Wellbeing in schools is different from welfare. Welfare policies determine what you do when students are identified as in need of additional help. This is reactive and often the province of senior or specialist staff. When wellbeing is core business the focus is on the whole student, including their social and emotional development – together with promoting an effective climate for learning. This is pro-active, universal and everyone’s responsibility. Fewer students are likely to need welfare support when schools focus on wellbeing. It is a ‘catch-all’ strategy so those young people whose needs are not necessarily noticed ‘at the pointy end’ also have something in place that supports them.
Several years ago I asked a group of teachers training to be school counsellors what they thought helped to establish wellbeing in schools and what inhibited this development. Since then I have worked across many schools and with numerous teachers in several countries and have found that what I was told applies pretty much everywhere.
So what promotes student and school wellbeing?
Belief: It begins with the overriding belief that the whole child and every child in the school is valuable. I guess this is why there is much good practice in the Catholic sector in Australia. I have worked with Catholic Education in Melbourne and Cairns and met many educators there who believe they have a responsibility for every child and their authentic wellbeing. This is allied with their Christian values of love and social justice. I am not Catholic, but no-one has ever proselytized to me or been in any way goody two shoes – they have just done their best to live out these beliefs. As Catholicism has sometimes has a bad press it is heart-warming to see the principles of care and respect make a positive everyday difference for children and young people.
But you don’t have to have a religious faith to believe that every child – whatever their ability, background or behaviour – matters and is worthy of your best efforts. When the emphasis is on teaching students rather than on teaching subjects, learning for everyone is more likely to be optimal. This means that ‘learning to be’ and ‘learning to live together’ are seen as just as important in education as the knowledge and skills of the curriculum. Believing the wealth of evidence on the multiple educational benefits of focusing on wellbeing is a good start!
Leadership: Leaders not only need to be determined to seek the optimal wellbeing of all students, but also have a vision about what that means for their school. Some teachers don’t even know if their school executive has a vision, let alone what this is – as it is not what people talk about. A school’s mission statement doesn’t count unless it is active and real. Being willing and able to communicate a vision – and to do this in a way that enables people to hear – makes a big difference. This includes having credibility. Leaders need to be emotionally literate, walk the talk and have self-respect. Some kind-hearted principals do not have the confidence to convince anyone and they may not be taken seriously.
I can immediately think of at least three school leaders who are exemplars of what is needed. They treat everyone as a valued member of their school community, are idealistic and optimistic but do what is possible rather than bemoan what is beyond their influence. They have high expectations of everyone but also work hard themselves. Not only do they talk about what matters, they provide professional learning for staff on these issues. In small manageable steps, each of these principals has not only turned their schools around but everyone has willingly jumped on board. You can almost taste the positive atmosphere as you walk in the front door! I first learnt about one of these principals from a parent at an afternoon barbecue – she couldn’t stop raving about how wonderful her child’s school was. Convincing the parent community is an essential ingredient for wellbeing. By the way, all of the schools I’m thinking of are in the State sector.
Consultation and Collaboration: Wellbeing begins with ‘we’. Those individuals who want to be hero-innovators are on the wrong track. Not only will they be exhausted but no-one will own what happens and there will be limited change and even less sustainability. Authentic consultation makes a big difference. Someone once said to me ‘I don’t mind if the leadership team end up making a decision I don’t agree with, so long as I feel that my views have been really heard and taken into account’. Teachers are sick of having things imposed on them from on high. Using paired or small group structured discussion on policy and practice development makes everyone feel they have a voice. And this needs to include students. So much is done to students rather than with them in education. For wellbeing to be core business everyone needs to have a say.
Strengths and Solution Focused Approaches: We have a choice. Either we can spend our valuable time and energy moaning about problems (and not much will change except raising our levels of frustration) or we can spend the same amount of time and energy identifying what is working well, how we can get more of it and what else we can do to identify steps to take in the direction of the vision. No guesses which one is more effective, satisfying and productive. Those schools who stay with the ‘be realistic – what can you do?’ or ‘this is how we have always done things’ end up doing much less for wellbeing than those who see themselves as learning organisations and willing to have a go. This also enhances teacher wellbeing as they see themselves with higher levels of professional integrity and competence.
Being Pro-active, Taking Initiatives: Having a solution-focused approach doesn’t move the world on unless you actually DO something. There is a wealth of good practice together with a mountain of information and research evidence about what works. Check out Wellbeing Australia for just a fraction of this. Rather than reacting to the most entrenched difficulties a wellbeing approach looks at what needs to be in place to promote the engagement and social and emotional wellbeing of everyone. This can include initiatives on relationships across the school, resilience, positive behaviour, safe schools, restorative practices, and social and emotional learning with an appropriate pedagogy.
Teacher Wellbeing: Teachers who are not doing so well, who feel stressed, undermined and undervalued are not in the best place to develop wellbeing initiatives for students. Teacher wellbeing critically matters – and this is not based in having no challenging kids in the class or demanding parents – it is about collegial support, being acknowledged and having a sense that your values are congruent with what you do every day. Teachers not only need to look after themselves, they need to look after each other.
To be congruent with the above, I will give this less space than what works! Many inhibitors are simply the opposite of what promotes wellbeing – unhelpful beliefs about what education is about – mainly focusing on academic outcomes at the expense of the whole student. ‘Teaching to the test’ increases stress for teachers and anxiety for students and leaves less time for other things. Wellbeing needs to be a priority or other more ‘urgent’ activities take precedence. There is only so much time – we need to make good choices about what we spend it on.
Negative conversations about children, families and other colleagues contribute to a toxic environment where no-one feels safe or supported, cliques dominate and there is an emphasis on ‘the rules’ and accountability. Wellbeing does not flourish in a school where conversations are about deconstructing problems (which usually leaves you with a problem in pieces and nowhere to go!) and everyone is looking for others to blame and come up with a quick fix rather than taking responsibility.
Such schools often insist on conformity rather than being prepared to be flexible to meet individual needs. This usually leads to behaviour policies that are all about control and discipline rather than relationships and making positive choices. Vulnerable and challenging children are quickly labelled and often marginalised. They are seen as the ones that need to change.
Leaders dictate rather than consult and the overall ethos is authoritarian. By and large no-one feels happy, a sense of professionalism is based on exam resul only and overall there are more losers than winners. Parents are often competitive and make demands that are not congruent with a collaborative wellbeing ethos. Teachers tell me how difficult it is to work in these schools – how much more discouraging must it be for the students?
Sometimes you hear people say that that’s just the way it is. It isn’t. We can do things. Let’s not underestimate our collective power and influence. It starts with a belief that it matters. The next step is to find like minds and have a conversation – and then another! Sow seeds and water them. Remember you are a model for others. Hold onto your integrity, your values and your optimism. Go for broke and if you are not already a leader who cares about the whole child, aim to become one! I met a first year teacher this week and asked him how long it might take him to be a principal – students need people like him running their schools! There is a groundswell for student wellbeing in evidence across Australia and whether you are an educator or a parent, decide to be part of it. The kids are counting on you.