Published March 2023, Headspace Magazine
Countless studies are telling us that anxiety in children has significantly increased since the pandemic. A survey of children aged 6-11 by The Happy Confident Company found 43% of children worry about the future and 39% say this distracts them from everyday life and fun.
In response to these troubling figures, schools are rightly prioritising mental health and wellbeing, but with limited guidance. Therefore, it’s challenging to know where to begin.
One school rising to the challenge is Cunningham Hill School (CHS) in Hertfordshire, which supports pupil’s mental health and wellbeing with a practical and cost-effective whole school programme developed by The Happy Confident Company. Based on the latest research and developed with psychologists, educators and mental health experts, the FEELIT programme develops a common understanding of feelings, behaviours and impacts among students. Crucially, the programme requires no changes to the curriculum as it is based on ten-minute sessions each day.
Ground-breaking research shows that just ten minutes of wellbeing and mindfulness a day can be transformative, leading to children feeling better, behaving better and consequently reducing the burden and stress on teaching staff.
Cat Shennan, Assistant Head and Mental Health and Wellbeing Lead at Cunningham Hill advises that before embarking on a programme of any type, it’s important first to identify the key people involved in taking responsibility for the programme, and define clear and consistent ways children can share thoughts and feelings throughout the day and across the school.
IMPLEMENTING A WHOLE SCHOOL WELLBEING PROGRAMME:
1. SHORT DAILY SESSIONS TO DEVELOP EMOTIONAL LITERACY AND WELLBEING
It’s proven that emotional literacy has a huge impact upon children’s confidence in understanding and sharing their feelings. Schools Inherently need a consistent approach that helps pupils feel encouraged and safe to share their feelings. There are plenty of available resources, or schools can develop their own. However, a long term, whole school approach will see children reaping the benefits quickly.
CHS used the Happy Confident Company’s FEELITR programme to introduce children gradually to new feelings across each school year through engaging activities with direct links to the academic curriculum. The programme helped develop a common language across the school, while strengthening the school’s wellbeing strategy.
Both registration periods during the school day at CHS provide a safe space for the class to connect, reconnect, reflect and, if needed, decompress. Using this time to instil mental health or wellbeing check-ins has been the quickest way to roll out positive change across the whole school.
Arriving at school each day provides an opportunity to reset, and prepare for the day ahead. By providing a feelings check-in at registration, teachers can Identify issues that may need addressing. Check-ins can be done in many ways, from a discreet thumbs up or thumbs down from pupils on entry or roll call, to a more organised daily plotting of their feelings on a feelings mapper.
Some teachers have also trialled a second check-in at afternoon registration, which has helped CHS teaching staff to take an umbrella view of the children’s feelings and identify and address any changes or issues that may have arisen across the day.
Reflection and Decompression
Having tested the benefits of daily journaling for two terms, CHS is in the process of rolling out journaling for Years 3-6. CHS recognised huge improvements in both behaviour and communication from pupils who were using the journal in the trial, as they began to better self-regulate, process and express their emotions. Not only do the pupils benefit, but the teachers are quicker to identify those pupils experiencing challenges, even though they might not have expressed them. This enables earlier intervention when needed.
In these journaling periods, CHS is now planning to introduce the Happy Confident Me video programme – presented by Emma Willis – to teach Years 4 to 6 the 10 essential character building skills that children need to thrive, such as resilience, growth mindset, interoception and compassion.
2. WEAVE EMOTIONAL LITERACY INTO THE CURRICULUM
Whether building, adopting, or buying a programme to deliver a mental health and wellbeing strategy, it’s essential to consider how the programme links into the existing curriculum. A good programme will wrap into core subjects with ease. CHS has seen this working brilliantly with the FEELIT programme, which adds huge value to the overall philosophy of the school.
Mental health and wellbeing can be perfectly integrated into PHSE, English, History, Art and Drama by using emotional literacy to grow skills in both empathy and compassion, creating a safer, more open culture. Exploring characters in history or current affairs; assessing the conveyance of mood and emotions in abstract art; helping children develop their written skills – these all foster a much richer education, with wellbeing at its heart.
3. USE SCHOOL WIDE TIME TO CREATE A SHARED FEELING OF COMMUNITY AND DRIVE COMPASSION
Whether whole-school, year groups, phases or key stages, assemblies offer an excellent opportunity to embed whole-school ideas, messages and language and create an open and compassionate community.
Commencing with a monthly assembly to talk about the different aspects of Mental Health, CHS used these assemblies to focus on specific issues. The topics and themes were further developed across the month, with resources, activities and curricular discussions around specific themes. Banks of activities for each theme were sent out as home learning during lockdown – creating a stronger nexus between school, child and home. This initiative was so successful that the school now holds fortnightly assemblies exploring emotional literacy, a life skill or a problem, which may be encountered in day-to-day life.
4. SET UP SCHOOL COMMUNITY INITIATIVES FOR PEER-TO-PEER SUPPORT
The playground can be both an enjoyable experience and a place of conflict, where problems can arise. A mentor or buddy system is a great initiative that can make all the difference. The new child mentor scheme at CHS has proven to be an effective way to encourage children to discuss and take responsibility for their own feelings and behaviour.
With a separated area in the playground, ‘trained’ Year 6 children support others through play with a range of toys including LEGO and sensory games. These child mentors are supported by the school’s Behaviour and Learning Mentor. Any child is welcome to talk to the mentors, who are trained to listen to children when they are upset/overwhelmed and to offer a kind ear or elevate bigger issues to a teacher.
Simple methods can be put in place. For example, Year 5 and 6 playground monitors can be on the lookout to help children who may need support or a friendly face. Reflection Gardens or Friendship Benches provide physical spaces for children seeking comfort, and indicate that they are in need of support.
A dedicated space for mental health and wellbeing interventions can be advantageous. CHS has named specific spaces within the school as wellbeing areas. In doing this, the profile of mental health around the school has been raised. It tells visitors, staff and children that wellbeing is both valued and important.
“Using both FEELIT! and journaling resources has ensured that our children are thriving and becoming the best versions of themselves – and we saw positive results very quickly.”
Justine Elbourne-Cload, Executive Headteacher, Cunningham Hill Schools