Wellbeing in schools is just like anything else: it has to be understood, internalised and practised until it becomes second nature. Teachers attempting (albeit magnanimously) to make a gift of attributes such as resilience and independence are doing as much good as teaching children a poem off by heart without them understanding what it means or why it was written.
In short, you can’t hand out grit; individuals must develop it themselves. And, whilst we all need help when the emotional wheels come off, schools which focus solely on reactive, top-down pastoral care (swooping in to "save" their struggling students) may well be doing more harm than good. What we all need – teachers, students and parents alike – is a toolkit of wellbeing which we put together piece by piece whilst we are at school, and continue to develop throughout our lives.
There are some tools we’ll all need – a toolkit without a hammer (resilience) or wrench (kindness) would be pretty useless – but we also need to recognise that not all of our toolkits will be identical, and, indeed, may need to change as we ourselves grow and change. Those of us who tend toward anxiety will need a little more bravery; those of us who know we can become addicted or obsessive will need some more self-control. And it is absolutely the job of schools to provide an environment where young people can test out what it is they’ll need, how that tool works for them and which scenario requires which tool.
So, with the proviso that we’re all different, here is a starter toolkit:
It is very tempting to try and "fix" others when you are a teacher. We are, after all, the solvers of problems and the voices of experience. But it is so much more powerful to ask, "How do you want to sort this out?" than it is to offer the solution.
And (shout out to my maths department for this) it is always worth asking the "Three Before Me" question: which three things have you tried yourself before going to a teacher for help, and why do you think they haven’t worked? Such questioning encourages independent problem-solving.
Let them fail – and fail better
The other great temptation for parents and teachers alike is to remove pain, difficulty, embarrassment and failure from the paths of their children and students. None of us wants to see a child suffer, and so we wade in where we shouldn’t, or perhaps rely on too much scaffolding in a lesson/on a topic. We all know that parents ringing the school when their child has been given a detention or Whatsapping the parent of a school friend who is being mean reinforce the belief that failure – large or small – is something to be avoided. So, talk openly about failure as a school community.
Young people need to experience doing poorly on tests, falling out with friends, being dumped or, indeed, romantically overlooked, so they can develop the tools that allow them to deal with disappointment, suffer for a time, and then get up again, ready to go. Perspective is so important and it stands to reason you can’t develop it if the messages given suggest that small failures are too painful to be experienced.
Raise your voice
Children should be heard more and seen less. They are growing up in a climate in which the way that they look is deemed much more important than what they say and believe, and we should be helping them to reverse that culture. Raising your voice, whether it’s in the flesh or online, politically or culturally, to talk about what is important is, indeed, a tool for life. It also brings other tools into play like courage, confidence and the ability to articulate through emotion, and helps to develop a sense of owning your space in the world. Provide opportunities for young people to say what they think, in lots of different ways. Oh, and brace yourself for the results…
Young people need to look outwards, as adolescence can be a particularly introspective phase of growing. Looking out into our communities, helping others, living alongside others, understanding that human beings are connected in a network (beyond online social networks) will help enormously when times get tough. And we must laugh together, too. To take oneself seriously whilst holding oneself lightly is the greatest of life skills; at our school, we have a stand-up comedy night and a "resident comedian" (self-appointed) who sends a weekly reflection on the school, unedited and uncensored.
Strong body, stronger mind: food, exercise, sleep
Finally, help young people to see the body as the amazing gift of strength and flexibility that it is. Help them to learn to fuel it with good food; to exercise to keep it strong, ideally under the sky and, whenever possible, get it muddy and tired; and then sleep. I am convinced that the sleep deficit in this country is the number one reason why we are struggling to maintain mental health. Help them to fight the late-night screen time urge and set rules for the whole community to abide by, explaining why they’re important. And get them to read Matthew Walker’s brilliant Why We Sleep if they’re in any doubt. It worked for me.
Fionnuala Kennedy is the deputy head pastoral at Wimbledon High School GDST