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What value do you place on your students’ mental wellbeing?

Teaching ‘grit’ does build resilience, but encouraging children to persevere through the hard times can also be detrimental to mental health. In the second part of “A deeper look at mental health”, IB World magazine speaks to a school that has struck the right balance, but other schools may be reluctant to follow in its footsteps

While schools are catching on to the idea that developing non-cognitive skills is just as important as academic success, many are focusing on teaching ‘grit’ and building resilience.

Professor, researcher and author Angela Duckworth has shown that grit – which she defines as the “tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals” – is a good predictor of success in everything and prepares children for the sometimes difficult life events they might encounter.

But grit can be unhealthy. Students who demonstrate high levels of grit could be suppressing their emotions to power through personal challenges. According to a US Department of Education report: “persevering in the face of challenges or setbacks to accomplish goals that are extrinsically motivated, unimportant to the student, or in some way inappropriate for the student may potentially induce stress, anxiety and distraction, and have detrimental impacts on students’ long-term retention, conceptual learning, and psychological wellbeing.”

A huge paradigm shift

IB World School Halcyon London International School, UK, has found a balanced way to help students manage their emotions, while building mental toughness. It dedicates 10 per cent of every teacher’s timetable, and 20 per cent of the professional development budget to a ‘wellbeing programme’, which is a “huge paradigm shift for schools that need to think about where they invest their time and their money” says School Director Barry Mansfield.

During the summer of 2016 every member of staff has been trained in cognitive coaching and mentoring. Students meet with their mentor/coaches every two weeks for a one-on-one, 15-minute session. The sessions cover all concerns from academic worries and tensions to stress, mental health and wellbeing. Students are given tools to be more pro-active about the choices they make, and can always request more time with their mentor, if needed. When the content of a session is beyond the skill set of the mentor, additional support from the wellbeing team is provided.

“The values that schools place on the different elements of wellbeing ­– such as building resilience and grit – often gets pushed into one PSHE class because educators prioritize academics,” says Mansfield.

It’s expensive to devote that amount of time in the curriculum to that kind of one-to-one relationships with the students. A lot of school boards may be reluctant to do it because it’s a big change in philosophy – but that’s built into the understandings about the school and our mission. Addressing mental health and wellbeing issues for students takes investment and time.

“Our goals are about building shared community values, and investing the time to train everybody in our organization, rather than bringing in bespoke solutions, or hiring more counselors, or referring children. Yet it’s still very important to me to understand and meet individual needs rather than, from an institutional level, being satisfied in the provision of blanket services.”

The mentor/coaches are an advocate for students, explains Mansfield. “They champion students needs under any circumstances – a completely non-judgmental support for individual students at all times.”

Halcyon School also runs mindfulness and yoga programmes, which are beneficial, but they don’t tackle issues at “the root”, says Mansfield. “Children need to feel identified and have their own agency in an institution where they can speak up and be heard. Unless that’s there for them, educators may never see the challenges they face.”

Relationships have improved and students are sharing information that “uncovers a huge range of student experiences that we just would never have seen otherwise,” says Mansfield. “From cyber bullying and the impacts of social media on relationships to being able to offer them the meditative skills they need to resolve problems, the results have been great.”

Personalized learning = happy students

As part of the wellbeing programme, personal learning is also encouraged. Students, supported by their mentors, choose what they want to learn in addition to the MYP curriculum.

“We want students to be happy and, through personal learning ­– and knowing that they have someone who is there for them – that helps students know that they are cared about,” says Gareth Jones, Science Teacher and Student Wellbeing Leader.

“When you look at Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ [a theory of human motivation, represented in a pyramid], one of the things lost is that baseline of feeling safe within schools, and that’s why one in four people experience anxiety. What we really try to strive for is providing that caring environment for students.”

As part of their personalized learning, students construct a goal to work towards. For example, a mentor group worked to address misunderstandings around LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) rights. “Students put together their own presentations and hosted a school assembly, where they ran a Q&A. There was no teacher involvement whatsoever,” explains Mansfield.

Other students have specifically focused on mental health. For example, one student created a charity called ‘Happy Thoughts’. She went around the school and delivered positive messages, and invited speakers to talk to students about mental health issues, positive energy and CBT. Others have hosted a series of lectures on positivity and depression, and provided helpful information.

Students enjoy hosting sessions, finding specialists, taking ownership and being involved in the whole process. They act responsibly because they are given the respect and trust. We also hope that they advocate for themselves,” adds Jones. 

Beyond mental health

Halcyon has come a long way in destigmatizing mental health within the school community, but misunderstandings still remain. “When new parents find out we have a wellbeing programme they sometimes assume we have a problem at our school. It’s simply about raising awareness,” says Mansfield.

“Schools need to do better helping everyone in the community understand the value of a wellbeing programme,” he adds. “Schools absolutely need to work from the ground upwards and promote an open culture for all issues, not just mental health issues. You can’t pick it out and put a spotlight on it. It’s got to be the same as any other problem that you deal with in school and the students need to have exactly the same level of engagement, agency and control over that so that they genuinely have ownership of it.”

This article is part of a series that takes a deeper look at mental health. Read part one here: Mental health: The silent crisisLook out for part 3 where we speak to the Mental Health Foundation about how teachers can practically support students who suffer from a mental illness, and how to spot the possible signs.