Pupil wellbeing and attainment

Written by: HTU | Published:

Wellbeing activities such as yoga, music, breathing techniques and good nutrition can help create pupils who are ready to learn. Giles Bryant explores the link between wellbeing and attainment and looks at case studies of wellbeing practices in action

The Olympics has shown us many wonderful examples of human attainment. At school we want our children to achieve their own “gold” in everything they do and the same principles of success applied by top athletes can help schools to maximise their potential.

Many athletes have a team around them helping to train their bodies, develop best practice in their events, ensure they are getting optimum nutrition and, through sports psychology, improving focus and positive mental attitude.

We could view raising attainment in schools in the same way. For schools to achieve their best they have to ensure children exercise regularly, develop skills in their subjects, have the best nutritional food and – like an athlete – have a positive outlook through emotional and mental wellbeing.

Wellbeing is an important buzzword in education and the links between wellbeing and attainment are strong.

Wellbeing and attainment

A child’s wellbeing is fundamental in their ability to learn. Wellbeing is about health and happiness but also achieving our best. It is worth repeating Ofsted’s statement to schools: “Children’s wellbeing and happiness in school underpin their attainment and achievement in school.”

Several questions arise from this. How and why does wellbeing and happiness underpin attainment? Can simple practices like five-minute wellbeing exercises, breathing techniques, meditation, music and good nutrition help schools raise achievement? How can schools implement such practices simply and effectively?

While the focus of this article is on children’s wellbeing, it should be remembered that the wellbeing of staff is of great importance to a school’s achievement as well (see Staff Wellbeing is Key to School Success, Birbeck College 2007).

Implementing wellbeing practices can raise attainment in schools in two ways: First by boosting positive qualities that assist learning and second by helping overcome negative traits that restrict achievement.

Wellbeing practices can help to develop:

• Concentration and focus.

• Higher levels of energy.

• Confidence and resilience.

• Self-esteem and happiness.

• Peace and calm.

• Listening skills.

• A positive outlook.

• Outside learning.

Wellbeing can help to overcome:

• Poor attention.

• Tiredness.

• Lack of belief in your abilities to succeed.

• Fidgeting.

• Self-harming, bullying.

• Disruption in class, anger, frustration, depression.

• Talking too much or out of turn.

• Fear, lack of self-worth, pessimism.

It is obvious that children who manifest the qualities in the first list will have a better chance of learning than pupils who manifest those in the second and there is a growing body of research showing the benefits of wellbeing practices in education.

Case studies

In 2009, Riverside Primary School in Rotherhithe, London, topped the SAT league tables for state primaries in London. Before taking their tests, pupils were all offered a good breakfast followed by a session of breathing exercises and relaxation led by a yoga teacher. The school achieved a 100 per cent pass rate in English, maths and science.

In 2010, the BBC featured the story of Sam and Sunita Poddar who are taking yoga and breathing techniques into schools in Scotland. Quarry Brae Primary in Glasgow is one school that has benefited. Headteacher Sara Adam said yoga is helping children prepare for learning: “Perhaps they haven’t got that support for education at home. They may not be coming out to school ready and settled, (conditions) which contribute to children learning. Yoga combats those issues because lots of children need movement and breaks in the day when they can get their self-discipline back.”

Music and wellbeing in action

Jinnie Nichols took over as headteacher at St Giles’ CE Primary School in Essex in September 2010. Though it is a small, rural school, one of the first issues to tackle was improving the standards of behaviour. “When I walked out on the playground on my first day I thought I needed body armour,” Ms Nichols said.

She spent her first year finding ways of bringing the school together as a community and used the daily assembly – “my golden 15 minutes with the children” – as a way to do this.

Like many schools, St Giles has a collection of percussion instruments. For her first musical assembly, she asked the children if they had ever played them, none had. She then asked if anyone would like to.

“They all looked at me with terror in their faces,” she said. “One brave soul finally came forward and we went from there, in twos, threes and now every child in the school has an instrument to play in assembly.”

It is a journey that has seen children and members of staff grow in confidence and ability, leading to a performance at the O2 arena with the Young Voices Choir and recording backing vocals for a world healing music album.

Ofsted rated the music assembly as “outstanding” and the Statutory Inspection of Anglican Schools’ inspector said it was “truly inspirational”. Ms Nichols continued: “We have no musicians in our school. Nobody can play the piano. Everything is from CDs and our percussion instruments. We have found the Out of the Ark resources really useful as well as Sing Up. We use these as well as topical songs such as the Jubilee song Sing and just match our instruments and voices to the sounds we hear.

“The key to success is to have an attitude of no judgement. This encourages participation and confidence, self-belief and focus. I had difficult experiences with singing at drama school that affected my confidence and I know many adults feel they can’t sing. This is not true – we can all enjoy music. My advice to other teachers is to be brave and follow a simple rule to control children with so many instruments: in assembly, when we’re not playing, the instruments are on the floor and not touched.

“A big issue for education is that when faced with challenges, children can give up too easily – one extreme response is tears, another is disruption within the classroom. Eliminating self-doubt and believing you have the ability to succeed has been shown to be crucial for the highest attainment – like our Olympic athletes. I believe that music and other wellbeing practices give that confidence, belief and resilience to face the challenges of school.”

Music is one part of a multifaceted approach to wellbeing used at St Giles’ School. Ms Nichols has implemented the practice of regular wellbeing exercises, breathing and meditation techniques, outside learning and building a communal peace garden.

She added: “I feel it’s essential to make integrated wellbeing practices embedded within the culture of a school, so they don’t get lost or forgotten within a busy classroom. Outside learning is really beneficial, especially for boys. We have to walk to our school field so it was important to make a green space on site so we created a peace garden. Having taught in London I know how important even a small green space can be.

“All the children were involved in its creation and this has helped to make it somewhere they identify with. It’s a quiet place but also a place of joy and has been really useful for music lessons, yoga and acting.

“We sing every day. It’s physical and gets you awake and ready, your body warmed up and brain filled with oxygen. Songs that are lively and have actions we make up seem to work best. Children leave assembly with big smiles, feeling really positive, renewed and refreshed by the music we have made together – they are going back into their lessons really ready for learning.”

Has this integration of wellbeing practices helped the school’s attainment? The SAT results this year were the best they have had for years and the attainment across the whole school is strengthening and progress accelerating. Ms Nichols added: “I believe the profile of wellbeing and music at our school has greatly contributed to this.”


Research and case studies advocate that your school can benefit by making wellbeing practices part of school life. There are now many tools and resources available (including some at little or no cost) to help your school achieve and excel.

• Giles Bryant is the founder of the Wellbeing In Schools initiative and can be contacted at info@worldhealingproject.com

Further information

• Video of the five-minute wellbeing exercises, guided meditations, and details of school wellbeing sessions: www.wellbeinginschools.com

• Yoga information/training: www.yogaatschool.org.uk

• Resources, workshops and training to enable teachers to integrate mediation and relaxation techniques:www.relaxkids.com

• Resources and ideas for singing:www.singup.org

• A wonderful way to bring healthy eating into schools using guided lesson plans and recipes:www.foodmagician.com

Wellbeing research and further reading

• Clinical Applications of Yoga for the Pediatric Population: A systematic review. Harvard University, 2009.

• A Journey of Self-discovery: An intervention involving massage, yoga and relaxation for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties attending primary schools. European Journal of Special Needs Education, 2008.

• Published research on the Transcendental Meditation programme in education over the last 38 years shows: Increased intelligence, improved academic performance, increased self-development, reduced anxiety and decreased depression.

• The recent book Music and the Young Mind: Enhancing Brain Development and Engaging Learning by Maureen Harris provides a good review of the subject.

• Research by the National Foundation for Education Research shows many benefits of outside learning: improved independence, confidence, self-esteem, locus of control, self- efficacy, personal effectiveness, coping strategies and helping interpersonal and social skills.

• Child Nutrition and School Life Outcomes, from the Bristol Centre for Research on the Wider Benefits of Learning addresses the connection between good nutrition and attainment.

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