Health & Psychology wellbeing in schools

Developing A Three-Pillared Approach to Wellbeing in Schools

June 5, 2016

Wellbeing. It’s a concept that’s grown in prominence over the last few years – but beyond launching a thousand self-help books and gaining an increasingly important role in schools like my own, what does it actually mean? And is it a genuinely important goal or just another passing fad?
Well, at GEMS World Academy Switzerland (GWAS), we believe it’s important enough to have made it a cornerstone of how we teach and care for our students. And as Director of Student Wellbeing, it’s my role to ensure that far from it being just a passing fad, everyone understands what it means and the benefits it brings our students.
So whenever I’m asked to explain what wellbeing is, the answer I usually give is simple: it’s a way of dealing with life’s contradictions. Or, to put it another way: it’s the process of developing the knowledge, skills, understanding and dispositions to successfully navigate those contradictions and to carve out a sense of identity, purpose and meaning along the way.

“…for an international school like GEMS…wellbeing is even more important.”

In a sense, that process should be the goal of every type of educational establishment, but -for an international school like GEMS – continually welcoming students and families from all over the world – well, it’s even more important. Because for international students and families, those normal human contradictions can seem to take on particularly stark contrasts and even become quite daunting obstacles to personal and communal wellbeing.
In our ever more globalized world, the tensions between cultural identity and open-mindedness, welcoming immigrants and constructing security fences, environmental awareness and food waste, between learning from mistakes and getting measured by test scores, can sometimes seem almost too insurmountable to acknowledge.
As adults, most of us manage to compartmentalize the areas of our lives that don’t seem to fit together so that we’re not having to constantly deal with the tensions they produce. Although even then, frustration, depression, and even despair are common. But for our children, who are still trying to build their own mental maps of the world around them, figuring out how to keep all of these contradictions together can be a constant and confusing source of stress and uncertainty. Small wonder, then, that recent research seems to show trends of increasing stress, anxiety, and depression in students in schools around the world.

“…the IB aims to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world.”

It’s in this context that student wellbeing has moved into the international education spotlight. The International Baccalaureate Organization, whose International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum forms the heart of our educational approach throughout GWAS, says that the IB “aims to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect.” Right from the start, the admirable values at the heart of the IB programme bring into the spotlight that tension between the world as it is and our hope that it could be otherwise: “better and more peaceful.”
Building on that aim, GEMS World Academy Switzerland is drawing on well-established tools and resources – with a proven track record of making a positive impact on school cultures & human relationships – to create a community of educational professionals, students and families who are equipped to face these contradictions together. In other words, to give structure and a common understanding of wellbeing and its benefits.

The Language of Wellbeing

We’ve done this in several ways. Firstly, we’ve developed the ethos of our community and pastoral care systems around the language of wellbeing. By naming a Director of Student Wellbeing responsible for the “Wellbeing Team” within the school, we’ve made the idea of wellbeing an inescapable part of life in the GWAS community. And for students, parents, staff – even visitors on one of our Open House Days – being exposed to the language of wellbeing provokes a moment of self-reflection where everyone, consciously or unconsciously, checks in on how we are feeling in that moment. “Wellbeing… what’s the state of my wellbeing right now?”
That self-awareness is a simple but crucial step in recognizing and dealing with those contradictions of human life that can become so overwhelming. And even simply using the language of wellbeing pushes us towards this first step.

A Three Pillar Approach to Wellbeing

Another way we’ve placed wellbeing at the heart of GEMS has been to try and articulate what wellbeing means to us as a community – and the rules and framework by which we can measure it.
As a Wellbeing Team, we’ve identified three programs or tools that have been used successfully for decades – even centuries – to improve human wellbeing in communities around the world. Each of these tools emphasizes one of the three main types of relationships in our lives that greatly impact our wellbeing. We call it our Three Pillar Approach to Wellbeing – the three Pillars being Mindfulness, Nonviolent Communication (NVC), and Restorative Justice.

1) Mindfulness

The practice of mindfulness, brought into the mainstream western world by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, has become an essential element of holistic wellbeing. In recent years, study after study has demonstrated that mindfulness practice actually rewires our brains in ways that improve wellbeing, “over time making mindfulness and compassion the automatic response to stress.”[1] (“The Science of Mindfulness – Mindful,” n.d.)
Since the opening of our school in Etoy in 2013, we’ve been incorporating mindfulness into our community in a variety of ways. We have hosted Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) courses for teachers and parents so that our adult community can begin to understand the concept of mindfulness and the benefits it can bring through developing the skills and habits of mindfulness in their own lives. By encouraging our adults to be mindful, we hope to create a more peaceful environment for learning and to model a way of living for our students that allows them to respond to contradiction and stress by becoming more aware of themselves and others.
In addition, we regularly use mindfulness exercises to begin school assemblies and meetings or to help students transition between classes. In the MYP years (Grades 6-10), a designated Wellbeing Course provides the opportunity for students to learn mindfulness exercises and to practice them together once a week.
Mindfulness leads to presence, which allows for the true empathy that is necessary for NVC and Restorative Justice. If we are not able to be truly present to another person, then we cannot truly listen to their feelings and needs in a way that enables wellbeing.

2) Nonviolent Communication

While mindfulness, in a narrow sense, can be said primarily to be about our personal wellbeing, about our relationship with ourselves and the world currently around us, nonviolent communication deals more directly with our relational wellbeing – in other words, how we communicate with others.
This process language was developed by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg through his work in conflict resolution and civil rights in the 1960’s. The process of NVC can be summed up in four seemingly easy steps:

  • State the observations that are leading you to feel the need to say something without including any judgments or evaluations.
  • State the feeling that the observation is triggering in you. Or, guess what the other person is feeling, and ask.
  • State the need that is the cause of that feeling. Or, guess the need that caused the feeling in the other person, and ask.
  • Make a concrete request for action to meet the need just identified.

By applying these steps in our communication, we can improve the quality of our relationships with others (one of the keys to happier living).
As Rosenberg says in his book, Life-Enriching Education,

“Our goal in a Life-Enriching organization is…to express our needs without blaming others and to listen respectfully to others’ needs, without anyone giving up or giving in – and thus create a quality of connection through which everyone’s needs can be met.” (p.3)

At GEMS World Academy Switzerland, we’ve started to introduce the NVC process to our staff and students this year. While mindfulness helps us get in touch with the feelings and needs we must be aware of if we’re to communicate nonviolently, NVC helps us to avoid many of the ways that we hurt each other, intentionally and unintentionally, that can lead to and escalate conflict.

  • It helps us to talk about observable actions rather than make judgments about people that limit their dignity.
  • It encourages teachers to communicate with students more authentically, without falling into the trap of relying on their institutional authority.
  • And it helps us to identify and articulate the requests that will help us have our true needs met, leading to improved wellbeing.

3) Restorative Justice: The Next Step

Finally, building on the awareness and compassion nurtured by mindfulness and the clarity of communication provided by the NVC process, the principles of Restorative Justice provide a framework for our relationships with the community as a whole.

“In broad terms Restorative Justice constitutes an innovative approach to offending and inappropriate behaviour which puts repairing harm done to relationships and people over and above the need for assigning blame and dispensing punishment. A restorative approach in a school shifts the emphasis from managing behaviour to focusing on the building, nurturing and repairing of relationships.” (Hopkins, B. (2003) ‘Restorative Justice in Schools’, Mediation in Practice, April, pp 4-9)

While we’re only in the early stages of implementing restorative justice at GEMS, the idea here is simple: to move from the traditional method of behavior management (retributive justice) involving setting up rules and then punishing students when the rules are broken, to a system of relationship management that helps students to recognize the impact their actions will have on themselves and others and to develop the skills and motivation to identify and repair any harm that is done.
Restorative justice acknowledges that both victims and offenders are unique and valuable and strives to ensure that victims and offenders alike can be restored to being healthy, contributing members of the community. This means moving away from expulsions and suspensions and other methods that remove students from the learning community and towards restorative practices like circles, conferences, and contracts.
It’s important to note that restorative justice doesn’t mean that actions are without consequences; rather, the approach of restorative practices is to guide students to identify the natural consequences of their actions and to accept responsibility for the full weight of these consequences, including any harm done. “Restorative Justice is focused on the belief that those affected by harm can work together to repair it and that this collaboration leads to true accountability” (“Restorative Justice: A Working Guide for our Schools, SHS Coalition, 2011).

Leading through Innovation

Like mindfulness and nonviolent communication, restorative justice requires a “change of mind” from the common habits and practices of the global community that so often lead to conflict and unhappiness. This change of mind is no small feat, but it is surely required to truly make progress towards “a better and more peaceful world.”
At GEMS World Academy Switzerland, we are committed to leading through innovation in the wellbeing of our students, our community and our world, and we believe that our three pillar approach to wellbeing will provide the tools that we need “to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people” who are equipped to face a world full of challenges and contradictions with resilience and to bring an healing touch.
[1] The Science of Mindfulness – Mindful. (n.d.). Retrieved May 5, 2016, from http://www.mindful.org/the-science-of-mindfulness/#
By Daniel Johnston – Director of Student Wellbeing – GEMS World Academy Switzerland

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