When we planned for the opening of our new school, I and the founders wanted wellbeing to be something embedded throughout the school, not just as an ethos but as a taught subject – and at all ages.
This led us to select the Oxford International Curriculum (OIC), an all-through curriculum, from EYFS to primary to GCSEs and A levels, that includes wellbeing as a taught subject based on research from academic institutions and with a core focus on happiness and balance.
This means that, right from the start of their school journey, our students are learning about wellbeing in a direct, meaningful way which has been divided into four strands – "Taking care of the body"; "Taking care of the mind"; "Taking care of relationships"; and "Taking care of the self and the world".
Teaching wellbeing: What does this mean in practice?
Well, for example, children in Year 1 are taught how to be mindful and to think optimistically, by taking care of relationships and appreciating the world around them.
They do this through being encouraged to talk about and discuss their emotions; they share common feelings and the activities are age-appropriate, such as focusing on breathing to ensure a smooth and calm transition from one lesson to another, and supporting one another.
In one lesson, for example, Year 1 compiled a list of activities that made them feel good, listing star jumps and races with their friends, so more often than not during their playtimes, you will find Year 1 excitedly star jumping or racing each other.
There is nothing more joyful than hearing the giggles of delight.
We’re seeing the benefits already: when children are in the playground (during the periods of time school has been open), you will hear positive reinforcement from the children if they are in conflict: “good friends look after each other” or “good friends take turns” or “it’s OK to be sad, just breath 10 times slowly”.
The children self-regulate and, in turn, teach each other the skills of empathy and kindness. Every child feels the value and worth of friendships.
This is building real long-term benefits for the future for these students, too: a wellbeing impact study by Dr Ariel Lindorff (Department of Education, the University of Oxford) found there is “strong evidence to suggest that whole-school approaches to promoting wellbeing can have positive effects on a wide range of other student outcomes, including mental health, self-esteem, self-efficacy, motivation, behaviour”.
This shows why starting young is so important. Sometimes I think schools often talk about wellbeing in ways that exclude younger children and only focus on staff and older students – both equally important aspects of a thriving school, of course.
However, imagine the very youngest children – Year 1 (five-to six-year-olds) – discovering the essence of happiness and wellbeing like they do with literacy and numeracy: what a solid foundation to take forward into the next phases of their childhood and early adolescent development.
After all, the teenage and pre-teenage years can often be tumultuous and require a huge amount of braveness to stand up to peer pressure and withstand the many forces that persuade and draw young people’s attention.
Indeed, with my background in secondary pastoral leadership, I can see how many of the issues and problems could be avoided if that young person had a sense of self-worth, confidence and esteem.
These things can be taught and, like all skills, can be honed to near perfection, so starting young is vital.
An all-through-school approach
This does not mean that it loses focus throughout the school. As noted, our curriculum is a through curriculum so our future secondary-aged students will be taught wellbeing, too, in Years 7 to 9.
All key stages are taught the context for happier and stronger relationships – that students who have higher positive emotions perform better at school.
All teachers know that happy children learn better, after all. The curriculum for Years 7 to 9 builds on the four strands but goes into greater depth; so, for example, Year 7 would also learn about getting a good night’s sleep but delve into the science behind sleep and memory.
The course also teaches growth mindset and resilience – ways in which to overcome obstacles and challenges. By starting with small steps, it is hoped that children will go on to make bold and brave decisions using emotional intelligence when life presents challenges, as it often does.
Overall, I am so excited for the next phase of our school’s development and am certainly looking forward to seeing how these little learners grow and develop with wellbeing at the heart of our curriculum.
Julia Knight is vice-principal at Eton House School in Bahrain. She has been teaching internationally for eight years