This article was first published in WISEducation Magazine | June 2021 Issue 4.
Wellbeing and Mental Health has been a hot topic in schools for a few years now, and it has become even more critical with the impact of Coronavirus. As a Class Teacher and Wellbeing and Mental Health Curriculum Leader, I have been developing a whole-school approach to support student wellbeing since 2018. The timing wasn’t coincidental. I was returning to class teaching for the first time after a lengthy absence due to severe depression and PTSD; I had a totally new perspective on the importance of mental health.
During my recovery, I was very well supported by my family, friends, colleagues, mental health professionals and my school. Three and a half years on, I am delighted to say that I have thrived, and I feel that my focus on, and passion for, student wellbeing has been a significant factor in my successful return to work.
Knowing I can’t promote wellbeing without looking after my own has reminded me to prioritise my health so that I am best placed to fulfil my role. Furthermore, I have found that constant research and reading about the topic have greatly improved my understanding of how daily, micro choices impact mental health. Perhaps most importantly, I have also realised that supporting your class with their wellbeing has an automatic, positive knock-on effect on your own as a teacher, as well as improved education outcomes for them.
If your school has not yet put teacher wellbeing at the forefront, perhaps you could try some of these strategies within your classroom – not only will they benefit your students, both in supporting their social development and improved education outcomes, but I am also confident that they will benefit you.
The students in our international school come from over forty countries, 70% speak a language other than English at home, and the majority are multilingual. Being able to name and label emotions is a crucial step in managing them, so we aim to give our students the vocabulary they need in English and their home language. Multilingual emotions charts initiate this, and then we encourage and model, expression of emotions and needs. This may be one-to-one with a student in distress, facilitated for groups or during whole-class Healthy Minds sessions.
I spent the first forty years of my life believing that feelings were best kept hidden and that showing I could cope with anything was the only acceptable way to behave at work. It was undoubtedly working with an excellent therapist that taught me to break this habit. However, my daily focus on this crucial aspect of developing student emotional intelligence has also benefitted my own.
I strive to model sharing my feelings, in an appropriate way, with colleagues and students, and I have found that it comes far more naturally when expressing my own needs. This might be setting boundaries or asking for support when I need it. Feeling comfortable to be upfront about what I need to thrive has helped me and has, in turn, had a ripple effect on those around me. There is a genuine culture of support throughout the school, and staff are willing to show vulnerability and share their challenges.
During our Healthy Minds sessions, students develop self-awareness. They are taught to recognise when they might need a break and what kind of break they may need. It could be because they’ve noticed they are fidgeting or struggling with the noise around them or have a knot in their stomach. As a result, they may take a few minutes in the Calm Corner to use a breathing exercise, have a drink of water and stretch their legs, or reach out to someone for help. Some students have become so aware that they even recognise when the class is restless and let me know that everyone needs to get outside for a Brain Break K (our version of the Daily Mile) or a GoNoodle video.
Teaching students to be self-aware has made me more self-aware too. I drink more water; regularly force myself to get ten minutes’ fresh air at lunchtime even when I’m too busy; find a quiet space following a noisy afternoon. Moreover, if the whole class is doing a breathing exercise, listening to soothing music, or doing their Brain Break K, I join in and feel the positive benefits. It’s a win-win!
Furthermore, I’ve found myself making decisions that this ethos has influenced. If I’m feeling down, I do something kind for someone else as I know this will give me a boost and them. I regularly express gratitude both internally and to others, something I would have been shyer about doing before. And I show greater compassion not only to others but also to myself. We teach our students to be self-compassionate, and it’s their ability to do so that often reminds me to do so too.
Walk the Talk
Ultimately, a breakdown and subsequent therapy forced me to reflect and change how I looked after my mental health. Teaching others to look after theirs, too, has ensured that I do so on a daily basis. Wellbeing is not about passing fads or gimmicks. It’s about essential self-care, day in, day out, and setting ourselves up to thrive. And if we teach our students this vital life skill, ensuring we walk the talk, I know it will also greatly benefit us. Even if your school isn’t ready to make this a priority, don’t be afraid to make it a focus in your classroom – others will soon notice the positive impact it has, and the ripple effect will be real!
”It's about acknowledging that emotional contagion exists - essentially that moods and feelings are contagious between peopleAdrian Bethune
Rhiannon is a Year 5 Class Teacher and a Wellbeing and Mental Health Leader at Junior School Leidschenveen, The British School in the Netherlands. Their Healthy Minds programme was shortlisted for the ISC Research award in January 2021. Check out Rhiannon’s TES articles HERE.
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