How to boost wellbeing alongside academic performance

What if you could provide lessons that focused as much on mental health as the core teaching of literacy skills? Olivia Richards has taken inspiration from initiatives in the US, in an effort to combine the two
18th December 2020, 12:00am
How To Boost Wellbeing Alongside Academic Performance
Olivia Richards

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How to boost wellbeing alongside academic performance

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archived/how-boost-wellbeing-alongside-academic-performance

No one working in a school would disagree that pupil wellbeing was one of their fundamental responsibilities. But how much are teachers able to focus on it when so many competing accountability metrics centre on academic performance?

In reality, the two should go hand in hand - wellbeing and academic performance are intimately linked. But it can be tough making those links in a practical way. Teacher Olivia Richards has done just that, having devised a project to boost wellbeing and literacy at the same time.

Tes: Do you think wellbeing is as much of a priority in school as it should be?

Olivia Richards: Improving the wellbeing of students makes sense for schools because not only does it improve their health and life outcomes, it can also boost academic success by as much as 11-17 per cent. Despite this, in some schools, the pressure to hit attainment targets has resulted in mental health being neglected in the race for higher grades. But what if you could combine lessons in wellbeing with the teaching of core academic skills? That's where I think we can make progress.

And you have developed a project along those lines…

Yes, it is called The Story Project. It enables teachers to use stories to teach wellbeing and literacy skills. The idea has evolved during my time as an English teacher, but it was first sparked by an encounter with a man called Andy French early in my career.

My students had been studying the novella Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. I found they were growing weary of the text, as we scrutinised every detail during preparation for their GCSEs. Andy came to deliver a presentation at my school about how he had turned his life around after spending most of his 40 years in and out of prison. The key to ending that cycle was a project called Stories Connect - a prison-based reading group that also studied Of Mice and Men. But rather than focus on technical English skills, prisoners were urged to relate the story to their own lives so they could begin to understand and control their own emotions.

My students were greatly inspired by Andy's talk, as it helped them to see the book from a different perspective. I, too, was inspired, and began to consider how the idea behind Stories Connect could be replicated at school.

So, what did you do next?

I discovered that Stories Connect was based on an American programme called Changing Lives Through Literature. In the US, they had taken the concept much further. Rather than being put behind bars, petty criminals were ordered to attend a reading group with their probation officers and the judge. As a result, reoffending fell by 50 per cent.

Digging further, I discovered there were several projects in the US and Canada using reading and writing to support young people's mental health. These included Pongo, a poetry programme that works in homeless shelters, prisons and with other marginalised communities; Ruler, a project created by Yale University that uses stories as the start of understanding emotions; Youth Communication, which publishes young people's stories and then uses them to teach emotional skills in schools; and many more.

Thanks to a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust scholarship, I travelled to the US to visit 13 of the programmes that had inspired me.

How did you turn this into your own programme?

The opportunity came when I began working at St Paul's C of E Primary School in Addlestone, a fantastic school that was committed to supporting the wellbeing of its children. I developed a wellbeing curriculum that covers six areas of skills: mental and emotional, environmental, spiritual, economic, social and physical.

To roll this out, I began testing and adapting concepts I had observed on my travels. I started to collate a library of books that could be used to both develop literacy and teach wellbeing skills. Soon I had collected enough books to cover all the wellbeing skills in the curriculum I had created.

To accompany the books, I began to devise resources to help teachers bring out the wellbeing and academic learning from the stories. Aptly, each resource fitted the acronym STORY:

  • Settle: each lesson starts with a guided relaxation exercise that is connected to the chosen fictional text. This provides children with the opportunity to focus their minds ready for learning.
  • Training: teachers are encouraged to spend time training children in the key emotional and wellbeing vocabulary found within the text. This involves looking at expressions in pictures and short phrases from the story to build an understanding of how emotions look and feel.
  • Objective: each lesson is based around a wellbeing objective from the curriculum, so at this stage in the lesson teachers need to check that children understand and are focused on that objective. Therefore, even if the book has not been specifically written to hit the chosen objective, the children still know what they should be looking for.
  • Read: now the teacher will read the story and ask children questions related to the characters' wellbeing. Children can safely discuss this as a class because they don't have to talk about personal experiences. Instead, they can explore topics while focused on a character.
  • You: the lesson finishes by allowing children to apply what they have learned from the wellbeing of the characters to their own situation. This ultimately leads to a greater connection to, and enjoyment of, the texts and a better understanding of the wellbeing objective.

How did the rollout go?

We ran some trials that demonstrated the resources were achieving positive results so I was encouraged to extend the project. I secured £15,000 of funding from [education charity] Shine, through its Let Teachers Shine competition [run in partnership with Tes]. This has been a game changer for The Story Project, as I have been able to dedicate time to completing resources for all six areas of the wellbeing curriculum. In addition, I've received a lot of support and been introduced to a network of peers who are also developing projects to aid children's education.

With Shine's help I have begun measuring the impact of the project using the "theory of change" methodology. The trial is showing an increase in children's knowledge of wellbeing skills, their emotional vocabulary and their engagement in reading. I have also been able to develop a website, allowing the resources to be shared with other teachers.

So, is the plan to expand even further?

The project now reaches far beyond my own school. Ten local schools have signed up to take part in a larger trial and I have already received positive feedback from teachers who feel The Story Project provides an important opportunity for them to discuss wellbeing with children, but with a clear structure that feels supportive. My plan is to make The Story Project accessible nationwide so that children across the country are given access to stories that can help improve both their wellbeing and academic success in English.

Find out more about The Story Project at story-project.co.uk. Olivia Richards' findings from her travels across the US can be found at bit.ly/ORStory

The Story Project was funded by Let Teachers Shine, a competition open to all practising teachers in England. The deadline for entries to this year's competition is 11 January 2021. See letteachersshine.org.uk

This article originally appeared in the 18/25 December 2020 issue under the headline "How I…boosted wellbeing alongside performance"

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