Independent schools in Scotland follow the Scottish Government’s ‘whole school approach’ to mental health and wellbeing, which incorporates eight key principles that emphasise a health-promotion and preventative approach.
As part of Children’s Mental Health Week, we spoke to Andrew Durward, Deputy Head (Wellbeing) at St Leonards School about the systems they have in place to support pupil mental health and wellbeing.
Wellbeing – not just a buzzword
Wellbeing is something of a buzzword in schools, on social media, in the news, and in public policy; and rightly so — there is a proliferation of studies demonstrating how our mental and physical health are intimately linked, and the ways in which they affect our outlook and ability to function and flourish each day. Yet, simultaneously, wellbeing is a nebulous concept: what exactly is wellbeing, and what does it look like to effectively support and promote the wellbeing of the young people in our care?
Wellbeing is so much more than a pain au chocolat in the staff room — though, of course, the sugar rush and feel-good factor can certainly help to power you through a Monday morning. Rather, it is a complex interrelationship of subjective feelings and objective facts, which together lead to an individual’s experience of life. Our wellbeing is shaped by a whole range of emotional, relational, physical, financial, and medical factors, and so our approach to wellbeing in schools must reflect this, and be malleable and multifaceted.
The effects of the pandemic
There is no doubt that the pandemic has had an adverse effect on the wellbeing of children and adults across the country; its legacy will continue in the months and years ahead.
The headlines say it all: a rise in mental health issues amongst young people; increased wait times for child and adult mental health services; and the onslaught of a mental health epidemic.
As educators, we know that we must do our utmost to support pupils as they battle with the uncertainty surrounding public examinations and the anxieties of self-isolation, but our duty of care does not stop here. Perhaps even more importantly, we must equip the children and teenagers in our care with the tools and strategies to look after their own wellbeing in the years to come and to be able to weather the storms that life will inevitably throw at them.
With all this in mind, at St Leonards, wellbeing pervades all that we do as a school community: it shapes our policies, pastoral care, teaching and learning, and programme of co-curricular activities. We encourage pupils of all ages to eat healthily, prioritise sleep, take time away from their screens and participate in a wide range of sports — all of which are widely known to benefit wellbeing.
The St Leonards wellbeing mission
Our aim, at St Leonards, is for all pupils to develop a love for at least one sport (whether it be rugby, hockey, parkour, golf, lacrosse or cross country), and continue to pursue this activity in their life beyond school.
We also encourage pupils to spend time in the great outdoors, to connect with nature, and to stop and appreciate the beauty of the world around them. Our beautiful location on a leafy campus in the heart of the seaside town of St Andrews provides ample opportunities for pupils to soak up the fresh air: lunchtimes in the Junior Years are spent tending to the vegetable patches in the St Leonards Croft, whilst afternoons are passed on the beach honing subtraction or developing fieldwork skills.
For our boarders, there are mellow evenings toasting marshmallows around the firepit under the stars. It is fantastic to see our young people embrace and relish these strategies, and even put forward their own ideas. Even now, work is underway on a multi-sensory wellbeing trail in the heart of the school campus. This has been designed by the pupils, and will provide a calm space to go to for some time out from the humdrum of school life.
Community and peer support
Feeling connected with and supported by others is another foundational pillar of our approach to wellbeing, and so we support pupils to partner with individuals and organisations in a variety of community projects.
Recent examples have included cooking hot, nutritious meals for vulnerable individuals in the local area as part of the Feeding Communities project, in partnership with the British Heart Foundation and our caterers, Thomas Franks, as well as a fancy dress fun run to raise funds for a new RNLI lifeboat station in Anstruther.
Pupils are encouraged to look out for their peers, and we run training programmes to ensure that our young people have the toolkit to be a support to their peers.
At St Leonards, we use the Mentors in Violence Prevention training programme. There is also an active Pupil Council, a Peer Listening Scheme, and a ‘Speak Up’ service which enables members of our community to raise concerns via an online platform. Last, but by no means least, we run mindfulness and yoga classes to help pupils - and also staff - set aside time amidst the busyness of their weeks to ground themselves. These simple steps and habits really can make a world of difference.
More than self-care
However, for some, these self-care steps will not be enough to maintain good wellbeing: it is important that our children recognise when and how to seek additional support.
We have a dedicated new Wellbeing Hub at St Leonards which is staffed throughout the school day. Pupils can drop in for advice, support, or simply some time out. There are activities such as mindful colouring, fidget toys and jigsaws, as well as two highly experienced Wellbeing Assistants who are trained in Mental Health First Aid and are able to connect pupils with wider support networks both within and outwith the staff body, if needed.
In addition, our staff regularly receive training from experts in the field, such as the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) or Sexpression to ensure that they are equipped to support pupils struggling with more complex issues in our school community, whether that be gender dysphoria, bereavement, or clinical depression.
Staff mental health
Of course, wellbeing is not just a concern for children and young people. As teachers and support staff, we must also set aside time and take active steps to care for our mental and physical health.
On an individual level, a work-life balance is so important, as is taking on board all of the advice that we give the pupils in our care each day: to eat healthily, connect with friends and family, stay active, prioritise sleep and to keep learning. And then as a staff team more broadly, we must work collaboratively to ensure that our schools are a good working environment.
We have recently introduced staff working groups to think through ways in which we can cultivate an inclusive culture. Charters and policies are certainly not wellbeing in its entirety, but they nevertheless can help to shape and direct individual and school-wide decisions and have a positive impact on wellbeing.
Wellbeing strategies and initiatives are not a nice-to-have, but rather an integral part of school life — by sharing our experiences, initiatives, and stories we will play our part in developing a resilient generation of young people who are well-equipped to face the ups and downs of life.
Many thanks to Andrew Durward and St Leonards School for their contribution to this blog.