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Building wellbeing in a secondary school from the bottom up

Aidan Harvey-Craig on a peer-led approach to wellbeing in schools.
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8/11/2021
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Aidan Harvey-Craig

Schools are complicated. Hundreds of young people, from a myriad of wildly divergent households, negotiating thousands of relationships. This at the very time when they are figuring out who they are, where they fit in, who they want to be in the future and how on Earth they should get there. Oh, and they’re trying to pass exams too.

But there’s nothing for it – any bottom-up approach to developing wellbeing in a school is going to have to start with diving into this complexity in the hope of finding some patterns. Probably, that’s going to start with collecting some good, solid quantitative data. This means running various kinds of questionnaire, or psychometric test, ideally in such a way that you can break things down to see if there are any differences within the various sub-groups of your school. For example, are there gender differences in self-esteem? Are there age group differences in levels of stress? Are there socio-economic differences in physical activity?

 

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Any patterns you find can then be used for qualitative data gathering where you dig a bit deeper and get conversations about wellbeing going. It’s not always as easy as it sounds in the hectic, often quite intense setting of a secondary school.

Something that worked well for me in the past was using focus groups of randomly selected6th Formers. I had a database with the name of every 6th Form student in the school which I used to generate six or seven names each week. These students would then be invited to one of the school’s break-out rooms during the 20-minute tutor time.

Although not long, running the groups at this time meant that the students were available, and it was much quieter than other times of the school day. Also, the random allocation was really important: there tend to be certain students whose names(and voices) rise to the surface more easily than others and it can be tempting, consciously or not, to gravitate towards these students.

It’s also useful to have groups of students who are outside their friendship networks, as it avoids the group dynamic falling into routine patterns of who’s going to talk and what opinions are already known to be seen as favourable.

Then, as the data you gather begins to take shape, it can be a good time to look for a group of student wellbeing ambassadors. Sometimes candidates for this role will already have sprung from the conversations in the focus groups and else where. Some schools have had tutor groups elect the wellbeing ambassadors by running an informal survey including questions such as, ‘Who, in our tutor group, is really good at listening?’ Other schools prefer to advertise the role, perhaps using some kind of application process where students explain what they would bring to it.

If you want to get super-technical about it, you could follow the process tested by Elizabeth Paluck and colleagues at Princeton.(1) Essentially, they started by asking students to list the friends they regularly hung out with. From this, they established the ‘influencers’ within each school– these were the students with the most connections.

Once established, these ‘influencer’ students were then invited to sessions which happened during the school day (and included snacks to encourage participation!). In the case of this research, the groups worked on poster campaigns to reduce conflict and bullying, linking positive messages to images of the ‘influencer’ students.

Which ever way they are chosen, I have never known a school that didn’t think having student wellbeing ambassadors was a good idea. What has not been so clear is what these student ambassadors should actually do. Often, I have found that schools settle on a system whereby the wellbeing ambassadors are highlighted throughout the school and students are invited to speak with them if they want someone to talk to.

This is really well intentioned and may work in some cases, but it takes a lot of confidence to go up to a peer you may not know and open up about anything wellbeing-related. And confidence may be the one thing in short supply in those students whom the whole scheme is aimed at.

Something worth considering is thinking carefully about the difference between mental disorder and wellbeing. That is, your school will have access to trained therapists to deal with students who are experiencing mental health problems. That’s not the job of students, even if they are called wellbeing ambassadors.

So that throws up the question, what do we actually mean by wellbeing? This is something worth discussing with your student wellbeing ambassadors but it’s important to realise that it’s actually a complicated construct. It’s not about being happy all the time, as there are times in life when it’s perfectly appropriate to be sad, or angry, or anxious. Wellbeing is about having meaning and purpose in your life, understanding and making use of your talents, and being clear about your personal convictions. It’s about being able to make things happen and to feel that you’re in control of your life. It’s about developing strong connections with other people. And it’s about identity –knowing, and accepting, who you are.

When this is clarified I think the role of student wellbeing ambassador becomes a little clearer. It should be about promoting ideas and behaviours that maximise the various elements of wellbeing. Given that there’s so much there, it can be useful to encourage the students to reflect on the results from the quantitative and qualitative data gathering exercises. Gradually, they can choose areas they would like to work on – areas such as promoting the importance of sleep, helping others to understand and manage stress, highlighting the importance of music, or promoting the use of breathing techniques to relax.

Dr Cathy Atkinson of the University of Manchester worked with Altrincham Grammar School for Girls on this kind of approach. Dr Atkinson was convinced that student voices in the process of developing wellbeing are essential and often missed. As she puts it, ‘Although there is increasing interest in promoting mental health and wellbeing within education, to date, the voices of young people appear to have been almost completely overlooked in the development of school-based mental health practices. This is despite increasing focus on young people’s participation; and the fact that young people are best positioned to understand the pressures of contemporary society.’(2)

You can see the student wellbeing ambassadors from Altrincham Grammar School in this thoughtful video.

 

By focusing on wellbeing, rather than issues around mental disorder, student wellbeing ambassadors are freed up to explore all kinds of avenues they might be interested in without the problem of getting into safeguarding issues and having too much pressure put on them. With this freedom they can really drive the wellbeing message throughout their school, from the bottom up.

1. Changing climates of conflict: A social network experiment in 56 schools. Palucka, Elizabeth, Shepherd, Hana and Aronow, Pete. 3, s.l. : PNAS, 2016, Vol. 113.
2. Student wellbeing ambassadors help devise school mental health strategy. bps.org. [Online] British Psychological Society. [Cited: Oct 22, 2021.] https://www.bps.org.uk/news-and-policy/student-wellbeing-ambassadors-help-devise-school-mental-health-strategy.

Aidan Harvey-Craig

Aidan Harvey-Craig is a teacher, student counsellor, wellbeing columnist and psychologist. He founded the Student Wellbeing Ambassador Programme (SWAP) - an online course to train teenage students to become wellbeing experts and is author of 18 Wellbeing Hacks for Students: Using Psychology’s Secrets to Survive and Thrive.

Follow Aidan’s tweets @psychologyhack.

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