Salman Shaheen explores why it is essential to embed wellbeing into the fabric of a school and how some of the best schools are doing it.
The world’s best schools recognise that supporting student mental health and wellbeing is not just an increasingly important part of a school’s function, it is integral to their success. Instilling wellbeing throughout the school can have a marked impact on attendance and attainment and it helps build happy, well-rounded, resilient young people capable of embracing their futures with confidence. But amidst all the other pressures they face to support teaching and learning, how can schools go about prioritising wellbeing? We looked at the innovative practices of some leaders in the field to produce this guide.
Understand why you need to instil wellbeing
Chinese general Sun Tzu was not exactly known for his wellbeing credentials, but The Art of War still provides a good place to start. As the man himself put it: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” That is to say, if you don’t first recognise the problem you’re facing and exactly why you need to tackle it, then it’s going to be an uphill struggle to change the culture of your school to instil wellbeing.
Alex Crossman, Headmaster of the London Academy of Excellence in the UK, which was a finalist for the World’s Best School Prize for Supporting Healthy Lives 2023, says: “Wellbeing is central to achievement. You can’t have one without the other. Or, I should say, you can’t responsibly have one without the other. A commitment to wellbeing needs to be central to a school’s mission and culture. If it is peripheral to those things, it isn’t being taken seriously.”
Instilling wellbeing at the heart of a school can have many positive effects on students in and of itself, but at the core it boosts attendance and attainment and it improves students’ prospects setting them up for successful futures.
For more on London Academy of Excellence’s method, download its School Transformation Toolkit
Identify the issues that need to be addressed and back it with research
After understanding the importance of wellbeing, schools will want to identify the specific issues they want wellbeing to address. In the case of the London Academy of Excellence, attendance was key. It’s important here to ground the initial scoping of projects thoroughly in research so they have the desired impact.
The London Academy of Excellence started by studying rigorous research on mental health that showed student wellbeing has a strong impact on attendance and attainment, and then it audited its own strengths and weaknesses in this area. It was guided by the principle that positive student wellbeing results in a wider awareness of their environment, which enables them to develop creativity, solve problems, and utilise the skills they need to be healthy and successful.
Wellbeing can also be used to address socio-economic issues. Oak Knoll Elementary School in California, US, for example, wanted to make its students feel valued and included because it serves a diverse community that felt fragmented and distant. Meanwhile, Malitbog National High School in the Philippines, implemented its Happy and Healthy School Programme during the pandemic to promote physical, mental, and social health among its 1,000 students – 90% of whom fall below the poverty line and 60% of whom were malnourished when they started school. Particularly, the school was concerned about addressing low morale resulting from socio-economic conditions combined with the pandemic.
For more on Malitbog National High School’s method, download its School Transformation Toolkit
Implement targeted solutions involving wider expertise where needed
Once schools understand the general importance of wellbeing and the specific problems they are seeking to address through it, and they have backed up their thinking by solid research, they can design programmes that offer solutions to the challenges they face.
The London Academy of Excellence launched a comprehensive Wellbeing Strategy focused on improving its students’ healthy habits, behaviour, knowledge and skills. The school worked with a local university, which sent a team of psychology students to provide all its Year 12 students with a dedicated course on strategies to improve wellbeing. The school also ran a bespoke Wellbeing Ambassador training programme for its student-led Mental Health Network, equipping them with the knowledge and skills to provide peer support. To boost attendance, the school trained staff on how to build resilience in students through coaching and instilling a mindset that being in school is essential to their future success, with the aim to empower students to overcome obstacles to being within school.
“Our approach to adolescent mental health is distinctive two ways: in being very directly based on research evidence, much of which was compiled through working with a local university partner; and in being very student-led,” Crossman says. “Our students operate a Mental Health Network through which they receive training in mental health first aid and in other techniques such as Selfology. The students then provide peer-to-peer support for other students in variety of ways—everything from advising on sensible working patterns to signposting specialist support services from professionals we have present in school. We know from the evidence base that peer-to-peer support is more effective in addressing many mental health issues than support from teachers and other adults. We also believe that the peer-to-peer model helps build a sense of collective investment in students’ wellbeing.”
Oak Knoll Elementary School promotes emotional and mental wellbeing from the moment students walk through the door and are greeted with a student-led morning news broadcast set up by the school counsellor. The broadcast ends with the words “Together, we are Oak Knoll”, reinforcing students’ sense of camaraderie and closeness.
“We end each day with our saying “Pause, Breathe, Smile, Together we are Oak Knoll and Together is our favourite place to be,” says Oak Knoll Principal Alicia Payton-Miyazaki. “On our show we have Brain Time, led by the counsellor and school psychologist who talk about the importance of a growth mindset and growing your brain, Tool Time where our counsellor talks about tools for problem-solving and emotional regulation, and Mood Meter Mondays where we learn more emotional Vocabulary. Our school has always prioritised kindness and empathy in all the work that we do.”
This ethos runs throughout everything the school does. Teachers greet their students by the door each day by name, breakfast is provided for whoever needs it and the school counsellor works closely with every class to build resilience and emotional support. The institution is guided by the principle that everyone within the school is part of one big family and in order to support students in their endeavours, both they, the parents and the wider community need to be nurtured as well.
This work is supported by the myriad programmes Oak Knoll Elementary School runs such as a mental health centre that helps families, small scholarships to allow students who come from lower-resourced communities to participate in after-school clubs, and gift cards that are given out during the holidays that are used in grocery stores. The Silicon Valley Bike Exchange provides bikes to students who request them and the school partnered with their local bookstore Kepler’s so each classroom mirrored the diversity in its community with material that is diverse in its characters and storylines.
For more on Oak Knoll Elementary School’ method, download its School Transformation Toolkit
Malitbog National High School, meanwhile, launched its Happy and Healthy School Programme that includes a range of initiatives from culture-based and inclusive education contextualising lessons based on indigenous knowledge systems and practices to institutionalising the provision of clean water, functional toilets, proper hygiene practices at home and in school and integration of these concepts into the curriculum. The school launched sustainable home and school gardening to provide nutritious food and it brought in a mental health initiative through communication and support and school-based and home-bound wellness programmes.
“To promote wellbeing among our students, we were able to integrate concepts and lessons on wellbeing into the curriculum by preparing lesson exemplars, supplementary instructional materials, and contextualised learning packages in the different learning areas,” says Jesus Insilada, Principal of Malitbog National High School. “Also, we were able to invite field practitioners on education, health, nutrition, psychology, social workers, as well as student leaders, community leaders, parents, and private individuals to talk how important wellbeing is in every institution, workplace, and organisation.”
Involving the expertise of wider organisations in the community is a common theme among schools that are successfully integrating wellbeing. Carmen Pellicer Iborra is President of the Trilema Foundation where the Trilema Zamora school in Spain runs programmes around eating the right food, using certain sleep patterns, breathing techniques and physical exercise to build healthy habits from an early age. She says: “There are a lot of people and organisations willing to extend help in whatever means and that will open doors to a lot of opportunities and chances to amplify the impact.”
For more on Trilema Zamora’s method, download its School Transformation Toolkit
Assess the results and refine where necessary
Implementing effective monitoring of wellbeing programmes is important, not just to track progress, but to refine programmes where necessary, especially if they have been introduced on a pilot basis.
In the case of the London Academy of Excellence, each half term, a dashboard was used to identify all students with below 97% attendance and each of these students had an attendance meeting with either a tutor, middle leader or senior leader. Training on these meetings was provided to all staff, including how to provide strategies to improve wellbeing when this was identified as a factor impacting on attendance. Students received an attendance target that was then reviewed the following half term. The data analysis at the end of academic year demonstrated that there was a clear increase in attendance within both year groups of two percentage points.
The school was guided by the principle, which it carried all the way through from its initial research to identify the issues, that positive student wellbeing boosts attendance and attendance boosts attainment. The strategy proved effective and the number of students with below 90% attendance decreased and the overall KS5 outcomes increased from 90% A/B to 93% A/B.
For other schools looking to replicate the London Academy of Excellence’s success, Crossman advises: “Get to grips with the evidence base on wellbeing and contextualise it for your own community. That would be the first thing. Then give wellbeing serious time and attention in your whole school planning process, your training programme, your impact evaluations – make it a part of school life. Student networks are the most powerful part of what we’ve done.”
Oak Knoll’s efforts also bore fruit. The school was recognised as a “Distinguished School” by the California Department of Education in 2020. The focus of supporting the wellbeing and social welfare of students and the wider community resulted in a marked improvement in academic success. During the 2017-18 school year, 85% of Oak Knoll students met or exceeded English language arts standards, and nearly 82% did so with Maths standards, according to state-released testing results.
“Students are better able to name and recognise their emotions and create plans to help themselves regulate,” Payton-Miyazaki says. “Student referrals to the office are reduced.”
To evaluate learning, Malitbog National High School made use of varied assessments including authentic assessment which included a set of methods for assessing the academic achievement of a student that includes activities requiring the application of acquired knowledge, skills, and values to the students’ circumstances and realities. Learners were also asked to assess their happiness level related to schooling from very low to very high.
For the school year 2021-2022, the school planning committee recorded a 0% dropout rate. As of December of the school year 2022-2023, this dropout was maintained. Academic performance also improved. Teachers observed that learners became more motivated and disciplined in complying with their learning tasks.
These institutions, then, all show that instilling wellbeing into the fabric of the school can be hugely beneficial to students. Schools that understand the importance of wellbeing, clearly identify the issues to be addressed backed by solid research, implement targeted solutions, and closely monitor results and refine programmes where necessary are setting their young people up for success even in often challenging circumstances.