Ellen Llewellyn, director of pupil wellbeing at Downe House in Berkshire shares her school’s approach to supporting mental health
Whilst positive mental health and wellbeing practices have always been a hugely important area for schools, there is no doubt that a global pandemic, coupled with the increased use and influence of social media by students, has increased the focus in this area. The national picture statistically shows a marked increase in poor mental health and a decline in wellbeing and so at our school, we are taking a very proactive approach to the support we provide as opposed to simply reacting to problems when they occur.
Early intervention is paramount when it comes to identifying mental health issues in young people. Equipping students with an array of positive wellness habits from the moment they join us, is an important part of the preventative puzzle. At Downe House we believe a key aspect of strong pastoral care is relationship building between students, staff and parents. When all parties work closely together, the support the student receives is holistic and tailored. More importantly in this scenario, the student feels seen and heard which is a vital aspect of wellbeing and mental health.
‘Early intervention is paramount when it comes to identifying mental health issues in young people’ – Ellen Llewellyn, director of wellbeing at Downe House
As a school that is passionate about nurturing lifelong learners, we absolutely want our students to thrive in the academic sphere. We also believe that academic success is more achievable for students who are healthy and happy individuals. We encourage our students to actively take ownership of their wellbeing journey and empower them to feel confident in recognising when they may need to employ some wellbeing strategies. We teach our students about the importance of developing individualised wellbeing strategies and encourage them to be self-aware when it comes to their own wellbeing so that they can seek additional help at an early stage if they need to.
This education in self-care comes in lots of different forms, from informal chats with house staff in the boarding houses, right through to our Learning for Life weekly taught lessons. For students who need a little more support, we have resident school counsellors who work with students to offer the additional care required and our counsellors also work with our house teams to identify areas of more general support for specific groups of students who may benefit.
A new initiative for Downe House this last year was the introduction of a wellbeing committee, made up of students from across the whole school, with the aim of giving them the opportunity to help develop the mental health and wellbeing programme we offer. The committee is led by 10 sixth form students who have undergone training to become wellbeing ambassadors. The training itself covered basic mental health first aid, explored some key signposting for additional resources and practical examples of the different ways students can support each other with wellbeing in the school setting.
Students in the younger years are undergoing a paired down version of this training to become wellbeing champions, and together the ambassadors and champions perform the dual role of contributing to the committee while also being someone in the community who is championing good wellbeing and supporting their peers. As the committee develops, the students hope to be able to roll out initiatives to help their peers to become even more aware of the necessity to look after the wellbeing of themselves and each other.
Wellbeing comes in many shapes and forms
The launch of our finding balance programme has also provided a whole range of introductory and practical ways of looking after personal wellbeing. As part of this, various activities are offered to allow students a taste of things they might then embed in their own lives to help them develop positive wellbeing strategies. Sound baths, puppy therapy, forest bathing and acrobatic yoga have all been activities on offer and these help to highlight to the students that wellbeing comes in many different forms and understanding what brings you calm, joy and relaxation is crucial.
‘You can’t pour from an empty cup’ – Ellen Llewellyn on the importance of staff wellbeing
Of course, it is natural for schools to focus on the importance of wellbeing of their students, but my favourite phrase is ‘you can’t pour from an empty cup’. Our programme of staff wellbeing support is designed to ensure that they too are self-aware and able to access additional support when needed. All of our staff are automatically members of an employee assistance programme which is facilitated by an external company and consists of a whole range of resources to support them.
This means they have around the clock access to free, confidential support including a counselling service, as well as resources covering all aspects of life which can be a source of stress from finance to bereavement. In addition, we offer an extensive continuing professional development (CPD) programme to help support the staff with common issues they may encounter at school so that they feel better equipped to deal with them and gain a sense of personal growth and development too. We also have an active common room association who offer various opportunities for staff to come together socially both on and offsite and they have been instrumental in listening to staff feedback and driving change.
Training the mind
There are lots of really positive steps happening in schools today around mental wellbeing, but regular, up to date training is really important to keep things moving in the right direction for both students and staff. As part of our staff CPD programme we regularly include topics around wellbeing and mental health, either bringing in external experts or sharing good practice from within our experienced team. These sessions may focus on staff wellbeing e.g., the importance of saying no sometimes, or on student wellbeing topics such as understanding LGBTQ+ terminology and its importance for students.
The programme we offer is flexible intentionally so that we can adapt and react when needed. Ideas from speakers may come from staff suggestions for things they would like support on, or from student feedback on what they wish we as staff knew, or this can come from investigating the areas we feel our staff need to be equipped in, in order to deal with in the future and remain proactive about keeping that knowledge in place.
Synergy between school and home is important too. Parents are often seeking support in this area just as much as staff and pupils, and at Downe House we have also created an excellent parenting and educating in partnership programme of talks for our parents to help equip them with the skills they need to be able to talk to their children effectively, about what can be difficult topics. We have been able to welcome some incredible external experts for talks on an array of topics from how to deal with the difficult teenage years to internet safety tips including speakers such as Mandy Saligari, Emma Gleadhill, Karl Hopwood and Robin White, to name a few. We also utilise the expertise of our staff and this year our programme included a talk from our library manager on the importance and wide-ranging benefits of reading as well as a talk from myself about how our Learning for Life programme supports the students with their mental health and wellbeing.
Another recent addition to our parent programme is a collaboration with the website Tooled Up which provides our parents access to hundreds of online resources, from live and pre-recorded lectures to book recommendations and practical ideas. It is a one-stop shop of parenting resources to help support our parenting body with 24-hour accessible sources of information and learning. Everything produced on the site is grounded in research evidence and is constantly updated meaning it is always relevant to the challenges our students might be facing and can help parents navigate those in an effective way.
Mental health education is constantly evolving so schools like mine are always looking towards the future. Our student wellbeing committee is brimming with new ideas for this academic year and as a school we are also looking at our pastoral monitoring systems to ensure we are utilising them effectively, particularly around early detection and intervention. We use the affective social tracking system to monitor pastoral progress which has just rolled out a new online interface, and this gives us an opportunity to relaunch it to staff and see how we can utilise the data it produces even more effectively to support the students.
Moving forward, we are also looking at our counselling provision to expand what we offer, largely this has involved looking at how we can utilise the expertise of the counselling team more within our boarding houses, specifically to work with the boarding staff so that they can better support the students at an earlier stage in the mental health cycle. The earlier issues are detected the better chance you have of getting to the root of problems, adopting the right strategies of support, and hopefully avoiding the need for counselling intervention.
About Downe House School
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