Although most pupils are doing OK, we have a mental health crisis impacting on a significant number of children and young people. Schools can either exacerbate the difficulties or ameliorate them. Schools that are doing well for all the children and young people in their care are concerned about more than academic success. They want pupils to enjoy learning, feel they can be successful and know that people care about them. To be published in 2024 by Routledge, these two books – ASPIRE to wellbeing and learning for all in early years and primary and ASPIRE to wellbeing and learning for all in secondary settingsshow education practitioners how to help every student feel valued and included in school, so they develop confidence, resilience, love of learning, a positive sense of self and healthy relationships.

Sue Roffey presents a visionary and unique approach to education, underpinned by clear principles that can be practically applied in all settings.  It is aligned with what we know promotes healthy child development and addresses what all children need if they are to learn and thrive, including those who experience difficulties and disadvantages. She envisages an education system fit for purpose where all pupils can thrive and make progress in learning, where wellbeing for everyone is at the heart of every school. She uses ASPIRE as an acronym for Agency, Safety, Positivity, Inclusion, Respect and Equity. These principles, when threaded through everything that happens in a school, can genuinely enhance both wellbeing and learning. This resource features a chapter for each principle which explores what this means, why it matters and how it can be applied. Although visionary, the books are based on both substantial evidence and good practice, with each chapter supported by case-studies across the world.

The Principles

Although described separately these principles interact to promote optimal relationships with colleagues and clients.

Agency

When people have agency they have choices and take responsibility for making things happen. When we work with schools, classes, teachers, students or parents, we do not impose answers, but help people come to their own decisions about ways forward. We do this by providing information, guidance, ideas, evidence and supporting strategic thinking. We see our work as a co-operative endeavour.

Safety

Relationships are central to our work. In a healthy relationship everyone feels emotionally, physically and psychologically safe. Without this people cannot take risks for fear of making mistakes. Safety also implies trust. We will not offer what we cannot deliver, but may find someone who can.

Positivity

Our work is based in positive psychology and positive education. Our major focus is helping people define their vision and goals and the steps towards these – this is different from dealing primarily with problems. We explore the strengths that people, organisations and families have and build on these. We also bring a light touch into our work with the positive psychology aspects of kindness, gratitude, humour and positive communication.

Inclusion

A sense of belonging is critical for wellbeing. This means that we value diversity – everyone has something to offer. One aspect of inclusion is cooperation. To facilitate this we encourage participants in any project to get to know each other, to break up cliques, help with communication and facilitate new perspectives.

Respect

When people ask how they want to be treated by others, most say they want to be respected. When asked to define what respect means for them, they say being accepted, being listened to, not being judged, having confidences kept. We also believe that it means respecting people’s time and circumstances. Respect does not only apply to individuals, it also applies to contexts and culture.

Equity

Equity means that everyone in a project has an equal voice. No-one dominates and the aim is to come to a consensus. We appreciate that in order to ensure equity we may need to have flexibility in our approach.

The book – ASPIRE to wellbeing and learning for all in early years and primary

The book demonstrates the positive difference each principle makes to children in primary school settings as well as teachers, parents and the overall community. It is a must-read for primary school teachers, tutors, school leaders, psychologists, parents and anyone who wants an education system that is inclusive, holistic and effective for all students.

Introduction

The chapter begins by asking what education is for, what we want for children in school now, and what sort of society we want them to live in. Referring to positive psychology and education, we also ask whether learning environments are aligned with healthy child development and supportive for teachers and families. The book addresses the learning and wellbeing of all children, everywhere and there are references to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. (UNCROC). Bronfenbrenner’s ecological model shows how influences between systems are bi-directional and develop over time. Change is possible.

The genesis of the ASPIRE acronym (Agency, Safety, Positivity, Inclusion, Respect and Equity) is followed by an introduction to each principle. Every chapter is structured with a definition of the principle, why this matters, and how it is put into practice in the early years, primary classroom and primary school. The section on social and emotional learning (SEL) gives children understanding of the principle and opportunities to enact it. Case-studies, references and resources support educators in taking each principle forward.

Chapter 1. Agency: Power with, not power over

When children have agency, things happen with them rather than to them, helping them be engaged, optimistic and have a positive sense of self. Self-determination is critical for wellbeing, children’s healthy development and intrinsic motivation, defined as doing and learning for interest and mastery rather than external rewards. Children need to know they can have impact on their own progress and also on the world around them. The chapter therefore includes the value and practice of both self-directed learning and social action, with examples from Canada and the UK.

Glasser’s deadly and caring habits in teacher-student relationships see pupil choice replace teacher control, with examples of what this means in practice. The chapter also includes the importance of teacher voice and ways to enact whole staff consultation. SEL activities encourage pupils to take responsibility for class culture and community action. The resources section lists several relevant websites, including one that provides a free platform for schools to bring social action and philanthropy into the classroom.

Chapter 2. Safety: Physical, emotional, social, psychological and digital

Schools are often refuges for children who are otherwise at risk of harm. They can be predicable, consistent, calm and kind, as well as able to monitor concerns. Children who feel safe are more able to focus and take risks with their learning, knowing it is OK to make mistakes. This chapter has several vignettes of Safety in practice. A Junior School’s Safe Touch and Positive Handling Policy details how to meet children’s needs without compromising staff safety. Another is the Safer Communities for Children program from NAPCAN, the Australian equivalent of the NSPCC. Australia also provides an example of how to help children understand and take action to protect their digital safety. Links to both are in the Resources. Pupils with adverse childhood experiences (A.C.E.s) may feel unsafe and be sensitive to potential threat. The chapter offers guidance in responding when behaviour is challenging. The chapter also addresses Safety from bullying, and one of the SEL activities explores what it means to be an ‘upstander’ rather than a ‘bystander’ when pupils see others being bullied.

Chapter 3. Positivity: Strengths, solutions, smiles and support.

As emotions such as anxiety, depression, confusion and anger shut down cognitive pathways, it makes sense to promote the positive wherever possible, so all children can learn and thrive. This chapter includes the beliefs, skills, and communications that foster healthy relationships, the power of laughter, positive thinking, awareness of inner discourse, solution-focused approaches, identifying strengths and encouraging both kindness and playfulness in the classroom.

The chapter stresses the importance of free play both for learning and development and for mental health and wellbeing. Denise Quinlan writes about her research on a strengths approach for positive school culture, and Therese Hoyle on ways to generate positive playtimes. Putting positivity into practice in the early years includes how practitioners might support parents. The chapter also addresses teacher wellbeing and how gratitude might permeate a school culture. SEL includes activities on mindfulness, blessings and an example from the Wellbeing Stories on what to do about the worry wart!

Chapter 4. Inclusion: Everyone welcome, everyone matters, everyone participates

Belonging is now acknowledged as a basic pillar of wellbeing and positive adaptation to adversity. Whereas inclusive belonging accepts and respects everyone, exclusive belonging is promoted in closed groups who keep others out if they are different. This can lead to discrimination and treating others inhumanely. Inclusion fosters our shared humanity.

Prilleltensky defines ‘mattering’ as being valued but also being of value, and we explore what this means in practice. Attendance has become an entrenched problem, especially since the pandemic, so the chapter identifies what needs to happen for children to feel comfortable in the learning environment and want to come to school. In order to include others, we may need to be empathic, tuning into their situation and needs, We explore ways to develop empathy in pupils. Involving families and communities in schools requires specific approaches some which are outlined here. The section on behaviour shows why zero-tolerance policies are ineffective and how restorative practices that promote connection help children choose more pro-social behaviours.

Chapter 5. Respect: For individuals, communities and human rights

The chapter begins with the Golden Rule, treating others as we would wish to be treated. This includes being caring, considerate, showing due regard for context and the dignity of others. Respect is necessary for trust and effective collaboration. Within the chapter we address issues of courtesy, cultural awareness, leadership and teacher-student relationships. Respect for teachers includes vignettes calling for supportive supervision for educators involved with pupils experiencing trauma and acknowledging that family issues must take priority. Mutual respect between school and home includes what needs to be in place to have respectful meetings.

Glade Primary School, who have been awarded the Rights Respecting Gold Star Award write about what this means for them and the culture of their school. The section on behaviour gives information on a respectful alternative to the language of disorders. The SEL section focuses on issues of trust together with activities that give pupils opportunities to discuss what would be respectful actions in various situations.

Chapter 6. Equity: Fairness and flexibility

While equality means treating everyone the same, equity explores how to provide equal opportunities. This book focuses on making wellbeing and learning accessible for all pupils and seeks social justice for every child. The chapter details ways in which students might be disadvantaged and concludes that there is no such thing as ‘the normal’ child as many factors impact on wellbeing and attainment. There are examples of how cycles of disadvantage have been reversed in the past, such as Sure Start and the risk to social mobility now. Finland and Estonia are given as examples of countries who are doing well by making education an instrument of inequality reversal. It makes economic sense to intervene early with a 13% return on investment in terms of better educational, social and health outcomes.

Putting equity into practice in the early years includes supporting parents with behaviour and addressing issues of gender. In the primary classroom the emphasis is on oracy, cooperative learning, environmental adaptations and citizenship in action. Access for a variety of needs is a critical feature of equity and the section on behaviour includes responses to loss and to trauma.

Chapter 7. ASPIRE across the world

In this chapter the ASPIRE principles are combined in action in various educational settings across the world, impacting on school culture and benefitting the wellbeing and learning of all children. This includes how a school leader built a positive school culture in Australia, the Wild Plots environmental curriculum for young children in the UK, the impact of Circle Solutions social and emotional learning across an elementary school in China, educational psychologists supporting ASPIRE in schools in the south of England, and an inspirational wellbeing initiative in six schools in Franschhoek, South Africa.<

ASPIRE summarises what is needed for an education fit for purpose in the 21st Century, one in which students are empowered, safe and enjoy learning, where teachers feel supported, respected  and nourished and where families are confident that the school has their child’s best interests at heart. ASPIRE is not just a fleeting emotion or experience but a way of connecting the personal and public sphere, from individual wellbeing to the world our children will create and inherit. ASPIRE puts radical love at the heart of education.