Stress may be the yin to well-being's yang

10th July 2015 at 01:00
In the rush to understand how children's emotional health might be improved, what's overlooked is that stress can be a good thing

There's no doubt about it. The buzzword du jour is "well-being". It's everywhere in the press and across the Twittersphere, mainly courtesy of the return of David Cameron's former right-hand man, Steve Hilton, from exile in California.

It's been big news in education for the past few years, too. Sometimes it feels as if we've talked of little else. In times past, we paid more attention to physical health as a way of trying kindly, if inexpertly, to ensure that children were relatively happy. It wasn't entirely wrong-headed: mens sana in corpore sano - a healthy mind in a healthy body - remains a pretty useful motto. I guess you can have a healthy mind in a body that isn't well, but I reckon it's hard to achieve.

This approach wasn't perfect, we now see. It's only in very recent years that schools have begun to understand the need for promoting emotional well-being to reduce low self-esteem, distress, anxiety and mental illness.

When we talk about well-being, we are constantly aware of both the physical and emotional sides. Schools are doing good work on this. They need to: children are feeling the pressures of modern society more than ever. One benefit of such universal concern over mental health and illness, both in the media and within schools, is that children are more readily seeking help. That's progress, although it is stretching resources.

What isn't helpful is the way in which so many loosely related words are bandied about in connection with emotional well-being. I'd be rich if I had a fiver for every time I heard a fellow school leader say: "I don't understand all this well-being and mindfulness stuff. Isn't it all just the same?"

It isn't all the same. Well-being is, as I've defined it above, something we strive to ensure for every child in our care. By contrast, "mindfulness" is a technique. It generally consists of building periods of calm into the school day (arguably easier in some of the boarding schools that promote it) to encourage relaxation, reflection, an opening of the mind and a willingness to appraise oneself in an honest way. It's good stuff but it is not a goal, simply an approach.

Next comes "resilience". This is neither a fundamental aim nor an approach. It is, however, a desirable quality. Just to make it more confusing, resilience is one of those words that enjoys a range of acceptable synonyms; "grit" is one that has crept across the Atlantic (one advantage is that you can run conferences with snappy movie-derived titles such as True Grit).

"Character" is a more splendidly English word and one I prefer. It takes character (or resilience, or grit) to deal with failure, to use it as a learning experience rather than regarding it as a catastrophe. Indeed, character (or resilience, or grit) allows people to bend in the winds of misfortune, not to snap. (I have stolen that wonderful metaphor from the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust's Dick Moore, a powerful voice in focusing schools on emotional well-being.)

It's worth adding, by the way, that neither homework nor importing rugby stars into schools will help children to develop character, as the education secretary seems to think. Nor will, for example, getting kids to do hard sums while someone chucks buckets of water over them. It is a quality whose development requires more subtle and planned approaches.

Everything in moderation

The flipside of the media obsession with character and grit is its glee for stories, especially at this time of year, about pupil stress. Don't get me wrong, it's out there, but we need to take a measured view. Decades ago, as a young teacher driving myself pretty hard, I was struck by the opening line in a book I'd been given called Managing Stress. "The absence of stress is death," it read. We need some stress in order to live at all. Indeed, stress - dare I say it - is essential to exam success.

Stress is to emotional well-being what avocado is to dieting (no, really). Avocado is the fattiest fruit known to man but doctors have finally conceded that it's "the right sort of fat". In moderation, it's good for us.

Stress makes the adrenalin flow. Candidates need the right level of stress for an exam: they must be keyed up, focused and sharp. Of course, when stress overwhelms us; when children get that feeling of helplessness; when they revise too much and sleep too little - at those times, stress is out of control and has become bad.

Two leading independent school heads clashed - politely - over this issue recently. Eve Jardine-Young of Cheltenham Ladies' College is reducing homework and increasing breaks to reduce her pupils' stress and improve their well-being. Wellington College's Sir Anthony Seldon demurred. The school day didn't need to be changed, he claimed. Instead, pupils should be encouraged to develop greater resilience.

Embracing stress and well-being is the yin and the yang of the same argument. Both are right and both are wrong. Perhaps a spoonful of emotional well-being helps the stress go down.

In September, my own school will host a conference, reThink, a year on from an event that focused on character. Teachers and school leaders alike are anxious and willing to share experiences and learn from one another.

The fact is, problems of mental illness in the young are daunting. But schools really are getting together and attempting to tackle the issue. Sharing the problem won't halve it, but it will ensure that it is at least addressed. Compared with times past, that's significant progress.

Bernard Trafford is headmaster of the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle

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