology and enabling people to flourish (positive psychology - Seligman, 2018).
Positive education is the use of evidence-based strategies to develop those traits. By increasing our understanding of what makes us feel happy, we can put strategies in place to improve our own wellbeing.
Here are the six widely accepted pillars of wellbeing and how each one can be achieved:
Positive Emotions. This includes gratitude, self-control, and displaying emotional intelligence. Keeping a gratitude diary or listing three things you have been grateful for at the end of each day can help to encourage positive emotions.
Engagement. This occurs when you feel motivated, curious, or have opportunities to be creative. Find an activity you can be fully absorbed in; it could be reading, completing sudoku, knitting, drawing, running - anything that takes all of your focus.
Relationships. Being physically away from other people was one of the greatest challenges during the pandemic. Feeling connected to others, working together, leadership, and forgiveness will all improve the positive impact of relationships.
Meaning. Having a sense of purpose, caring for others, and understanding our core values all help to give our life meaning. Doing a random act of kindness or making a donation to charity can help achieve this pillar.
Achievement. This refers to achievement and accomplishment in every sense. It could be academic (e.g. completing a Masters), professional (e.g. a promotion), physical (e.g. achieving a new personal best), or personal (e.g. meeting up with friends when you would have preferred to stay home). Recognising every achievement, no matter how small, can help us to feel happier.
Health. This refers to physical health, such as getting enough sleep or eating a balanced diet, and also having an awareness of the mind-body connection. Meditation, guided relaxation, or sleeping for at least 7 hours every night are examples of this pillar.
Improving your fellow teachers' wellbeing
The following recommendations are all evidence-based and have been shown to significantly improve teachers' wellbeing.
1. Listen and take action
Ask your colleagues what can be done to improve their working environment. Taking action to address specific, practical or structural issues is one of the quickest ways to improve teachers' wellbeing. You could also consider having a suggestions box or staff forum to get regular feedback from your colleagues about what they need.
Give teachers autonomy wherever possible. When it is not possible to do so, communicate why this is the case and share your vision with your colleagues so that they can understand the rationale behind your decisions.
Relationships between colleagues has a great impact on teachers' wellbeing and it has also been shown to impact students' wellbeing too. You can encourage positive and professional relationships between colleagues by providing opportunities for collaboration in school and socialising outside of school. Something as simple as cakes in the staffroom once a week can make a big difference.
4. Professional Development
Having access to meaningful and appropriate professional development increases teacher wellbeing. Identifying CPD priorities at the start of each year or offering a carousel of activities during staff inset days are effective ways to achieve this.
Developing student wellbeing
Some schools have chosen to implement an explicit positive education curriculum to improve students' wellbeing. This normally involves dedicated lessons (at least one per fortnight) where students learn the strategies associated with each pillar of wellbeing described above.
This approach can be very successful at improving individuals' wellbeing, but a more holistic approach is necessary for collective and sustained wellbeing to be achieved in schools.
The following are examples of strategies that could be incorporated into a whole school wellbeing policy.
1. Positive Emotions
Create a supportive environment where students feel comfortable talking about their emotions. Give students access to school counselling, an independent listener, or a life coach. Some schools have an online helpline for pupils and a peer mentoring scheme.
Include a wide range of activities in your co-curricular programme to help pupils find something that excites or motivates them. Ensure all pupils have access to a creative activity at least once a week. Have tech-free lunchtimes to encourage students to do an activity they can become absorbed in that doesn't involve a screen.
Support positive relationships between peers with restorative justice sessions to resolve disagreements. Give pupils time to socialise at breaktime and lunchtime without access to technology, to encourage face-to-face interactions.
Use paired and group work during lessons and teach pupils how to work effectively in a team. Ensure your behaviour policy is fair and being used consistently throughout the school - this will help build positive teacher-pupil relationships.
Raise money throughout the year for a school charity. Visit people in the local community, such as singing carols in a nursing home or taking donations to a food bank. Support pupils to understand and articulate their core values and what is important to them.
Celebrate success in every sense and help pupils to understand that success can take many different forms. Praise effort rather than the ability to encourage a growth mindset. Encourage pupil autonomy and student's voice through school council meetings or acting on students' feedback.
Ensure all pupils take part in physical activity regularly at school. Encourage them to make healthy choices at lunchtime by providing plenty of fruit and vegetables. Provide free meals for staff and access to sports facilities when they are not being used by pupils.
Embracing a wellbeing agenda across your school
Hopefully, this article has given you a useful overview of the strategies we can use to improve pupil wellbeing. Start with yourself first; reflect on the six pillars of wellbeing and decide whether you need to develop any of them to improve your overall well-being.
Remember that any whole-school wellbeing policy should support staff as well as students, and offer a holistic approach that permeates pedagogy, student-staff interactions, and policy decisions.
Arslan, G. and Burke, J. (2021). Positive education to promote flourishing in students returning to school after COVID-19 closure. Journal of School and Educational Psychology, 1(1), pp.1-5.
Bradbury‐Jones, C. and Isham, L. (2020). The pandemic paradox: The consequences of COVID‐19 on domestic violence. Journal of clinical nursing, 2020(0), pp.1-3.
Evans, S., Alkan, E., Bhangoo, J.K., Tenenbaum, H. and Ng-Knight, T. (2021). Effects of the COVID-19 lockdown on mental health, wellbeing, sleep, and alcohol use in a UK student sample. Psychiatry Research, 298, p.113819.
Owens, M., Townsend, E., Hall, E., Bhatia, T., Fitzgibbon, R. and Miller-Lakin, F. (2022). Mental health and wellbeing in young people in the UK during lockdown (COVID-19). International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 19(3), p.1132.
Seligman, M. (2018). PERMA and the building blocks of wellbeing. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 13(4), pp.333-335.
Van Zyl, L.E. and Stander, M.W., 2019. Flourishing interventions 2.0: a practical guide to student development. In Positive psychological intervention design and protocols for multi-cultural contexts (pp. 435-448). Springer, Cham.