My mental health story
For the first sixteen years of my teaching career, I was energetic, enthusiastic, ambitious and driven. In various roles as a Class Teacher, Year Leader and Head of Key Stage 2, I cared deeply about my students but didn’t give wellbeing – either theirs or my own – much thought. Taking care of everyone else just happened naturally. And taking care of myself wasn’t necessary because, well, I was fine. Mental health challenges were something that other people experienced. They weren’t something I needed to think about during my busy, productive, organised days.
Until, of course, I did.
In 2017, I had a breakdown that, to my horror, took me a year to recover from. I learnt a great deal from this brutal experience. From a professional perspective, as I recovered, I realised that I needed a whole new approach to teaching and leadership, for my sake and for my children’s. My personal experience had been a shock but I had come to realise that it wasn’t unique, that one in four adults would experience mental illness in their lifetimes; that one in ten children experience it too; and that, irrespective of whether we will face it, we all have mental health that we need to acknowledge and actively take care of. It was suddenly obvious that I needed to embed awareness of wellbeing and mental health into my everyday practice in the classroom and I needed to help colleagues do it too.
Leading whole-school wellbeing
I was extremely fortunate that my recovery coincided with a new role at my school: Leader of Wellbeing and Mental Health. The day I was appointed, I bubbled with excitement. Not only was this my dream role but, as it wasn’t a curriculum subject, my headteacher had given me a blank canvas. I still remember her words that day:
“I don’t know how you are going to do it but I don’t just want this to be a bolt-on. I want it to become a part of our everyday routine. I want it to be as natural for children to use a breathing exercise for anxiety as it is for them to ask for a plaster for a cut knee”.
At the end of my three years as Leader of Wellbeing and Mental Health, when wellbeing was visibly embedded throughout the school, I reflected that these were the keys to our success:
- Senior leadership support. The headteacher, Karren van Zoest, truly believed that wellbeing needed to be at the heart of all we did. It was not a tick-box exercise for her. This was fundamental in helping everyone understand that it was a whole-school priority.
- Sharing the evidence. Every teacher was bought a copy of Wellbeing in the Primary Classroom by Adrian Bethune. It’s an excellent, evidence-based book that provides lots of practical ideas about embedding wellbeing in the classroom.
- Developing a support network. After initial staff training, I asked for volunteers and soon had sixteen representatives from across the school on our Wellbeing Team. They would trial and share ideas, enthusing others on a daily basis. The ripple effect is real and it was powerful to see.
- Regular staff training. INSET was dedicated to wellbeing at least once a term. I shared theory and research, as well as practical ideas people could use in their classrooms the next day. Teaching educators the science behind wellbeing is fundamental, as are ideas that aren’t too demanding or time-consuming. Again, support from Senior Leadership is essential and my current headteacher, Tor del Federico, has made time for this during INSETs every half-term. This not only facilitates training but also makes it clear that wellbeing is a priority from the top.
Wellbeing in the classroom
So once teachers are enthused, trained, and it is clear that wellbeing is a whole-school priority, what will that actually look like in the classroom? The most effective teachers do the following:
- Explicitly teach the whole class coping strategies and make time to practice them daily. The inclusive nature here is fundamental as it normalises everybody needing a toolkit to manage tricky emotions. This could be breathing exercises, grounding techniques or a few minutes with ear defenders and a book. It can be as simple as everyone doing 5-finger breathing when they come in from play or two minutes of peace and quiet while they note down everything they can hear or see.
- If you have space, create a Calm Corner, where these coping strategies are displayed. Empower children to identify when they are struggling and if they might need some time in the Calm Corner to regulate their emotions before re-joining the lesson.
- Teach a broad range of language to express emotions and provide opportunities for everyone to express how they feel. It is important that the class environment feels safe for them to do so and that anyone who prefers not to share may pass. Within the international school sector, allow children to do this in their home language if they don’t yet feel confident in English. We provide multilingual emotions charts to encourage this, reminding both staff and parents about the benefits of translanguaging.
- Recognise the extra challenges that Third Culture Kids face. Many of the children in international schools experience significant levels of grief and trauma. Frequent changes of school, education system, culture and language can be emotionally and mentally draining; and saying goodbye to friends, as well as making new ones, is hard too. Recognise these challenges; make time to talk about them; and keep a particular eye out for new children who may feel overwhelmed but fear speaking up.
- Model, model, model! Talk about the run you went on because it makes you feel good mentally, as well as physically; join in with the breathing exercises and remark how it clears your head and helps you focus; share, when appropriate, your feelings and how you are managing them. Remember, your children admire you and they are learning so much from what you model every single day!
by Rhiannon Phillips-Bianco
Rhiannon Phillips-Bianco has been a teacher and leader in international schools since 2003, in Italy and The Netherlands. She is currently a Year 6 Class Teacher and Leader of Wellbeing and Positive Education for 3-18 year olds. During the last five years, her work has focused on creating effective whole-school programmes to supporting the wellbeing of students, staff and parents; one of which was a finalist for the International School Awards in 2019.
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