Wellbeing in schools - 07 Mar 2012
Giles Bryant is the head of a research team that has conducted a two year study into wellbeing in schools. Here he talks us through his conclusions
The wellbeing of children has never been higher on the public agenda. Government backed initiatives such as Every Child Matters, SEAL and Healthy Schools reflect a growing awareness in society of the importance of wellbeing.
What is wellbeing?
Let us begin with a few exercises to deepen your awareness about wellbeing in schools. What does the word wellbeing mean? For many people it represents balance, harmony, peace, calm, contentment and confidence. Our definition of wellbeing is “being healthy, happy and achieving”.
Why is wellbeing in schools important to you? It is worth considering the importance we place on our own wellbeing as well as that of the school. There are a number of points that have come up in our research.
Children who are happy and healthy can learn more effectively and make a positive contribution to the school and wider community. When asked about the importance of wellbeing in schools an Ofsted spokesperson told us: “Children’s wellbeing and happiness in school underpins their attainment and achievement in school. Happy, well motivated pupils in safe, well run schools learn best and leave school best equipped for success in their adult lives.”
Staff wellbeing improves a teacher’s ability to teach and inspire. In a study on staff wellbeing, Professor Rob Briner concluded: “There is a clear and consistent link between high staff wellbeing and high value-added or SAT scores.” (Staff wellbeing is key to school success, Birbeck College 2007).
Better staff wellbeing reduces absences. According to recent figures from the Health and Safety Executive, 10.8 million workdays were lost due to stress, depression and anxiety and 7.6 million days due to musculoskeletal injuries. Many teachers we meet are coping with increasing pressures from their profession and from life generally. Implementing simple wellbeing practices as part of a daily routine could dramatically reduce absences.
It is clear that wellbeing should be an important component of school life. In the groundbreaking book, Teaching Happiness and Well-being in Schools, Ian Morris says: “Wellbeing should be the primary function of education and all schools should be geared to the maximisation of the flourishing of the students and staff that comprise them.”
Now we are clear on the nature of wellbeing and its importance in schools, we can ask what is preventing wellbeing in your school? Take some time to consider this. Teachers have given us various reasons, including not enough time in the day for the ever-increasing workload, a lack of support from government and parents, the burden of bureaucracy and the national curriculum, children’s negative behaviour, poor school facilities and staff who are unwell and unhappy.
Many of the above answers are beyond our direct influence to change, but some obstacles to wellbeing in school can definitely be overcome with effective strategies and techniques.
The final exercise is to visualise what wellbeing looks like in your school? If you could create the ideal learning environment, what would it be? The most common answer we hear from teachers is of seeing smiling faces of both children and staff, creating an environment children want to come to where they are safe and happy, staff having a good work-life balance and more control over what they teach, well-behaved, calm and focused classrooms and better communication and trust between the teachers, parents and pupils.
While some of these goals may be ambitious, it is of great value to know where we want to be heading.
The wellbeing techniques
Our study of wellbeing in schools concluded that existing government initiatives are making positive progress towards greater wellbeing. The dedicated work of schools themselves has been heartening to see, but like many a school report, our view on current wellbeing practices in schools is: “Could do better!”
A common theme throughout our study was not only the acceptance among members of staff on the importance of wellbeing in schools, but a lack of understanding of how they could implement it. We feel this is the heart of the problem for school wellbeing – people do not know how to achieve it. For all the government rhetoric about wellbeing, where are the simple tools that can be applied by busy teachers to help achieve it? The aim of our work, and many other organisations, has been to empower children and staff with simple, effective and accessible tools to achieve wellbeing.
The most fundamental and important thing that effects our physical and mental wellbeing is how well we breathe. In our opinion, not teaching children to breath properly is one of the most glaring omissions of the education system and something that requires immediate attention. It is obvious that a body and brain starved of sufficient oxygen, and not removing sufficient toxins through the breath will not function at its optimum level. An editorial in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine suggested that fast, shallow breathing can cause fatigue, sleep disorders, anxiety, stomach upsets, heart burn, excess gas, muscle cramps, dizziness, visual problems, chest pain and heart palpitations.
Scientists have also found that a lot of people who believe they have heart disease are really suffering from improper breathing. The average person uses only 30 per cent of lung capacity. This is sufficient to survive and just tick over, but not sufficient for a high level of vitality and the achievement of wellbeing and excellence.
Learning to breathe properly is very easy. We need to breathe to the belly and expand it when we breathe in, and bring the tummy in when we breathe out. Doing some simple “breathing games” in class for a few minutes can improve concentration, energy levels and enthusiasm.
Yoga and exercise
Regular exercise is important for health and wellbeing, with government guidelines for children to do 60-minutes every day. While all forms of exercise have merits, yoga is quite rightly gaining popularity in schools. It is non-competitive, gentle and fun, and a form of exercise that helps physical, emotional and mental wellbeing. Harvard University published a report in 2009 called Clinical Applications of Yoga for the Pediatric Population: A Systematic Review, which gave many indications of the benefits of yoga for children.
Here are three reasons why children should learn yoga in schools:
- The stretches and techniques of yoga teach and facilitate deep breathing.
- It empowers children with ways to be healthy and deal with stress and negative emotions.
- It balances the hemispheres of the brain leading to greater wellbeing and achievement of potential.
The enormity of these three benefits and the knock-on effect they have are appreciated when children (and adults) apply some simple techniques on a regular basis.
Maria Trappitt, headteacher at Great Yeldham Primary School in Essex, backs up this claim. She said: “Through the programme of yoga disciplines and techniques pupils have come to recognise a sense of inner peace, harmony and clarity of mind, which our pupils are learning to transfer into managing the challenges of everyday life in school and beyond.”
Yoga in schools is obviously a great idea. If the cost of specialist mats, restrictions of time, an available space and a qualified teacher prevents your school from taking it up, we recommend that a simple system of yoga exercise is implemented in classrooms. Our study developed a system of wellbeing exercises that take just five minutes, are easily done in uniform in a classroom and do not require a mat. Regular sessions of these exercises improves flexibility, strength, co-ordination, and self-confidence.
The benefits of meditation in school are gaining similar recognition to yoga. A common problem for today’s children is over-sensory stimulation and a lack of stillness and silence in their lives. Stillness is so important to rejuvenate the body and brain, enhance creativity and to find inner peace. Our study looked at many different techniques of meditation and found some very effective tools that children can learn to improve concentration, enhance brain function and emotional wellbeing.
In The Mozart Effect and The Mozart Effect for Children, author Don Campbell brought to the world’s attention the healing effects and advanced learning capability from listening or performing certain types of music. Using the voice, songs, live instruments, percussion and pre-recorded music, we have seen how concentration, co-ordination, confidence and happiness are enhanced. We encourage the use of music in all schools, and feel that the word “harmony” is aptly used as a link between music and wellbeing.
An aspect of the study revealed the importance of the classroom environment for optimal wellbeing and learning. The worldwide technique of creating a sacred space or “peace circle” is a way to help bring a more harmonious classroom environment. These peace circles encourage children to co-operate, feel calm and send out peace to the world.
The importance of outside learning is gaining momentum, something the great poet and educationalist Rabindranath Tagore would be pleased to see. He felt “the ideal environment for a child is outside amongst the birds and flowers”. We encourage outside learning and building sacred spaces to help children connect to their environment, the seasons and to gain a deeper respect for the planet.
As a nation we need to improve what pupils (and staff) eat if we want to achieve wellbeing. People like Jamie Oliver have made great inroads into better food at schools but more needs to be done. We have developed guidelines to help pupils, staff and parents maximise their wellbeing through good nutrition. It is based on the five A’s: Healthy food should taste Amazing, be Alkalising and mineralising, high in Antioxidants and essential fatty Acids with good, clean Aqua.
To summarise, a quiet revolution is underway within our education system, led by the principles of wellbeing. All children and members of staff can learn simple and effective tools to help keep them healthy, deal with stress, relax and most importantly to know their infinite potential.
• Giles Bryant runs the Wellbeing In Schools project that provides classes, training and resources for schools and parents. Visit www.wellbeinginschools.com