I am composing this blog on my flight from London to Los Angeles. This has been a uniquely spectacular air-born experience – moving backwards through the time zones, I’ve had the breathtaking view of the sun illuminating the upper side of the clouds for the whole flight. An ever-present, crescent moon has been suspended in the blue sky above the puffy horizon. At the moment we are flying over crispy, white sea-ice in the North Western Passage in Canada. I’ve been captivated by the vast beauty of the fractured ice shelf that forms the landscape below our current trajectory.
It’s currently 10:05pm London time, but it’s impossible to sleep with this gorgeous sunshine streaming through and I don’t want to until I get to Los Angeles – an effort to avoid jetlag on this final leg of my journey, particularly because I need to be bright and fresh for my meeting tomorrow at 10:00am with Richard Lieberman. Just under five hours of flying time to go. Somewhere in the world right now it has clocked over to the 10th of October – World Mental Health Day, which coincides with World Mental Health Week, which occurs every year from 6th – 12th October. You can read a little more about it here on the World Health Organisation Website. For ten great tips to improve mental health and wellbeing to share in your classes and with your colleagues can be found here. Make sure that you use this day to talk about wellbeing to the people around you – it’s all about awareness.
The past few days of this adventure have spanned hundreds of miles. After leaving Brighton we made the long trek up to Glasgow, where I had the privilege of spending some precious time with Morag Kerr, closely affiliated with Carol Craig, who established the Glasgow Centre for Confidence and Wellbeing. The purpose of this virtual centre is networking and connection. Carol Craig gained funding for the project after publishing her book which documented the current mindset underpinning the motivation and behaviours of the people of Scotland. Carol saw the need to call together key stakeholders from across a number of key areas including business, education, medicine – Carol recognized that she didn’t have the answers to solve problems and so decided to approach this from a different perspective – by providing and opportunity for these key stakeholders to take ownership of projects and to connect with the people in their own circles to start momentum and achieve goals. You can see how it works – Carol communicates with Morag, Morag meets with me, I share with you – you share in your own circles – it’s that top down trickle effect and, I believe, a very successful way of integrating and implementing long lasting and sustainable change.
Morag works in the education sector and we spoke at length about initatives that are being implemented in Scottish Schools and Colleges. Morag spoke passionately about the need to make adolescents more aware of their behaviours by assisting them to understand the motivation for why they are behaving this way – essentially – what are they achieving or gaining by engaging in the behaviours? We also talked at length about the importance of resiliency in young people and the potential for programs such as ‘Bounce Back’ to be really effective tools in the school context. What we both agreed upon, however, was that in order for these programs to be successful, there needs to be backing by leadership – they need to understand and endorse it – teachers also need to be aware of the reasons for implementation and the possible benefits that can come from a program of this nature. As per my last blog – it’s been proven that unless this approach is taken, programs of this nature will not have any positive benefit for students.
I saw this in action for myself on the next stop of my journey when I called in to Wellington College, Berkshire, to speak with Ian Morris who has designed and implemented a wellbeing program that runs across all year groups within the school. We discussed a number of different aspects of the program from the research that took place before it’s inception to teacher and student attitudes to the program. Now, what is definitely working in Ian’s favour is the support that he has received from the Principal. The program is fully supported from the top down and has now been actively running in the school for eight years. It has undergone several revisions and it dynamically changes as new and different areas of interest or concern float to the surface. The program itself is delivered to students for one hour per fortnight, in class sizes of approximately 25. There are two teachers who are primarily responsible for teaching the program and it forms the majority of their teaching load – there are also a small number of other teachers who have ‘Wellbeing’ as part of their timetable. The program is given equal weighting as a ‘subject’ that the students take (although staff some staff seem to pay it less respect than other more ‘academic’ faculties). However, Ian explained that, over recent years, many staff have been approaching him to ask to be on the teaching staff.
Student engagement also seems to be really good, even though there is no ‘formal assessment’ for the program. Students were not actively involved in the design phase of the program itself, but they have had quite a lot of input in the evaluation of the program and several changes have been made in response to student feedback.
The question that we need to ask is whether a program such as this could be implemented in our schools – Wellington is, well, not your average high school. It is highly selective, exceptionally (and boy do I mean exceptionally) well resourced. Students here are highly engaged in their learning by nature – parents have a very vested interest in their child’s learning – an obvious byproduct of the huge financial investment they are outlaying in their child’s education. The school is made up of 70% boarders and 30% day students. This whole scenario is certainly sitting on the opposite side of the polar spectrum to what I have experienced in the typical Diocesan Catholic high school – but would it work? We talked at length about the portability of a program such as this and we couldn’t help but conclude – yes – but only under specific circumstances. From the research I’ve conducted on this tour, here are my rough thoughts regarding the critical factors for the successful implantation of an effective wellbeing program in a school context:
– Why? This is the first and most fundamental question – what would be the aims of the program? What would we be wanting to achieve and – more importantly – how would we measure and evaluate the success? (how would we even define ‘success’?)
– There must be support from leadership and a commitment to provide money, time and resources – the three things most difficult to source in schools! Even at Wellington sacrifices were made to allow the time in the timetable – ICT classes were deemed to be unnecessary and scrapped in favour of the Wellbeing program.
– All members of the community, from teachers to support staff to parents, must be aware of (and supportive of) the program and be speaking a common language around it.
– extensive data and research must be done first in order to determine the content – based on the needs of the students – and method of delivery.
– All stakeholders need to be given a voice in the design of the program – especially students – It needs to be relevant and engaging and it needs to make a difference. In Morag’s extensive experience, she felt that the three key interconnected themes that should form the cornerstone of any program are mindset, motivation and resilience.
– There must be opportunities for practical application. The key to wellbeing is that ultimately it is not knowledge, but a practiced skill. It involves commitment to changes of being and ways of thinking. These occur over time, therefore:
– The program must be mapped across year groups, allowing students the opportunity to build on skills and continue to have more and more opportunities to practice behaviors into positive and productive habits and ways of being.
– The emphasis must be on promoting mental health – not focusing on mental ill-health, as is the case with so many wellbeing programs.
There is a movement emerging through academic literature at the moment, supporting the idea that we have got the purpose of schooling all wrong – that perhaps, rather than the unrelenting focus on results and numbers, the purpose of schooling should actually be focused on the wellbeing of the students. This is a radical perspective that I need to research in more depth, but if you just allow yourself to ponder it for a second – what would schools be like if the ultimate focus was the holisitic development of character, not just academic achievement – what would it be like to be a teacher in a school like that?
So, I’m not entering the final leg of this epic adventure. From what I’ve learned so far, here are the thoughts that are occupying my mind. I don’t have answers to any of these questions yet – they can’t be answered without collaboration – but here they are nonetheless:
– How can we successfully implement meaningful wellbeing programs in schools with the limited time and resources available?
– How can Gatekeeper training be rolled out to all staff in schools for the prevention of youth suicide?
– How can we engage the education sector more effectively with clinicians and service providers who work with young people?
– How can we make it easier for those who work with young people to access and recommend the most appropriate resources when there are so many different websites and organisations?
Wow, time flies (no pun intended). It’s now 11:10pm London time – still bright and sunny outside! 3:10pm LA time. This really is a time warp. Hopefully this blog has made some sense!
On a more personal note, I parted ways with mum and dad this morning. They jumped on board their coach, off on their big 21 day tour of Europe. Mum and I shed a few tears before they boarded. I stood outside, waving and snuffling as, what I can only describe as an ‘epiphany of gratitude’ welled deep within me. This is tricky to write about because it was an unexpected and profound experience. I finally understand the true meaning of gratitude – you might be thinking, yeah yeah, gratitude smatitude – heard it all before – and so had I – but not until I stood by the side of that coach this morning did I truly understand it. It took me 31 years, but I finally (deeply and authentically) appreciate the gift I have been given of two parents who love me so deeply and unconditionally. There are so many students I can think of back home who don’t have that gift and it’s one that I’ve never understood the value of until now. I love them both so very much and am so profoundly and deeply grateful for everything they have ever done for me in making me the person that I am today. I am truly and indescribably blessed. What a gift they are.
Back to the study tour – there’ll be more to come tomorrow following my meeting with Richard Lieberman.
Night, Donna :o)