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Lego groups, podcasts and Inclusion Ambassadors: wellbeing in focus at international schools

Schools, colleges, universities and other education institutions have been demonstrating more and more concern around the wellbeing and mental health of their staff and students. This is not a reaction to our pandemic era, however, the focus has certainly been sharpened by the Covid-19 crisis.

Photo: NAIS Al-Khor Qatar

International schools across the world have found themselves well-placed to anticipate and deal with the inevitable upswing mental health issues

The scale of the wellbeing challenge during the pandemic was revealed in a recent report by ISC Research, provider of English-medium K-12 international school data, trends and intelligence, entitled Report on Wellbeing in International Schools.

Researched from the input of over 600 teachers and leaders from international schools in 109 different countries, 63% of respondents felt that students were anxious about school life (or, indeed, the lack of it), and they believed that Covid-19 has led to more mental health issues amongst students.

The report also noted that Covid upheaval “affected most international school communities around the world in some way, impacting over 5.6 million students and 576,000 teachers”. Many, of these, of course would have found themselves stranded at various points during the pandemic, further increasing the impact upon their mental health.

ISC Research has also previously indicated parents are looking for structured student wellbeing provision when selecting international schools.

The pandemic was an added layer upon already existing problems, of course. Typical issues include bullying online or offline and inappropriate online content. A major and recurring issue is student concern about academic performance and exam stress. This is a particular factor affecting international schools where parent stakeholders are acutely aware of attainment targets.

Outside of keeping counselling services going online, international schools across the world have found themselves well-placed to anticipate and deal with the inevitable upswing mental health issues thanks to various innovative schemes they had already put in place or have been quick to institute novel responses.

A number of examples were highlighted at the start of the year when the winners of the Wellbeing Category at the International School Awards were announced. The winner was The International School of Kuala Lumpur, whose team developed a virtual newsroom during campus closures for students and staff, shared community-generated content such as “positive learning stories, creative performances, and imaginative challenges.”

The school also involved themselves in various international ventures to combat lockdown – such as the ‘Call To Unite’ 24-hour livestream, with their High School virtual choir, sharing the virtual stage with stars such as Oprah Winfrey, Julia Roberts, Naomi Campbell, Deepak Chopra, Steve Aoki, and Marie Kondo.

International school groups often provide their own frameworks from within which wellbeing initiatives can grow. Cognita, a group with schools in 11 countries across Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Middle East, have ‘Be Well Charter’ as part of their core offering.

The charter emphasises the value of: “adequate and restful sleep; healthy and balanced diet; moderate to vigorous regular physical activity; connecting with self and others; being engaged in a fulfilling activity and giving to help a cause or others.” Cognita’s Global Be Well Day (GBWD), every September, is a showcase for all of these values and schools take a time out to focus on wellbeing.

Global Be Well Day featured a range of activities. Photo: ISHCMC-AA

Of the numerous schools that have taken up the baton of providing initiatives is the International School Ho Chi Minh City American Academy which, under the watchful eye of Robert Wilson, director of Students Services, has undertaken a number of student-led initiatives.

In September 2020, the school was still able to meet in-person for GBWD, albeit with restrictions in place. Activities included learning sign language and teaching a class on it online, gardening and live music.

“They had a room where kids would rotate playing live music,” explains Wilson, “it wasn’t like playing sets where people signed up, it was people being like, ‘Hey, can we play next?’ We had different instruments in the room and everyone would sit in the audience and just go nuts because they played the songs that were popular at the time.”

Also in operation pre-pandemic was the school’s ‘peer remediation’ system that Wilson brought over from America when he joined six years ago. It involves training a small group of volunteer students, mainly seniors, to resolve problems of the nature of online teasing (rather than serious violent events). An adult sits in on the mediation session but does not participate.

“They get a chance to say what’s been bothering them, what kind of things they’re feeling, but in a safe environment”

“Basically, they let the kids talk their problems out,” says Wilson. “They get a chance to say what’s been bothering them, what kind of things they’re feeling, but in a safe environment where people aren’t interrupting each other, and where they’re not afraid of someone taking the information and using that in the public space.”

Just before the recent Lunar New Year holiday, students ran a session on social media and screen time and about the importance of parents talking to their children about mental health, which is still a particularly challenging issue in some Asian countries. The students presented an interactive, bi-lingual and multi-media show. A visiting psychologist – who was to speak afterwards – conceded that he didn’t really have much to add and the feedback from parents was very positive.

Likewise students have fed back, through surveys, how safe they feel at the school.

“They’re starting to use words that focus on well-being,” says Wilson, “and like being able to express their emotions and how they feel and where they think that’s coming from.”

When I ask about quantifying incidents related to mental health issues, Wilson responds sagely: “I feel like more incidents is a sign you’re doing something right because this stuff is all happening. It’s just the grown-ups don’t usually know about it.”

Jack and Hiromi are two of the students involved in rolling out wellbeing activities. Both have felt the benefit of doing so and both are very clear about why it was useful.

“As a senior, we have a tremendous workload including schoolwork and college applications,” says Jack. “We also encounter some confusion about our future career pathway, and our insecurity coming from social media and other invisible standards. Therefore, I think it’s important for us to have a clear sense of self, gain positive energy from social life, and balance our lives.”

Hiromi believes that the pressure of workload, in particular, “has to do a lot with our Confucian origin and culture – where many students are being pressured by their parents to get glowing grades on their report cards.

“Sometimes, we feel overwhelmed with school but because we see everyone continues, so we feel ashamed and embarrassed if we allow ourselves to pause and take a rest. In the long run, this is an unhealthy routine.”

Volunteering for GBWD and other activities has helped Hiromi with a new perspective on his present and his future.

“I think I see my mission for life even clearer,” he says. “I love working with people, engaging in meaningful conversation, and helping them at their vulnerable moments. The role I signed up for… crafted me to be a more resilient, compassionate, thoughtful person to others.”

Nord Anglia Education Schools group, with schools in 29 countries across Americas, Europe, China, Southeast Asia, India and the Middle East, have two platforms that generate content for their schools to take up if they want to. Global Campus and Nord Anglia University offer students and teachers, respectively, a way to disseminate ideas and best practice to each other.

Among the content streamed online via Global Campus are yoga classes, from beginners to advanced, and Chinese calligraphy – originally taught at schools in China but now more widely adopted as a mindfulness exercise.

Meanwhile, a feature generated by the students themselves was a school Olympics. The idea was an extension of the exercises that were already in place to substitute for PE during the pandemic but has now sprung into something far bigger.

“We got a couple of students who said, wouldn’t it be great if we could have some kind of virtual Olympics?”

“We got a couple of students who said, wouldn’t it be great if we could have some kind of virtual Olympics?” says Mark Orrow-Whiting, director of Curriculum and Student Performance for NordAnglia. “They said ‘loads of kids have got, you know, Apple watches or something like it, so all they have to do is choose some events and take a screenshot or a photograph and post it up. We’ll give medals to the ones who go the fastest in the hundred metres or five kilometres etc.’”

Orrow-Whiting says that, in the year before the pandemic, Global Campus recorded around a hundred thousand views. “We’re only halfway through this [academic] year and we’re on about about 2.5 million views.”

As well as their online platforms, Nord Anglia have a company-wide ‘employee assistance program’. This helps address another element – sometimes overlooked – in the education mental health equation: staff wellbeing.

“We’ve created this opportunity for individual teachers to confidentially talk about any issues or worries that they’re facing,” says Orrow-Whiting. It complements the support that teachers are giving each other on Nord Anglia University in terms of sharing lesson plans, resources, training and and know-how (using Teams and Zoom etc), ideas and best practice.

Meanwhile, Nord Anglia’s partnership with mental health charity the Anna Freud Centre for Children and Families has helped the group start to measure how effective their content streams are by running surveys for parents, employees and students.

“We haven’t noticed any noticeable difference in students or parents or teachers’ feelings around well-being from before the pandemic to now,” says Orrow-Whiting, “so that gives us a lot of confidence just to think that the doubling down that we did on wellbeing at the beginning paid off.”

The group’s yoga and calligraphy offerings are two examples of things that have benefitted from survey feedback. One of the more recent ventures from NAE, meanwhile, is a podcast called ‘A Little Bit of Genius’ where student presenters have interviewed public figures such as co-founder of the Eden Project Sir Tim Smit, CEO of Brainlabs Daniel Gilbert and Broadway performer Ashley De La Rosa. The key theme is resilience, “a characteristic that parents are increasingly wanting to see their schools nurture and develop” says NAE.

“The first episode was based around how Covid impacted upon them and how the coped with it, with tips and advice shared”

A podcast is also among the more recent offerings from the Dubai British School, Jumeirah Park. The DBSJP mental health and wellbeing podcast involves three students, trained up by the school counsellor, covering issues affecting them and the school community.

“The first episode was based around how Covid impacted upon them and how the coped with it, with tips and advice shared,” says Helen Douglas, head of Learning Support at DBSJP.

The school, founded in 2015, has threaded wellbeing right through the school years. Years 1 and 2 have ‘Lego groups’ that focus on “friendships, communication, building resilience and tolerance and generally problem-solving in a way which will reduce frustration and anxiety.”

In Years 3 to 6, the focus is on extending vocabulary of students to better express their emotions and involve emotional mapping (“where they are now and where they need to be”).

“As the children become more able or are older,” says Douglas, “the focus shifts to emotional intelligence to build positive self-regard, emotional self-awareness, assertiveness, independence, building empathy, managing stress or anxiety. This is addressed through self-actualisation – setting personal goals – being a risk taker to get to where they want to be.”

Specifically, Year 10 and 11 students run projects to support the well-being of others. They’re currently planning an International Happiness Day project for March 20 and are looking at staff wellbeing too.

One of their past projects was #ChooseKindness where, in combination with the school’s ‘Inclusion Team’ (“We have an ‘Inclusion Ambassador’ to represent every year group across the whole school, including year 1,” Douglas says) they raised awareness of the benefits of supportive friendships at the school.

“Senior students held question and answer sessions about supporting each other and showing kindness and consideration. They also talked to their younger peers in Primary about building confidence and self-esteem and ‘looking out’ for each other,” explains Douglas.

It’s clear, when talking representatives from international schools, be they from schools groups or teachers themselves, that there is a sense of pride about what has been achieved in wellbeing, with or without the pandemic adding extra demands.

“This is a year I’ll remember for the rest of my life… because of all the work that these kids have done”

Rob Wilson sums it up best when he says: “This is a year I’ll remember for the rest of my life, not just because of the pandemic, because of all the work that these kids have done and it’s one of those things that like in education, we try to pretend that inspiring stuff is happening all the time, but you can always identify years in your academic career that were special.

“And this is going to be one of those for me where it’s just going to be like, that group was something else, the work that we did that year was something else, and it laid hopefully the groundwork for what we’re going to be doing for many.”

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One Response to Lego groups, podcasts and Inclusion Ambassadors: wellbeing in focus at international schools

  1. On Thursday 30 September 2021, more than 58,000 Cognita students, parents and colleagues around the world will celebrate our third Global Be Well Day (GBWD). This annual event is an opportunity for all our schools in Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Latin America to have a simultaneous and unified celebration of student wellbeing and it forms just one aspect of our overall focus on wellbeing.

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