How can school support wellbeing in a time of uncertainty?
One of the most challenging aspects for us all, of the last few months has been the sense that our lives are no longer entirely under our own control. Decisions are made at government level which affect our freedoms, our livelihoods and the routines of daily life, in a way that entirely unprecedented in peace-time and certainly in our lifetimes. This has been profoundly unsettling for many adults, and it is inevitable that young people absorb and share in some of the prevailing anxiety that stems from living with uncertainty. Exams, university places, parents’ jobs, even the ability to go to school every day – all of these were once taken for granted, and now may no longer be relied upon.
As we all return to school this term, we are witnessing the impact that lockdown has had on the mental wellbeing of our school communities. For many of our students, relief at returning to familiar daily routines, the structure of the school day and the opportunity to be with their friends in person, not just on-line, is palpable. This is just as true of our staff, who thrive as team members, drawing support from the companionship of the staffroom and affirmation from the strong teacher-student relationships that are at the heart of a school like St George’s. Our regular wellbeing surveys, for both staff and students, have helped us to monitor and respond to the ebb and flow of confidence or anxiety. We are spending more time than ever listening to and supporting our students, and we know that it will take time for them to process their recent experiences.
A very important part of our returning to school this term has been of course ensuring that all members of our community feel safe to be on the school site. This is not just a matter of practical steps such as having one-way systems and hand sanitiser stations. I think it is also to do with how much control people feel that they have over their environment. We asked individual staff members to contribute to drawing up risk assessments for their areas of the school if they themselves are at heightened risk. Students and staff know that they can wear clothes that can be easily washed rather than blazers or suits, that have to be dry-cleaned. Even small elements of control over one’s own circumstances make a difference.
A recent article by Cindy Lamothe in the New York Times, How to Cope When Everything Keeps Changing captures this well. The behavioural and organisational psychologists that she refers to in this piece talk about the importance of two particular strands of thinking: the flexibility of mindset that allows an individual to adapt their plans when change occurs, and the ability to identify the aspects of our lives over which we can assert our agency, however small. The article also refers to the concept of hardiness, ‘which teaches us to perceive stressful life events less as threats and more as opportunities for personal development.’ Of course I fully recognize that for some people, for whom this time has brought immense sadness and loss, it could be difficult to see such an opportunity in their current circumstances, but in general, the ability to turn adversity into opportunity is key to developing personal resilience, and reminds us again of the element of autonomy that we do have in our lives.
So how can school life make a difference? So much of the learning that children do at school takes place outside of the classroom. The so-called ‘soft skills’ such as team working, adaptability, empathy, communication do not deserve to be labelled in this way; they are actually at the heart of what it means to be human, and of the way in which we function and flourish as members of a community. These are the skills and attributes that are engendered by taking part in a rich co-curricular programme at school. A disappointing result in a hockey or netball match; managing one’s nerves prior to a music exam or making a speech; learning to compromise while working with peers in a Young Enterprise company; reflecting on why a session that you led in CCF did not go so well – all of these are wonderful opportunities for personal growth. Recognising that making mistakes is an essential part of learning, and that reflection and hard work are within reach for us all – these are essential lessons for us all, and ones that we aim to instill from an early age, by offering a diverse range of opportunities for all our girls to challenge themselves, whether through outdoor learning in our Fantastical Forest for our youngest students, by pursuing a demanding academic goal or by taking part in an open-ended project like our Erasmus Plus programme.
At St George’s our teachers are working hard to maintain as far as possible the challenge and excitement of normal school life. Last week our Primary 5 girls climbed Scald Law, the highest of the Pentland Hills. They had planned and prepared for their journey carefully themselves, experiencing a strong sense of ownership and control of the process, but would also have had to deal with the unexpected and unfamiliar while on the hill, giving them that all-important sense of achievement and personal pride that comes from undertaking such a challenge. For the moment, singing and playing wind and brass instruments are not considered safe, but, in a school where over half of our girls take instrumental or singing lessons, we know that learning an instrument, playing and performing, are key to the wellbeing and development of so many of our students. Our music teachers have found ways to ensure that music, and individual music lessons can go on despite the pandemic, and here technology has come to the rescue, just as it did during lockdown. Live Teams calls enable students and teachers to work together in their regular weekly slots, so learning and progress can continue. The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme is another important facet of school life; at St George’s we have long been proud of the exceptional numbers of students who complete Gold before they leave the school, a level of completion that has been described to me as sector leading. During the summer of course, the expeditions and much of the service element of the award had to go on hold. Over the last few weeks, however, with adaptations such as using more tents per group, we have been able to enable our girls to complete their expeditions.
Physical activities such as the team sport that we value so much, have additional protocols in place in order to minimize risk at the moment. We know how much difference to wellbeing regular physical activity can bring, so it is a real pleasure to see girls heading off to Hockey or Netball club again, as well as Running and Fitness. As well as an essential physical release of tension, and the valuable boost to fitness that sport and Physical Education bring, they also nurture communication skills and confidence and create opportunities for challenge and achievement which boost self-esteem. Being able to play our first competitive fixtures this weekend, albeit on a much smaller scale than usual, was a key milestone for us.
I am so proud of my staff for the versatility and resilience that they are showing in making all of these adaptations, and being determined that these cornerstones of school life remain in place for the girls. It is so important that we, as educators, are strong role models, demonstrating that with creative and positive thinking obstacles can be overcome. By doing so we show that we can take back control of some of the things that matter to us in our lives, and that I believe is an essential lesson for young people at the moment, and possibly one of the most important lessons they will ever learn.