A Focus on Mental Health and Wellbeing: The Role of the School

Vanessa Grimward, MEd
Principal

 

 

 

According to a survey conducted by UNICEF and Gallup in 21 countries in 2021, a median of one in five young people (19%) reported often feeling depressed or having little interest in doing things. Whilst in Spain this figure was significantly lower – one in ten (11%) – it is clear we are yet to discover the full, long-term effects of the ongoing global pandemic on our young people’s mental health. Home -learning, reduced social interactions with other children and adolescents, increased exposure to the stress and tension inside the home as a result of the curtailment of all normal activity – and for many the serious illness or loss of loved ones – it is unsurprising that there is a greater collective focus inside and outside of schools on supporting and promoting our youngsters’ mental health & wellbeing.

It is therefore not surprising that for the first time ever the UNICEF’s “The State of the World’s Children” focuses on mental health in recognition of the fact that, “When we ignore the mental health of children, we undercut their capacity to learn, work, build meaningful relationships and contribute to the world.”

The School’s Role

The homeplace and its affective environment are key contributing factors to mental health. Positive, warm, open relationships where children feel unafraid to voice their inner anxieties contribute most significantly to favouring solid, balanced adult behaviours later in life. However, increasingly in our western society, families spend more time apart and less attention may therefore be dedicated to nurturing our offspring’s wellbeing – at a time when exactly the opposite is essential.

Whilst the role of the parent/s is key, we cannot and must not ignore the role of the school in minimising risks and maximising opportunities to develop mental wellbeing. For this to happen, and for it to be deep and meaningful, this attention to wellbeing cannot be sporadic nor unplanned for: it must necessarily be embedded in the very culture and essence of the school community, part of the fabric of the learning environment, a glue that binds the school’s academic and the holistic missions together.

A Positive School Environment

Children, like adults, need positive social connections. They yearn acceptance from their peers and their teachers, and they actively seek to form part of a group. They need to belong. Experiments show that feeling left out actually causes physical pain: The Harvard Study, now almost 80 years old, was a 50-year study that found that good relationships were actually the most important contributing factor to favour physical and mental health.

In addition to feeling included, children must be exposed to positive learning experiences. Students who are motivated to learn and feel safe to make mistakes in the classroom, necessarily develop greater self-confidence and feel better about themselves. It is, I firmly believe, the school leadership’s duty to foster a school ethos that promotes high quality teaching and learning in an environment of respect and collaboration.

Finally, a responsible school will be committed to developing student compassion and empathy, providing experiences both inside and beyond the classroom for students to understand their place in the world, and their responsibilities to those around them. In the words of Dr. Richard Davidson, Founder and Director of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin, “Like language, we are all born with the capacity to be compassionate, but we need to be exposed to it to be able to learn it.”

Commitment, Communication and Action

For a school to attend to all aspects of student wellbeing, including an ever-greater focus on mental health, consideration of the below three-step framework established by UNICEF, within one’s own school context is, I believe, key:

  • Commitment: strong school leadership to drive development and a pro-active approach to looking after mental health similar to the attention that has always been dedicated to physical wellbeing. (A commitment to professional development; key figures who support the pastoral development of our students etc)
  • Communication: ensuring students feel safe to voice their thoughts and feelings inside the school and offering multiple avenues for each individual child to do so. (Student wellbeing and learning surveys; student councils; an open door policy to school leaders etc)
  • Action: developing practice inside the school setting – underpinned by published policy – that seeks to minimise risks that may impact negatively on our young people’s wellbeing, whilst maximising the layers of protection that support not only students but their families too.

Professional Development

School leaders and teachers are, however, not experts in mental health. They need to learn the science of wellbeing to be able to best apply it inside and beyond the classroom setting if the above endeavours are to have lasting and meaningful impact. The Cognita Schools Group has developed the Be Well, Learn Well bespoke training package for teaching staff which directly addresses the science behind the 3 physical contributors to wellbeing (sleep, diet, exercise) as well as the 3 mental contributors (connecting, doing, giving). At ELIS Murcia, all teaching staff have initiated training to this end in our firm belief that every child needs first and foremost to BE well in order to learn well, and that being well and learning well will lead to LIVING well.