In this blog post, Iain Driscoll, Deputy Head (Pastoral) of King's College Doha, Qatar, reflects on the most important factors to consider in order to effectively embed a whole-school approach to wellbeing and SEL.
Pupil Mental Health and Wellbeing in the context of Covid-19
Mental health and wellbeing has become a key focus of many schools since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak in late 2019. Millions of children have been affected through the closure or partial closure of schools and a huge number of them have suffered. This may not always be obvious as is the case with many issues and problems children face however, it is how we support and engage these and their families that is important in ensuring that they (and we) are able to provide them with the best possible educational experience possible.
Mental health and wellbeing are not new concepts. Nor is ensuring we provide opportunity for Social and Emotional Learning to take place within schools. What is new however, is the focus that has been drawn to them since the start of COVID. I am a firm believer in the theory that a child who feels valued and welcomed in an education setting will progress and achieve more than a child who feels isolated and unwelcomed. For me, taking the time to learn about the child before embarking on delivering the curriculum is time well spent. Finding out what engages each child and then tailoring their learning is key.
Children often want to be heard but don’t want to speak and herein lies the challenge. How do we ensure that all children have a voice and have the opportunity to speak and express how they feel? In short, there is no simple answer. However, there are a few key relationships that if developed appropriately, will be instrumental in ensuring that pupils’ Wellbeing and Social and Emotional Learning is looked after.
What are the key relationships necessary to support pupil wellbeing and SEL?
Whilst every colleague is responsible for ensuring pupil wellbeing, the role of the form tutor and the role of the pupil mentor are probably two of the most important relationships in ensuring this success. For me, the form tutor’s role is to support the child in every aspect of their school life. They should be someone who the child feels comfortable with and safe in approaching and someone who will support the child irrespective of any issues they may have around the school (of course this is caveated by saying they should not condone or support behaviours that do not allow for learning or that disrupt the learning of others!). The form tutor should develop a professional caring relationship with the children and their families. Experience shows that taking the time to meet with the child and their family fosters a positive relationship and often breaks down barriers to children being willing to speak and open up to. During registration periods, a simple ‘how are you doing’ will often provide a tutor, who know their tutees, with an insight into their day by the way the child answers, allowing them to instigate further dialogue as necessary.
It is true that not all children have the positive relationship with their tutor that enables them to feel comfortable speaking with them. This is why we run a separate Mentoring Programme where all pupils have at least a monthly meeting with a mentor of their choice. During the sessions a simple wellbeing questionnaire is answered by the pupil which can then be used as prompts for further discussion. The Child / Mentor relationship can often prove to be very significant in identifying wellbeing concerns and the programme is given great support by all within the school, to the extent where both academic and non-academic staff offer to be mentors.
And what about staff wellbeing?
Staff wellbeing can be overlooked in favour of child wellbeing. As true as it is for pupils to be happy to learn, our colleagues also need to feel valued and appreciated in order to deliver outstanding lessons and provide the support that our children need. Staff wellbeing is therefore vital to the success of any school and any school that invests in its staff and their wellbeing is well known in the international circles. But what sets apart those schools to others? It is not lip service! Lots of schools have staff wellbeing committees and lots of schools promote staff welfare as being of ‘paramount importance’ but is this really the case.
We have a ‘staff wellbeing’ committee. This purpose is for staff to feel they have a voice in addition to being able to come and speak to their SLT. We have an open door policy and we are yet to turn away a member of our team regardless of what their concern is or what our diaries suggest we should be doing. Staff are the backbone of any school and we make time for them. So why have the wellbeing committee? In much the same way that not all children can talk to all staff, not all staff feel comfortable speaking directly to our Leadership Team and this is fine. The wellbeing committee facilitates the conversation on behalf of the colleague.
The committee also address more general concerns including having a consistent pay date, reviewing health insurance policies changes through to support during the new staff induction. They also organise tea and coffee in the staffroom for those who wish to be part of the staff welfare group and support staff in times of celebration and when they face difficulties. They are there, alongside the SLT, to support their colleagues in ensuring that they support the children.
So how should we educate our children and staff on wellbeing?
This is where our PSHE programme or Social and Emotional Learning programme shines. Quite often PSHE is seen as ‘something we just have to do’ and little credence is given to the preparation or delivery of the lessons. However, when planned and delivered with enthusiasm, this key and vital part of the curriculum allows pupils to understand their emotions and reassures them that their feelings are ‘normal’. Further, through discussion, topics and issues that some are often too shy to raise are brought to the fore and provide opportunity for all to benefit from them.
To accommodate Social and Emotional learning, we have, like many other schools, adapted our daily timetable. Moving forward, all pupils will have two and half hours a week with their tutor in which PSHE will be delivered. A significant proportion of this time will be given to discussing mental health and wellbeing and strategies for ensuring that our children feel supported and are being implemented for the start of the new academic year. Further, we have invested significant resources into upskilling and training staff to ensure that they are best placed to identify and support children whose mental health or wellbeing is a concern to us.
In summary, mental health, wellbeing and social and emotional learning has been and should continue to be at the forefront of how we as educators support our children and colleagues. Whilst we will never get this 100% correct, the more this is discussed and internalised within schools and more widely between others, the better the provision for mental health and wellbeing will be. This is ultimately what our children need
This topic will feature at the upcoming Outstanding Schools Middle East Conference. Click below to discover the rest of the themes within the Wellbeing and Inclusion Stream.