Putting the 'we' back into wellbeing
Almost a year ago, countries and schools across the world were thrown into complete uncertainty following news of a global pandemic and resulting lockdown. When this first happened, there was hope of it being temporary. As time went on, we began to accept that the 2019-2020 academic year was unlikely to see a return to ‘normal’. We had hope however, that the 2020-2021 academic year held promise of a return to pre-pandemic life.
11 months later and the pandemic continues to rage on. As it does, so does the mass uncertainty felt by students, teachers, and schools across the globe.
‘Connection’ is a buzzword I often hear bandied about, and its relation to wellbeing has only been amplified as a result of the pandemic.
It’s not that I don’t think connection is important to wellbeing (I really do), but sometimes it can feel a little disingenuous.
A five minute check-in at the start of a lesson is great, but is it really fostering a sense of connection…? I can’t remember a single time that I have done an ice-breaker at a conference or course of some sort, and felt any sense of meaningful connection.
And that’s probably because it wasn’t.
In my own experience of living through the pandemic (in Thailand, which has experienced a fair level of success in containing outbreaks and has allowed us to live a somewhat normal life) students that were already experiencing existing mental health difficulties have struggled enormously. And for many other students, there is a growing apathy (especially from those soon to graduate) about the future.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what is going on, but things just don’t quite feel… normal.
During the initial lockdown, around April last year, we sent a survey to our secondary students to ask what they were doing to support themselves and help with their own sense of wellbeing. We also asked what we (as a counselling team) could do to better support them. Some of the options that students could choose from included us sharing more resources, individual counselling sessions (where permissible) and group discussions around wellbeing, with opportunities for them to share with each other how they were coping with the pandemic.
And students opted overwhelmingly for group discussions.
I found this surprising, given that students were in online classes all day and had the chance to see each other during that time, and also had a lot more time to connect with each other online through platforms such as Instagram and Tik Tok, given the fact that they were no longer strictly subjected to the ‘no phones’ rule.
However, what it seemed students were looking for was time and space to discuss how they were feeling, how they were coping, and to find genuine connection with others.
Although we all know how egocentric teenagers can be, we can often forget that it can be difficult for them to talk about how they feel and ask for help, because all of their friends are in that egocentric phase too.
Upon the return to in-class teaching in September, as part of the wellbeing programme at our school, we decided to build on this preference for group discussions and set up lunchtime peer support groups led by Year 13 students, to help fill this gap in our pastoral provision.
This was how we tried to put the ‘we’ back into wellbeing.
Typically, most social-emotional support at schools is offered on an individual basis or delivered through classroom-based lessons, such as PSHE. Whilst these are very valuable, I believe they can be limited in their reach.
Students that attend individual counselling sessions have normally already reached a crisis point by the time that they start to engage in counselling. And PSHE lessons tend to provide education more than support.
The fact is that many students don't always benefit from, or want to engage in, individual support.
We can probably all think of difficult times in our lives where we didn’t want or feel ready to engage in counselling, but still felt alone and craved some form of support or connection.
For many students, what they are looking for is to be noticed, to feel heard, and for someone to care about them.
This is where 'the power of the group' may help us to more effectively support our students.
Whilst 'group therapy' should be the domain of qualified professionals, what schools can offer is a safe space for students to discuss mental health difficulties, as well as any issues that may impact on this (family relationships, friendships, etc), amongst a supportive peer group.
Our lunchtime support groups, with senior students helping school counsellors to facilitate discussions pertaining to wellbeing, aim to help students build confidence in social settings, improve on their interpersonal skills and empathy for others, and allow them to experience the positive support of a group.
We have tried a variety of different ways to run these groups, but some of the methods that we have found to be most effective are as follows;:
- Recruiting a core group senior students who are passionate about wellbeing and want to support other students (great for students who are looking to pursue careers in Medicine or Psychology)
- Co-writing an agreement with students which lists the role of and rules of the group - i.e. to provide a safe space for students to talk in which everything shared is kept confidential by the group
- Selecting a range of topics (with the help of the senior students) that are currently affecting students and preparing a way of introducing these topics in an understanding and non-threatening way to the discussions
- Making it a group that students want to come to - bringing in relevant and interesting guest speakers (when possible) and even buying pizzas to accompany special discussions or speakers!
As Yalom and Leszcz (2005) stated... "There is no human deed or thought that lies outside the experience of others". We are more connected than we are apart, and in the age of wellbeing perhaps the focus should be on putting the 'we' back in 'wellbeing' and using 'the power of the group' to help students navigate the current uncertainty. Maybe that is the type of connection that students have been looking for.
About the author: Sadie is a Head of Sixth Form based at a British Curriculum International School in Thailand. She is the Coordinator of the LANNA Wellbeing Programme which was recently shortlisted for the International School Awards Wellbeing Initiative. She also is Editor of the WISEducation Wellbeing Newsletter and Blog which discusses issues relating to wellbeing in international school education.