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By: Matthew Savage

When an issue becomes commonplace, there is a real risk that our efforts to address it can become performative or tokenistic. Since the pandemic, every school seems to be talking about wellbeing, yet the challenges we are wrestling with seem to be worsening. Therefore, as we begin a new academic year with optimism and open minds, I thought it might be helpful to make specific and actionable response to the wellbeing challenges we face in our schools. Putting and keeping #WellbeingFirst means…

Adopting restorative practices

We know that punitive deterrents and sanctions do not work, yet many schools still rely on such mechanisms to ‘manage’ behaviour. However, what we call ‘behaviour’ resides in, and derives from a complex ecosystem and is but the tiny tip of an iceberg of relational factors which defies management and demands compassionate enquiry. Schools that put and keep #WellbeingFirst use, instead, restorative practice to understand the relational factors which have given rise to such behaviour and to help repair the tears it can cause.

Measuring wellbeing

Schools have long been drowning in an ocean of student-level data, the vast majority of which pertains exclusively to cold academics. However, as I have illustrated through what I call the ‘Wellbeing Data Wheel’, there are manifold ways in which we can measure, monitor, and even report upon the wellbeing, attitudes and belonging of our students. The #WellbeingFirst school uses these holistically warm data points that can become constellations through which we can better read and understand each student’s unique story.

Hunting wellbeing inequity

Suppose we populate a constellation of wellbeing data, and triangulate it effectively with the range of other data available. In that case, this triangulation should serve as an equity scanner to root out wellbeing inequity wherever it may be hiding, so we can do something about it. When we know who resides on the margins of wellbeing in our school, we can then use Street Data techniques to hear their stories, identify the spikes to their wellbeing, and cocreate the curb cuts that will centre their own experience. To put and keep #WellbeingFirst is to know that it is inseparable from DEIJB.

Assessing with compassion

Much summative and formative assessment is, or can be, an instrument of harm, antithetical to a #WellbeingFirst approach. Whilst assessment can, and should, work with the student to boost confidence, enhance self-esteem and nurture creativity, it can also pit child against child, baking in disappointment and fear thereof and rendering the learner afraid to learn. This happens when we assess the product of learning and contort it into abstractions of numbers or letter, commodifying success and stigmatising failure – rather than assessing the process with kindness, and compassion.

Rejecting an either/or

Ours is a fee-paying education sector, within which many families make considerable sacrifices to pay the often huge fees required of the very best schools. And parents have long been told that the ‘very best’ means academic grades, something which plays out with disheartening regularity at the start of each academic year when schools trumpet the academic grades their students achieved as evidence of the school’s success. However, we know that there is, in fact, no either/or: when we put #WellbeingFirst, academics thrive, but when we put academics first, wellbeing withers.

Training staff and students

The wellbeing and mental health of children and young people are in crisis, and represent a complexity about which all of us need to learn so much more. Whether it be in safeguarding and child protection, or in suicide and mental health first aid, it is essential that schools prioritise the training of their staff, so that both identification and intervention are knowledgeable, skilled and evidence-informed. And we put and keep #WellbeingFirst when such training is also offered, as appropriate, to students too, so that they are equipped to support each other.

Investing in counselling

Both the International and American School Counsellors Associations recommend a ratio of 1 trained, licensed counsellor for every 250 students, and yet the majority of schools are still languishing in ratios significantly less favourable. The more complex the mental health issues students are facing, and the better we measure and identify those challenges, we will, inevitably, need to expand our capacity to provide specialist support and guidance. If we really want to put and keep #WellbeingFirst, we will increase the size of our counselling team so that every student has someone to whom to talk when they need to.

Considering wellbeing systems

The #WellbeingFirst educator is also a systems-thinker, aware and comfortable that there are no ‘easy fixes’ – and, indeed, that wellbeing challenges cannot be ‘fixed’ at all. On the contrary, to seek to understand any wellbeing ‘problem’ is to recognise that it has its roots in systems so much bigger and more complex than the problem posed; in other words, the problem is not the problem. Therefore, if we know that student wellbeing is struggling, we need to look as much at those systems as we do at the wellbeing itself. In this way, culture and climate – implicit and explicit – is key, and we need to get that right first.

Making and taking the time

Putting and keeping #WellbeingFirst takes time. And in the busy life of a school, we need to be intentional in creating and protecting the time necessary to do so. This demands decluttering. The professional learning schedule, so that it can concentrate on wellbeing. The data and administrative tasks we ask of educators, so that they are able to concentrate on wellbeing. And the timetable, not only for students, such that they have the time and space to concentrate on their own wellbeing, but the teaching load of pastoral leaders and homeroom teachers, so that they can actually do their job.

Caring for community wellbeing

And last, but certainly not least, the #WellbeingFirst school prioritises community wellbeing – including the wellbeing of all staff, and of parents and families – as much as the wellbeing of students themselves. I have often said that the school that is not inclusive of all students is inclusive of none, and the same goes for the rest of the community. Because, after all, my wellbeing does not exist in isolation; it is affected by, and affects, the wellbeing of all around me. You know you are in a #WellbeingFirst school when every member of the school community knows that their wellbeing matters.

Many a new year has begun with a list, and many a list has been forgotten within a week or two. As the new academic year finds its rhythm and pace, the gauntlet I throw down to the international school community, in the Middle East and beyond, is to use this list to hold yourself, and your schools, to account. In this way, we can avoid the tokenistic and the performative and seek, with sincerity and intentionality, to put and keep #WellbeingFirst.

Formerly an experienced school principal, Matthew Savage is an educational consultant, helping international schools worldwide use #TheMonaLisaEffect® to explore the intersection of wellbeing and DEIJB through the prism of triangulated, street and warm data – and he will be one of the keynote speakers at the BSME Wellbeing Conference in January 2024. He lives on the Isle of Skye with his wonderful wife and atypical dog, and he has learned the hard way to put his own #WellbeingFirst too.