While much has been shared in the media – traditional and social – about the need to look after one’s mental health and wellbeing, schools have been at the coalface of supporting our children and dealing with the challenges of high levels of stress as many students struggle with distance learning. 

Across the globe, schools report in students a lack of focus or an inability to stay engaged, impacting their ability to enjoy the learning experience. More than this, a sense of detachment from friends, teachers and our communities is taking its toll. The impact of this is illustrated by the research and statistics published here, indicating an increase in anxiety and depression compared to non-pandemic times.

Understandably many of us, students, families and staff alike, are tired, feeling apprehensive and perhaps even a little flat. Covid and lockdown have been difficult for us all. 

Some students will be feeling anxious about the return, others may simply be excited. Some will be worried about friendships, perhaps others not so much. Some will be stressed about their learning and what they’ve felt they have missed while others will just be ready to learn in community. Even as adults, we are experiencing similar emotions and responses. 

Now, as we emerge from our homes and return to face-to-face learning, many of us wonder how to support our children. More so, we wonder how to actively and practically support their wellbeing. 

Dr Nicole Brunker, lecturer in education at University of Sydney suggests the most important thing for us to focus on at the moment is exactly that: wellbeing.

Important for schools this term, is the social and emotional support underpinning learning this term. Schools will need to amplify student and staff wellbeing as we re-ground and strengthen relationships, and look to the future with a sense of hope and optimism. One way for schools to achieve this is by embedding a visible culture of wellbeing. 

Visible Wellbeing 

Since its foundation, Danebank Anglican School for Girls has adopted a rich, multifaceted and holistic approach to the development of girls and young women with hallmarks of excellence in learning underpinned by strong pastoral care and deeply networked relationships. 

Now, under the leadership of Principal Dr Emma Burgess, Danebank is embarking on a more intentional, research-based and scientific approach to the development of wellbeing in girls and young women.  

In 2021, Danebank entered a partnership with Professor Lea Waters from the University of Melbourne to become a Visible Wellbeing Partner School. 

Decades of research, including the well-known field of Positive Psychology, with seminal researchers such as Professor Martin Seligmann, psychologist, researcher and author,  has helped us define wellbeing. Several studies have demonstrated how wellbeing enhances learning. And, a growing body of research, for example on self control and grit, ​​indicates that aspects of wellbeing such as grit and perseverance are greater predictors of future life success than academic scores. Yet, few studies have explored how we develop wellbeing. 

Using 20 years of high-impact research in psychology and education, Professor Waters distilled findings into the SEARCH framework, combining  the science of learning with the science of wellbeing to answer how to develop wellbeing.  

The SEARCH framework integrates an individual’s Strengths, Emotional management, Attention and awareness, Relationships, Coping mechanisms, and Habits and goals to offer a practical foundation on which to build one’s own wellbeing. 

At Danebank, the timing of this initiative could not have been more fortuitous in dealing with the stresses of Covid, lockdown and distance learning. 

Implementing the Visible Wellbeing framework under the guidance of Professor Lea Waters, Danebank staff have been learning ways to support the development of wellbeing in all students. Brain breaks or brain boosters have become part of daily practice. During distance learning, students benefited from the newly-instituted Wellbeing Days, with activities based on the Visible Wellbeing framework. Danebank has established a Wellbeing Committee with representatives across the school. Student-led initiatives have supported the strengthening of friendships. Key leadership roles have been created to ensure the full integration of the framework, and the refinement of wellbeing programs from Pre-Kindergarten to Year 12 is underway. 

In addition to this, Danebank has expanded its counselling services for our girls and has a newly-appointed wellbeing coach in the Senior School. 

Wellbeing is becoming a cornerstone of Danebank’s offering to girls, their families and our staff. 

Considering the return to face-to-face learning 

Now, as we prepare for the return to face-to-face learning, Danebank is using this framework to support all within our community. 

On Tuesday 5 October Danebank staff worked with Professor Waters and her Visible Wellbeing team, learning more about relationships and strengths as we prepare to support our girls in their wellbeing for and during the transition. 

Staff considered ways to recognise and develop individual strengths in each girl, identifying ways to support and deepen relationships and connections now that girls are returning to the Danebank family home (our campus). With the first grades returning on Monday 18 October, Danebank will launch a ‘kindness pandemic’ across the school. Planning is underway for Covid-safe learning experiences, fun activity days and friendship initiatives to support, re-establish and deepen relationships and connections. 

“We can’t always change the level of stress children and teens are feeling, but, as parents or educators, we’re not completely helpless. We can give them the tools they need to grow through the stress,” Professor Waters explained. “That way, when students encounter another stressful situation, or should they face adversity in life, they can face it with more strength.” 

Strengthening relationships can foster feelings of belonging and connections. These contribute to student happiness, resilience, and ability to focus.

What parents can do

To help your children deepen relationships and move towards hope as we emerge from our homes and re-engage with face-to-face learning, encourage your family to be both patient with each other and proactive in reaching out to the people you don’t live with. Here are some tips and tools: 

  • When your child or teenager wants to talk about something important to them, consider an Active Constructive Response. This means to  commit to understanding and validating what they are saying and feeling, and in response to show concern. Show concern by asking questions, commenting on why it is good, reflecting on how you think it makes the other person feel and showing that you are there for them. 
  • Consider sharing random acts of kindness. It’s a positive way of re-connecting with others. You might like to take someone a meal, bake some cookies, send a message. Some great ideas can be found at #thekindnesspandemic website, or find them on social media. 
  • Share your gratitude around your neighbourhood and in your family: you might like to write gratitude signs or leave messages for others. A gratitude jar is another idea to share and grow as a family. 

While, like everyone else, the Danebank community is facing challenges returning to campus, we have worked hard this year to train and equip our staff with practical tools to improve their own and their students’ wellbeing.