However, it appears that these shared experiences are vastly magnified for today’s pupils. The technology that can highlight issues affecting young people can also become a tool of destruction.
The confusing, yet at times awkward, rite of passage of socialising and developing relationships that challenge us are now simplified to a system of quick clicks and publicised “Many online social platforms allow judgement with little context.”on digital front pages to be discussed by others. Many online social platforms allow, for instance, judgement with a like, poke re-share or dislike that is made with little context - this can quickly go viral and can provide instant gratification or damage. However, framing the climate of pupil wellbeing is not as simple as pointing the finger at social media or suggesting that fewer examinations will solve pupil anxiety issues. It is guileless to assume wellbeing days or tick box self-regulation training will make any difference. It is also problematic to believe that a utopian childhood experience will produce resilient learners or that every emotion is a disorder.
The solution is not about virtue signalling because it feels good or sounds right, it’s about recognising that life is not about sunshine and rainbows. Therefore, it is about moving away from glittery interventions and focussing on creating effective school systems that promote a healthy school culture which improves pupil wellbeing – it’s a culture of CARE.
The school must be clear, consistent and over-communicate its expectations to eliminate all grey areas. It is in these grey areas that fear, anxiety and worry can lurk and engulf pupils, either slowly or quickly. For instance, a lack of clarity and inconsistent application in the behaviour management system can feed low-level disruption that not only disrupts learning but may also fuel bullying in all its forms, which can then easily be extended outside the classroom and presented to a global audience. Therefore, a strong and consistent system of behaviour expectations rigorously applied will begin to erase the grey and replace ambiguity with a safe learning environment. An environment in which a pupil can learn and have a voice that can be challenged and challenge others without fear of peer reprisal. A message which is clear to pupils that school is to learn will ripple out into the community.
However, communication is not a one way road, it must be reciprocal. Pupils should have an opportunity to have a voice, to be heard and play an active role in school life and take control of their wellbeing. Do pupils know who to speak to when they have concerns or worries? Do they have an outlet to express their opinion about the school experience? Are support channels signposted? Are staff trained and confident in the next steps?
Effective pupil voice is more than listening; it’s about ensuring that pupils are aware that the school is there to listen. Pupils at my school are aware of the strength of our pastoral system, which has clear channels of support and are therefore more willing to engage and communicate with the school.
We have many rights of which we know all too well, but the part that responsibility plays has little room in the discussion. However, a healthy culture that promotes pupil wellbeing must also uphold high levels of personal accountability. Understanding the consequence of one’s actions cannot be displaced by protecting them with excuses for their actions. Mistakes are made, but they should be learnt from by talking through it and the pupil held to account.
I believe that the overwhelming vast majority of pupils know what is right and what is wrong, and if we are to hold high expectations for pupils and prepare them for the world then schools must not lower their standards in any situation. The red lines are there, they cannot be crossed. Not only do I believe that accountability threads together a healthy culture but it promotes fairness.
Technology may be connecting more people but the digital revolution, as well as the physical world, provides little support to pupils to navigate or cope with the many pitfalls that can come with building relationships. Online, pupils are faced with bullying, sexual exploitation, sexting, pornography and grooming. This is in addition to media exposure that inundates them with mixed messages on beauty, relationships, friendship, body image and love. Let’s not forget the polarised digital world that people project and the perfect or destructive lives that are carefully manicured across their Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat accounts. The effect on the pupil can be overwhelming and easily impact their emotional and physical lives. Therefore, in addition to support provided in schools, there needs to be a curriculum approach that provides pupils with strategies to challenge and cope with relationships.
The recent introduction of mandatory sex and relationship lessons is an opportunity for schools to begin to arm pupils with knowledge to push back on many fronts. The integration of sex and relationship topics should be explicit in its learning intentions and delivery. Discussing and debating pornography, sex and mental illness are not the easiest topics for teachers to teach, but the message must be clear and void of all retreatism to safe ground. We can’t protect pupils from a broken heart, but we can help them realise the next steps. We can’t ban pornography, but we can challenge the impact it has on the perception of sex. We can’t stop pupils from having sexual relationships, but we can debate the good and bad that comes with it. We can’t stop examination anxiety, but we can prepare pupils and teach revision and preparation methods.
Finally, provide opportunities for pupils to take on or develop a hobby, or just have fun. A rich, extracurricular programme can have surprising but positive effects on pupil wellbeing. It provides safe spaces for pupils to make new friends, reinforce or develop grit, to be creative or explore different subjects or experiences otherwise which are unavailable to them in the community. Throwing paint on a board or penning a song can be therapeutic to work through their feelings and exercise has long been documented as good for your physical and mental health. It can also provide pupils with a space to show a talent, explore their interests and build key skills such as teamwork, communication and leadership.
It is not surprising that there are many studies which suggest that enrichment opportunities may improve social interactions, motivation, decrease behavioural problems, increase engagement in schools or improve self-esteem. A rich enrichment programme “Extracurricular programmes provide safe spaces for pupils to make new friends.”can open many doors to support pupil wellbeing, however school performance pressure can blur its impact. This is something my school has not yet perfected, but we are currently exploring how to interweave enrichment throughout our curriculum during and outside school hours. Investing in enrichment programmes may not on the surface appear to drive up Maths or English scores, but it is helping to motivate and develop key learning skills that could improve pupil confidence to participate and engage in the lessons.
Pupil wellbeing has a far-reaching effect on the pupil’s health of body and mind which impacts all facets of their lives. My colleagues and I see every day the impact it can have on their learning. It may be great to wish away all the problems our children will face, but that is not the reality which we live in, and often stress and anxiety play an important role in learning.
However, we can support pupil wellbeing by creating a healthy school culture that provides pupils with the knowledge and strategies to make informed decisions or to access support. To achieve this I believe that schools can play a critical role in ensuring that they have clear systems in place, so that CARE in pastoral is not left on an island but consistently and effectively enforced and adhered to by communication, accountability, relationships and enrichment.
Keep is simple, keep it consistent and keep it genuine. A strong school culture outweighs any fancy or complex wellbeing strategy. It may be as simple as starting every morning asking a pupil “how are you?”.
How do you encourage these qualities in your school? Let us know below.