Nurture Principle 3: The Development of Wellbeing
This blog considers the third of the six Principles of Nurture: “The importance of nurture for the development of wellbeing”. This is about creating a positive and optimistic ethos which promotes social and emotional development and ensures that children’s individual strengths and talents are recognised and promoted. Here are some ideas for applying this principle across the whole school environment.
The Power of Relationships
Wellbeing within the school environment is underpinned by nurturing connections. A lovely quote from Peter Benson reminds us that “relationships are the oxygen of human development”. How we interact with children on a daily basis will have an enormous impact on what they think, feel and remember. Here are some the key qualities which we need to convey in our attempts to safeguard and promote positive wellbeing. I’m sure you can think of many more from your own experiences!
Embedding Wellbeing in the Curriculum
Andrew Cowley argues that wellbeing cannot be confined to a series of one-off lessons and short-lived annual campaigns. It needs to be reflected in all aspects of school life. Nurture and wellbeing are far more powerful when they are absorbed through various relationships, subjects, routines, and contexts.
- Physical health is a key component of mental health. I’ve seen first-hand the benefits of the Daily Mile where children can walk in the fresh air and chat with school staff and friends. Lots of academic and social concepts can be conveyed and practised through physical activity, such as action songs, parachute games and obstacle courses.
- Explore emotions using the creative arts. This can include matching facial expressions with words and practising the expressions in a mirror, using a body map to teach where stress can manifest in different body parts, discussing how characters in a story may be feeling and using puppets to role-play emotional vocabulary and calming techniques.
- Make time to talk about family experiences, personal role models and meaningful routines which are part of each child’s daily life. If we want to create a truly inclusive society, we need to learn from each other. History, Religion, Home Economics and Modern Languages are the perfect conduit for teaching about words, songs, foods, and the origins of different cultures.
- Visits to the canteen and shadowing the caretaker and other support staff can provide insight into food hygiene and cleanliness. We can also be explicit about safety by sorting activities between safe and unsafe categories, using drama and circle time to teach the difference between a stranger and a trusted adult and making a PowerPoint presentation with pictures of a safe route to school.
- Teach the signs to look out for when someone is being bullied and practise routines for how to help and who to tell. Restorative principles which explore the impact of actions, the thoughts and feelings behind these actions and what can be done to make things right are also important for promoting conflict resolution and repairing relationships.
- Reframe mistakes and setbacks as a normal and helpful part of the learning process, regardless of the subject. Admitting to our own mistakes is a great way of modelling this. Activities which have more than one right answer can help to promote different ways of thinking and provide opportunities for choice and control. Mathematics is a great subject for reinforcing how there are multiple ways of solving a problem.
- Utilise the lived experience of older children in secondary settings. They can provide invaluable advice to pupils joining the school and share their stories of how they settled into the new environment and made friends. They may also have lots of practical suggestions for managing projects, coursework, and exam stress.
- Share information on helpline numbers and websites, such as ChildLine, Young Minds, Kidscape, Beat and Anna Freud. These should be visible in a wide range of spaces within the school building and easily accessible on the school website.
Getting good at taking in the good
Rick Hanson proposes that noticing and absorbing positive experiences needs to become a regular part of life. He likens it to deepening the keel of a sailboat, so that it is more capable of handling and recovering from strong winds. Here are some ideas for nurturing happiness and teaching children some key skills for looking after their mental health.
- Develop gratitude practises. Reflect on three good things from today or something that excites you about tomorrow. Demonstrate how to keep a weekly diary of things which have gone well. Schedule time for the children to discuss, write about or draw happy memories which elicit positive feelings.
- Make kindness a regular habit. There could be designated weeks throughout the year, where children are encouraged to engage in random acts of kindness within the classroom, the wider school environment or the local community. The monthly calendars from Action for Happiness also provides lots of simple and practical ideas. A letter of thanks can help others to feel appreciated and kept in mind. I’ve seen some schools display children’s good deeds on a wall or noticeboard, so that everyone has a responsibility to notice and record these acts and others can be inspired to join in.
- Help children to achieve their “Flow state”. During brain breaks and down time, provide access to activities which are truly absorbing and engaging; where they lose a sense of time and feel fulfilled. Just giving opportunities for children to talk about and debate their special interests can be rewarding. Adrian Bethune also recommends activating flow experiences in learning activities. This can involve providing more autonomy within a task, adjusting the level of challenge and linking the task with their interests and everyday experiences.
- Promote personalised stress busters. Some children may enjoy guided meditation or progressive muscle relaxation, while others may prefer a quick deep breathing exercise, a simple grounding activity or visualising a calm and safe place. We should also communicate key affirmations on a regular basis, such as “I am seen and heard”, “I am loved”, “It’s okay to feel this way” and “I can ask for help”.
- Model how to reframe negative thinking. We can sensitively challenge worries and fears by looking for evidence of when a thought is and isn’t true, reflecting on what others might say in response to this thought and identifying people, places, and times which make the thought more manageable. Rick Hanson also recommends spending more time appreciating the little things so that they are more prominent in our minds.
- Encourage children to make plans and set goals by writing a letter to their future selves. This can also be useful for reminding them of how they have coped with difficult moments in the past and how they can learn from those moments. Making a “Book of Success” can be a powerful conduit for revisiting previous success and resilience.
- Notice and praise the effort which the child is applying and how they are persisting with a more challenging task. When we use language such as “You’re taking a moment to think and then trying again”, the child can apply similar language as self-talk for future situations.
- Establish support networks. These may include specific friends who are good listeners or members of staff who can act as key adults and facilitate check-ins during daily transitions. We should empower kind and responsible students who can organise activities and monitor younger children in the playground. Student councils can also help to elicit children’s voices about different issues and how they could be addressed by staff.
Putting on your own oxygen mask first
In “Teacher Wellbeing & Self-Care”, Adrian Bethune and Emma Kell talk about how the innately giving nature of the teaching profession can quickly lead to burn-out. If school staff are feeling exhausted, irritable, or unheard, they will struggle to contain and support the emotions of the children in their care. So how do we help the helpers?
- Promote a healthy work-life balance by encouraging staff to prioritise “must do” and “want to” tasks, reminding them to avoid long hours of working and ensuring that they take breaks and indulge in rest or revitalising activities. All staff should feel safe in asking for help and confident in saying that they can’t do something right away.
- Look for ways to reduce demands, such as no-marking days, replacing laborious marking with verbal feedback or having the children mark each other’s work. Give advanced warning about administrative tasks and consider how these could be shared between staff. Offer flexibility in terms of when and where staff can prepare for lessons or assessments and trust them to be creative in juggling responsibilities.
- Intrusive communication makes it difficult for staff to switch off from work. Similarly, it can be instantly demoralising to open your inbox and find a flood of messages waiting to be read. Unless there is urgent information about a school closure, bereavement or critical incident, consider having curfews on weekday emails and none at all at weekends.
- Some schools like to create wholesale wellbeing programmes, with opportunities for yoga, meditation, running clubs, book clubs and regular social events. These should be open to all staff, but attendance should not be compulsory. Some may prefer to get things done at home, work with their own children or have time with their personal hobbies.
- It’s important that everyone’s efforts and achievements are recognised. Capitalise on any opportunity to celebrate a small win. There also needs to be active prevention of gossip and rumours, which can easily give rise to misunderstandings and resentment. Be factual about what is happening, when and why and ensure that everyone’s responsibilities are clearly defined.
- Schedule designated times for an “open door” to senior management, so that staff can debrief about difficult moments. A rota system amongst senior management and other volunteers could enable a quick “check in” with all staff over the course of the week. Ideally, we should strive towards a system that offers protected time for reflection and supervision, but this preventative approach may help to identify signs of stress and burnout.
References and Further Reading
BETHUNE, A., 2018. Wellbeing in the Primary Classroom. A practical guide to teaching happiness. London: Bloomsbury Education.
BETHUNE, A. and KELL, E., 2021. Teacher Wellbeing & Self-Care. London: Sage Publications Ltd.
BENSON, P.L., 2008. Sparks. How parents can help ignite the hidden strengths of teenagers. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
COWLEY, A., 2019. The Wellbeing Toolkit. Sustaining, Supporting and Enabling School Staff. London: Bloomsbury Education.
COWLEY, A., 2021. The Wellbeing Curriculum. Embedding Children’s Wellbeing in Primary Schools. London: Bloomsbury Education.
HANSON, R., 2013. Hardwiring Happiness. How to reshape your brain and your life. London: Rider Books.
LUCAS, S., INSLEY, K. and BUCKLAND, G., 2006. Nurture Group Principles and Curriculum Guidelines: Helping Children to Achieve. London: The Nurture Group Network.
RAE, T., 2020. A Toolbox of Wellbeing. Helpful strategies & activities for children, teens, their carers & teachers. Banbury: Hinton House Publishers Ltd.
ROBERTS, F., 2021. Cultures and Systems for Whole School Wellbeing. In EVANS, K., HOYLE, T., ROBERTS, F. and YUSUF, B., Eds, 2021. The Big Book of Whole School Wellbeing. London: Sage Publications Ltd. pp 3 – 10.