Back to the classroom post lockdowns
“One could be forgiven for thinking that a wellbeing need is really just the same as a mental health need”
As children go back to school, and we try to unravel the diverse impacts of the pandemic, the focus has quietly shifted from the long-term – recovering lost learning – to the immediate: student wellbeing, writes Barry Mansfield is Director of the Halcyon London International School.
In fact, around the world we’re at something close to a zeitgeist moment, as school leaders, teachers and wellbeing professionals all re-address their notions of ‘wellbeing’. This is taking place at both an individual and institutional level, and with little reliable data to support our intuitions, whatever country we’re in, we’re trying to make sense of what we should do next. What do students and teachers really need to readjust to school life post-lockdowns and beyond?
Problematically, the language can be confusing. One could be forgiven for thinking that a wellbeing need is really just the same as a mental health need. Wellbeing is often seen as a quasi-medical term, such as a wellbeing clinic that will put you back on track.
However, we all know that our sense of wellbeing is so much more complex than this. So we should take a moment to decode the language and context, and understand that some of these connections can be misleading.
In a recent edition of TES, the problem was framed as “providing a whole-school wellbeing program that makes sure mental health is on the agenda”. This despite the acknowledgement that, according to research, “the amount of variance in children’s mental health and wellbeing that was carried by schools was only between 1.5 and 2.5%”. In other words, external influences are far and away the major influence on our children’s perceived wellbeing. Context is king.
” We should be teaching a positive mix of personal, and institutional, wellness”
When we teach wellbeing in our context, schools, we are not teaching students about mental health problems any more than studying a novel is a lesson in the perils of illiteracy. We should be teaching a positive mix of personal, and institutional, wellness. A set of skills, dispositions, behaviours and habits of mind that can be practised and mastered. We all need to nurture our wellbeing, and in schools around the globe this means providing a structure that helps everyone feel a sense of belonging and purpose.
Each of us should feel empowered with the social and emotional skills to feel fulfilled and have meaning in both the everyday and the extraordinary in our lives. Schools should offer intellectual, social and emotional security, where students and staff can learn how to navigate and be positive members of different social groups. Where they have a voice and agency in decisions that impact upon them. Where they feel recognised for who they are.
At Halcyon London International School, we have invested – in our ethos, organisational structure, behaviours, expectations and training – in everyone’s wellbeing. Our staff and students, who come from a broad range of global backgrounds, are nurtured and supported in developing their social and emotional literacies. Our school fosters wellbeing and purpose, every day.
We all train as cognitive coaches, allowing us to understand how we can better self-manage, self-regulate and develop strategies that make us more confident and resilient. We have agreed norms around which we consciously mediate our language to be inclusive, reflective, better listeners and better able to know ourselves through the compassion and patience of our peers. We practice mindfulness, to help us manage the inevitable stress and occasional upset that life holds in store. Some 10% of every teacher’s time is allocated to coaching and mentoring – giving students and staff space to practice these key literacies. We disband hierarchies where we can, to promote inclusion and voice, and therefore the necessary sense of personal agency that creates fulfilment.
Institutional culture changes as we grow together. Wellness becomes the platform for personal success, be that students’ academic performance or staff professional advancement. And, yes, that structure should include quality counselling and support services, because every literacy is a continuum and not all of us are the same.
This is not a short-term indulgence, or just a response to a one-off problem. It is a recognition that none of us can achieve our purpose, our goals, without first knowing how to support our own wellbeing. And if we can only change 1 or 2% of a student’s sense of wellbeing, that might make a vital difference.
About the author: Barry Mansfield is Director of the Halcyon London International School, Marylebone.