Psychosocial learning: boosting student engagement

From making Play-Doh shapes to drawing portraits of fellow students, psychosocial learning is designed to help learners feel more comfortable in the classroom. Sarah Simons discovers how the approach can boost student engagement, wellbeing and results
13th March 2020, 12:05am
Want To Break Down Barriers To Learning? Go Psychosocial


Psychosocial learning: boosting student engagement

I saw the Play-Doh pots on a table, and I knew the workshop was going to be a little different.

Usually a post-lunch workshop that involves hands-on activities is the last thing anyone wants at the end of a long day at an education conference. But a session about psychosocial approaches to learning - something I knew nothing about - that involved Play-Doh? I was intrigued.

The session was led by teacher, trainer and mental health expert Nicole Capon and she started the session by instructing us to use the Play-Doh to make a model of something we liked. Simple as that.

So off we went. After about 90 seconds of modelling, chat began to ripple around the table. “What are you making?” “Wow, is that a Lego brick made from Play-Doh?” “Can I borrow your purple?”

Soon, meaningful conversations developed and we learned about each other as we played. The interactions were easy and natural.

Then we moved into working in pairs to chat about cooking and eating habits and play a pub quiz-type game. There were different activities going on at other tables around the room, but everyone was smiling, chatting and relaxed.

If this all sounds a little directionless to you, then you would be wrong. These interactions were the point of the session: to help us engage, relax and start to learn in a collaborative environment.

This is at the heart of psychosocial learning. A succinct definition of the term “psychosocial” comes from Unicef, which says it refers to “the close relationship between the individual and the collective aspects of any social entity”. Unicef itself uses psychosocial learning to help children caught up in natural disasters or war zones to come to terms with their experiences and to rehabilitate them into their societies.

Within the “social entity” of education, psychosocial learning is best done through activities that create a relaxed, participative community, responding to the psychological, social and learning needs of the individuals in a group, such as those activities outlined at the conference.

Another good example activity is getting learners to get to know each other by drawing a portrait of each other but without being allowed to look at their paper, only their subject’s face, and by asking each other questions while drawing.

This activity has nothing to do with artistic abilities at all, rather it is a strategy to divert individuals from the stress of awkward social encounters, early in the group’s formation. It could also be used during discussion of a subject revision topic or on a specific theme.

“People feel comfortable so they engage more,” explains Capon. “The mood changes, even people’s posture changes. They ask more questions because their defence mechanism has been lowered. All of that has psychological benefits that, for teachers, equate to being able to engage people in a soft way so they are able to learn, as well as building confidence.”

Capon has used these sorts of activities across a vast range of settings in her 20-year teaching career, from pupil-referral units and FE colleges to offender learning facilities and supported housing projects where many of the learners would be referred to as “hard to reach” and often had poor mental health and wellbeing.

The advantage of this approach in these settings is that for some learners - particularly vulnerable students, people with mental health issues and those with special educational needs and disabilities - stepping into the classroom itself is a big breakthrough.

Psychosocial activities make it easier for this to happen by reducing the stress around involvement and encouraging learners to feel more confident and in control. “They were welcome to come in and just have a look at the computers in the classroom,” Capon says. “Even just for 10 minutes, then they could go. There was no pressure to participate. Taking that pressure away became part of my working practice.”

She took this further by starting to ask herself: “What about those who did not respond even to this?” She thought about the interventions that would make her feel comfortable - or uncomfortable - in new environments. “I’m all too familiar with being in unfamiliar places, having to speak and wondering how it’s going to be received. All of those questions that run through your mind start to block what you want to actually achieve,” she says.

This made her realise that some learners - at all levels and regardless of abilities - can be reluctant to join in even in a purposely depressurised situation, so not joining in is OK, too. “If everyone is engaged in that activity, it gives me the opportunity to have a chat with the person who isn’t, to find out a bit more about them,” says Capon. “Then there is no pressure for them to be the only one not doing something because they are - they’re talking to me.”

And if a few people are not getting involved and talking between themselves about their shared dislike of that activity? That’s OK, too. “The aim is that people feel like there’s a connection somewhere. Whether that’s because of the activity, or because they’ve opted out of the activity.”

Following the success of Capon’s ethos of reducing pressure to participate, combined with her strategies that to help encourage participation, she is now looking to help practitioners in education settings to become “wellbeing-minded”.

To do this, she embraced the concept of “The Wheel of Wellbeing”. This is a method to shape new ways to improve wellbeing, designed by South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust, following eight years of research and development. It is based on six universal aspects of wellbeing - body, mind, spirit, people, place and planet - to help people live happier lives.

Capon adds: “It was really from there that I started to create the framework for what I was already doing.”

This focus on wellbeing is termed “social prescribing” and it has been recognised by the clinical world that participating in social activities can support wellbeing and, as a result, make people more likely to contribute in a range of contexts, including education.

A report into social prescribing and health and wellbeing by the Welsh NHS Confederation in 2017 outlined this by stating: “There is no clear agreement about what is meant by social prescribing but it does include any intervention that promotes wellbeing and self-care, encourages social inclusion and builds resilience for the individual and the community. Social prescribing is about treating the patient - not the illness.”

This final statement chimes with Capon’s approach. “It has to be a holistic way of engaging with somebody,” she says.

“There has been too much focus on the learning or mental wellbeing without it joining up together.”

Hearing about all this at the conference for the first time left me filled with ideas about how psychosocial activities could benefit my own students: from using the Play-Doh while doing their functional skills speaking and listening tests to reduce exam stress, to using themed activities where the group has to find something from a topic, starting with each letter of the alphabet - from plumbing tools to hairdressing technique. Whatever fits the learners best. This could help to focus a rowdy bunch.

More fundamental than this, though, is the idea that the power of psychosocial learning and social prescribing lies in paying greater attention to students’ social, emotional and mental wellbeing. This should be a central consideration, not an afterthought.

If people feel welcome and valued, and confident to enter a learning environment, then engagement will increase and a more cohesive classroom community, where students are more receptive to learning, will be created. The implications are vast.

Sarah Simons works in colleges and adult community education in the East Midlands and is the director of UKFEchat. She tweets @MrsSarahSimons

This article originally appeared in the 13 March 2020 issue under the headline “Want to break down barriers to learning? Go psychosocial”

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