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5 Steps: Promoting wellbeing in schools

The 5 Steps framework, recently launched by the Anna Freud Centre, calls for change in how schools and colleges support the mental health and wellbeing of their pupils and staff. ‘Promoting wellbeing’ is one of the five steps. As we look to the return of many more pupils to classrooms from 8 March, Jonathan Baggaley reflects on the challenges and opportunities facing the school community.

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Children and young people have faced immense challenges during recent months. Schools have had to remodel ways of working, with teachers moving to online teaching (and back again) and accommodating a series of new safety measures. All this has been achieved at short notice.

These pressures have forced people to examine the role of the school curriculum more closely. Is it fit for purpose in preparing children and young people for life’s challenges – when those challenges are unexpected like during the coronavirus pandemic, or when they are the more predictable obstacles we all face in our lives?

Over the past year, our members at the PSHE Association have sought support with teaching about mental health more than any other topic. This isn’t surprising considering what children and young people have been going through, and what they will continue to experience in the months to come.

Integral to the curriculum
This current reality is a reminder to us that teaching about mental health and promoting wellbeing should be integral to the curriculum at all times, not just in response to traumatic events or circumstances. It should be routine and part of a whole school approach which helps prepare young people before problems arise. Hence, we’re delighted to see it as a central pillar of the Anna Freud Centre’s 5 Steps framework.

When thinking about this whole school approach, teaching about mental health explicitly within the context of a broad PSHE education programme is key. We therefore welcome new statutory requirements for schools to do this.  With Health Education and Relationships Education (primary) / Relationships and Sex Education (secondary) now compulsory parts of broader PSHE education, there is a greater chance that children will be taught regular lessons by trained teachers.

This also suggests that we’re gaining ground in the argument that this is a valuable use of precious curriculum time. And for anyone who is unconvinced that supporting children’s mental health through the curriculum has its own merit (!), there is also strong evidence that doing so has a positive impact on academic attainment. But beyond this, we need to think more broadly than explicit teaching about mental health and emotional wellbeing.

What else can we offer children and young people to deal with the challenges, and opportunities, that lie ahead for them? We know there will be challenges shared by many throughout childhood, adolescence and into adulthood – from understanding healthy behaviours to dealing with exam stress, and from repairing playground friendships to being offered drugs for the first time. Then there are challenges and opportunities we can’t foresee or plan for. After all, no one could have predicted the year we’ve just had. So how can we plan for both the good and the bad in the years ahead?

Teaching strategies and embedding opportunities
That’s why schools need a PSHE education curriculum that both explicitly teaches strategies for promoting mental wellbeing and embeds opportunities (through every PSHE topic, from drug education to careers) to develop skills for maintaining positive healthy relationships, expressing and managing feelings, decision-making, thriving online, seeking help, and so on. This curriculum must teach vital knowledge, but also support children and young people’s agency and their ability to negotiate uncertainty.

As the national membership body for PSHE education, the PSHE Association is dedicated to improving the quality and status of the subject and providing a community of support for PSHE professionals. Being a PSHE teacher or lead is sometimes a difficult role, but it’s a role that’s never held more importance, given the need to get children back on their feet and facing the future.

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