A whole school approach to emotional wellbeing

A whole school approach to emotional wellbeing

In the last few years, society has been through turbulent times, with the wellbeing of our school communities significantly affected. Yet the research tells us that we function better when we feel safe, nurtured and connected. In short, children learn, grow, and flourish in environments that support relationships.

Two school children sat at a table writing on paper
"Schools need and want to prioritise their community’s wellbeing needs, now more than ever." - Robert Brooks, Fellow

This year, the NHS reported that 1 in 6 young people now have a probable mental health disorder, compared with 1 in 9 young people in 2017. Mental health and wellbeing are interrelated: we know that healthy wellbeing actively protects us against mental illness and fosters recovery. We also know that wellbeing is something we can all learn to maintain, giving us protection against present and future adversity.

My Churchill Fellowship report described seven ingredients of success derived from inspiring practices that I observed in Canadian school districts. They are:

  • A commitment to wellbeing: Historically, UK schools have faced criticism for narrowly focusing on attainment as the benchmark for success. Broadening these goals to include measures of wellbeing is likely to support a cultural shift towards improving whole school communities and broader society.
  • Visionary leadership: We need leaders to communicate their vision, model self-care passionately, and have the freedom to implement an informed wellbeing approach.
  • Quality data: The above efforts benefit from access to valid and reliable wellbeing measures that elicit children’s voices to inform decision-making. Such data forms the basis for productive and collaborative conversations between educators, parents and community services and creates a unified vision for change.
  • School culture: A school’s culture is too important to be left to chance. Deliberate effort is required to improve the quality and quantity of relationships within schools, make them feel safe, encourage empathy, foster connections and improve behaviour.
  • Social and emotional learning: The teaching of social skills, and routine meetings as a class to discuss social tensions, will benefit the staff who facilitate these discussions as much as the students taking part.
  • Systemic support: Implementation informed psychologists should support schools and district leaders by developing a joined-up local offer aligned with regional and national strategy. This is a relatively new approach involving a multidisciplinary team of clinical and educational psychologists who specialise in organisational change. Systemic practitioners can alert schools to local resources and help to establish a consistent, co-ordinated response for wellbeing, from governments to regional service providers to classrooms.
  • Community partnerships: Schools are well situated as partnership hubs for local services in this work. When schools and their community partners share ownership of wellbeing data, they can better collaborate.

I garnered support for my Churchill Fellowship findings at regional conferences in Cardiff and Glasgow. As a result, funding was secured to pilot a small team of multi-disciplinary psychologists to develop an approach and support schools in implementing a Whole School Approach (WSA) for wellbeing.

This team trained clusters of schools throughout Gwent in South Wales, a region that spans five local authorities, using a Canadian action research approach called the Spiral of Inquiry. We then provided a series of consultation sessions with participating schools to help them embed the spiral process in their planning.

The schools we worked with told us how our work had benefited the whole school community, from school staff to pupils to parents. So in March 2022 we evaluated our pilot by asking schools what difference our work provided. One school said, “The process got our wellbeing team to really dig a little deeper, do a bit more research into finding out from the children what was important to them... that’s what really helped us.” Another explained that it helped them to realise that “Every member of staff had to take ownership for it to be a whole school [approach]. Every child and staff member saw the value in ensuring that everything was embedded in every classroom.”

I am staggered by what we have achieved in just three years, despite the disruption caused by the pandemic. I owe a deep debt of gratitude to the Churchill Fellowship for the opportunity to travel, learn and share a fresh perspective on this vital issue.

Schools need and want to prioritise their community’s wellbeing needs, now more than ever. The Welsh Government recently published their framework for emotional well-being in schools making it a statutory obligation for schools to engage in a WSA. So we have developed a practical, evidence-informed model that speaks to Welsh Government values and the priorities of individual school communities. I would now like to take our project to the next level. We would like to offer 27 new schools the opportunity to engage in a year-long Spiral of Inquiry as a cohort, meeting every half term to develop their unique approach. We hope that using a cohort model will link schools as a professional learning community in a sustainable way that allows us to extend our reach throughout Wales.

For information on our Fellowships in this theme, see "Our current themes”.


The views and opinions expressed by any Fellow are those of the Fellow and not of the Churchill Fellowship or its partners, which have no responsibility or liability for any part of them.


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