The school library: A powerful weapon in the battle for wellbeing

Written by: Alison Tarrant & Caroline Roche | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

A new report suggests the school library could play a critical role in addressing young people’s health and wellbeing. Alison Tarrant and Caroline Roche from the Great School Libraries campaign explain how


The nation is in the grip of a child mental health crisis. The Children’s Society (2022) states that one in six children has a probable mental health condition, and in the last three years the likelihood of young people having a mental health problem has increased by 50%.

That could mean five children out of every 30 in the classroom are struggling with their wellbeing.

On the positive side, the conversation about mental health and wellbeing is more open than ever before and schools are digging deep to find ways to help their pupils stay healthy in mind as well as body. In the pandemic era, pupil wellbeing has never been so high on the agenda.

But could schools be overlooking a key resource in the fight for good mental health – the school library?

School libraries are an integral part of a child’s education. They are a gateway to the world of digital information, promoting research skills which will serve pupils well throughout their school life and beyond. And of course, the school library is, for many, the starting point for a lifetime journey of reading pleasure.

Now, research from the Great School Libraries campaign (2021)confirms that the school library is key to supporting the wellbeing of pupils too.

The campaign is being run by CILIP (the Library and Information Association), CILIP’s School Libraries Group and the School Library Association and the report is based on a literature review as well as in-depth interviews with school librarians.

The findings highlight some of the valuable roles a library plays in the mental health and wellbeing of children.


A safe space

Children often consider the school library to be a welcome refuge as well as a source of reading material. In a study where students drew pictures of their ideal library spaces, it was interesting to see that the common themes in the drawings included comfort and peace (Hughes et al, 2019).

The report also explores research which found that disadvantaged children tend to use the library more than their peers due to the safe space and resources on offer there.

Many schools design the physical spaces in their libraries so they closely resemble a comfortable room at home. This homeliness aspect is particularly important for children who have difficult home lives as it gives them a sense of belonging and safety at school.

As one librarian explained in the report: “I would say that one of my main roles is to give the pupils somewhere safe to go.”

She points out that this was one of the main reasons for children missing the library during the pandemic: “When they were asked what they were looking forward to the most about coming out of restrictions it was to come back into the library. So many of them just need that safe space.”


A listening ear

School librarians can provide a valuable pastoral role. In some school libraries this means a friendly face and a drawer full of healthy snacks, spare stationery and essential supplies, while in other settings the librarian is the first person a child in difficulty will turn to.

One librarian in the report mentioned that vulnerable children in the school tended to gravitate towards the school library and she described herself as the “front line”.

In some cases, children may find their school librarian easier to approach than their class teacher due to the librarian’s unique function in a school.

One participant said: “I’m not as intimidating as a member of staff, so you find yourself talking to the pupils and they invest a lot more into you than maybe they would necessarily talk to a teacher about, so I think it’s important to have a librarian.”

Given the right training, the librarian could be a key person in identifying mental health and wellbeing issues.


A social hub

Many of the research participants talked about how the programmes and clubs they run inside the library supported pupils’ wellbeing in different ways.

Some libraries have reading groups to help younger or less able students improve their reading skills, or library helper schemes where a child helps with tasks in running the library. Other libraries run more informal groups inside the space such as a chess or Dungeons and Dragons club, so children get to know the school library as a space with a variety of uses.

While encouraging children to read is important in promoting wellbeing, librarians in the research were also keen to make the library a welcoming and inclusive space for those children who don’t enjoy reading.

As one participant said: “The reason that we run lots of different types of activities and events is to make sure that students who might not associate reading as a really positive thing will still associate the library with something really positive.”


A mindfulness station

The report reveals that some school libraries are hosting mindfulness groups for their pupils. The library is a neutral location and may not be as stressful to the pupils as a classroom, and the quieter atmosphere in the library makes it the ideal place for children to start practising mindfulness to reduce their anxiety.

A librarian explained how it works in her school: “I set up a mindfulness station. We’ve got breathing techniques and grounding techniques available for them to do. We’ve got activities and puzzles – anything just to calm their mind.”

The walk-in aspect of the group makes it more casual, so it holds greater appeal to pupils and opens the door to an important source of support.


A self-help resource

Many school libraries contain books and resources to support pupils’ mental and emotional wellbeing by helping children understand how they are feeling and how to manage those feelings. For older children who are able to seek help independently, the library can be the first port of call.

One librarian explained how her school library has a self-service system which is used particularly for books regarding mental health. The advantage is that pupils don’t have to present the items they are borrowing to the librarian, and this helps to give a little privacy and overcomessome of the barriers that prevent young people from seeking help for mental health issues.


Conclusion

The past two years have put a strain on everyone’s mental and emotional health, and schools will be doing all they can to boost pupils’ wellbeing in the months and years ahead. The school library could prove to be an essential source of pastoral support, offering children somewhere to share their worries and enjoy new pastimes as well as nurturing a lifelong love of reading.

The full end of phase one report from the Great School Libraries campaign includes best practice examples from schools and offers a toolkit for creating a school library which supports pupils’ wellbeing (2021).

  • Alison Tarrant and Caroline Roche are co-chairs of the Great School Libraries campaign, which is being run by CILIP (the Library and Information Association), CILIP’s School Libraries Group and the School Library Association. Visit www.greatschoollibraries.org.uk


Further information & resources

  • Children's Society: Children's mental health statistics, accessed February 2022: https://bit.ly/3JeSb3H
  • Great School Libraries: The Great School Libraries campaign: End of phase one report, December 2021: https://bit.ly/3JddeUf
  • Hughes et al: High school spaces and student transitioning: Designing for student wellbeing. In Hughes et al (eds), School Spaces for Student Wellbeing and Learning. Springer, 2019.


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