Therapeutic schools: Some quick ideas to support wellbeing

Written by: Shahana Knight | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

With the many challenges young people face to their mental health, Shahana Knight says that the age of the therapeutic school is here. She looks at how we might change common areas of practice to better support wellbeing

The age of the therapeutic school is upon us. I am working with schools across England to change practice and introduce a more reflective, whole-school, therapeutic approach to education.
It is time to think outside the box and reshape education. We are aware that numbers of young people struggling with ACEs (adverse childhood experiences) and childhood trauma are rising. We are also aware of the negative affects of social media and technology. We know young people will have spent less time playing in their childhood and less time outdoors.

The impact of just these few factors alone is significant. Yet our schools, classrooms, teaching styles and lessons are often not reflective of these issues.

There are many ways in which we can begin to change things and refocus the learning objectives we have for our young people to include an emphasis on emotional wellbeing and mental health.

Ask yourself this: is the young people’s emotional wellbeing and mental health a priority at your school? If so, what are you doing to teach them that it should be their priority too?
Here follows some ideas and initiatives for adapting or changing common practices to support young people learning about and valuing their own emotional and mental health.

Homework

Traditionally homework is given to encourage students to continue their learning and develop their skills outside of school. Often they get maths, English, coursework, topic work, projects and so on. I invite you to change the focus of this once a month and issue “wellbeing homework”.

Issuing homework based around students’ emotional wellbeing communicates that it is important to you as a school that they develop their skill-set around healthy mindset, happiness and wellbeing. It also communicates to parents that this is a key developmental area for their children and helps get them involved.

Having a positive mindset which focuses on achievement, overcoming difficulties and self-belief is essential for a successful future and good mental health as students move in to adulthood. It is important that we teach young people how to regulate their emotions, notice their feelings, control their thought patterns and feel empowered to make positive changes in their lives (even when things are hard). These lessons are not innate, they have to be taught. I would argue that teaching these skills at school is just as important, if not more important, than maths and English skills.

Try this...

The homework should start with a brief paragraph or factsheet about the topic you are choosing to focus on. For example, a homework on mindset could introduce the topic to them and offer some facts about why it is important. This raises awareness and communicates why it is important that they focus on their mental health in the first place.

You would then set them a challenge, a worksheet or an activity that they need to complete over the weekend (free homework sheets can be found on my website). For example:

  • This weekend note down anything that was difficult and what you did to overcome it, take control, calm down, see the positive side.
  • List three things you are grateful for.
  • Tonight before bed close your eyes and repeat three times to yourself: “I can do anything I set my mind to.”
  • We challenge you to do a meditation every night this weekend and then write about whether it made you feel better (provide a meditation for them to do, again see my website for resources).
  • This weekend, go for a walk in the park and notice three things in nature that create a feeling of calm.
  • Can you write a therapeutic story?
  • If you feel yourself getting angry or frustrated this weekend, your homework is to take four deep breaths and control your feelings. Later when you are alone, do a short meditation to help you calm your brain.
  • Write about a time your behaviour got out of control and list all of the feelings you had going on, what they made you do, what thoughts you were having. Then list all of the things you could have done instead and what you need to do to bring back positive thoughts and feelings.

Take some time in the class to discuss the homework as a reflective tool. You could even use some of the homework challenges as the focus for a classroom session to continue the learning at school.

A headteacher’s award

When I visit schools I see common classroom incentives, behaviour charts, house/team awards, head boy or girl, attendance awards etc. Most of these focus on something that the teachers feel is an important trait that they want to see develop in their students, such as good team-work, behaving appropriately, listening, having high aspirations, or good attendance.

I rarely see incentives to praise and encourage students to practise healthy mindset or develop good emotional wellbeing skills. I advise schools that want to be more therapeutic to begin to use these as a focus point for their classroom, tutor groups or houses.

If you want to become more therapeutic in your approach it is important that the headteacher demonstrates this as well. A good idea would be to have the teaching staff tell you regularly which children have demonstrated positive resilience skills, or self awareness or good mindset and management of behaviour and put them forward for an award.

This could be a Headteacher’s Wellbeing Award and the “winner” could be congratulated in assembly as well as details (as appropriate) of why. If you are a school that uses social media then promoting the award and the reasons behind it is a perfect post.

It is important to note here that often young people struggling with low self-esteem, attachment disorder or emotional wellbeing are very likely to self-sabotage so that they do not receive this award (because they do not believe they are worthy).

This is the opposite of what we are trying to achieve and so I suggest that you do not put too much focus on “winning” this award day-to-day. Instead notice when a positive behaviour has happened and comment on it in the moment: “Talib I just noticed that you were able to walk away from that situation then, you showed good self-control well done” and “Jack, I just saw you go and help Farah calm down, that shows great empathy skills.”

This communicates that you have acknowledged and noticed positive strategies and the student will feel noticed and valued. It eliminates the feeling of having to work toward something bigger that might feel unattainable.

Dinner and break times

Dinner time and break time can often be the most difficult time of day for those students struggling with adverse life experiences and childhood trauma.

It is important to remember that these students already have high levels of stress hormones running through their body. They are also more likely to feel threatened and will be working from an instinctive part of their brain, focused on survival, rather than the rational regulated parts of the brain, that we expect. This means that they are more likely to respond to small triggers with big behaviours, such as fighting, getting in to arguments and absconding. There are many young people stuck in this survival mode at school. Instead of break time being a social event, it is actually a time of heightened stress.

It is important that schools use break time and dinner time to help their students to begin to regulate, refocus and get a real break from their internal stressors before they are expected to come back to class.

It is often the transition from break to lessons that can be hard for many students. Introducing relaxing music while the students are eating can help to bring energy levels down and refocus mindsets. If you are lucky enough to have an outdoor speaker system, use that five minutes before the end of break or dinner. Explain to the students that when they hear the music it means five minutes of break left and ask them to make their way back to class while it is on. This will help with the transition back to the classroom and could be a brilliant routine for each day.

Or why not try introducing break and lunch time drop-ins. Set up two or three zones in the school where students can go to participate in relaxing activities. Offer them a safe, quiet space they can choose to go to which will allow them to have some real down time. Ideas might include:

  • Relaxing art: Adult relaxing colouring books, word searches, positive reflective worksheet challenges, drawing. There are many mindful colouring books now which are made up of geometric black and white patterns or even positive affirmations. You can also print positive affirmation colouring pages or word searches. Have plain paper and some chalk and encourage the students to explore expression of self through art.
  • Music or song-writing: A space for listening to music, playing music or even writing songs. If you have iPads, set them out with headphones so the students can play their own music without disturbing others. If possible, have some instruments and allow for free play. Encourage the students to be creative. Remember it is about allowing them to self-regulate and create a zone in which they feel able to calm down.
  • Relaxation: It is unlikely that students are getting much time to just be still. In fact, they have so many fast-paced, instantly gratifying devices at their disposal that often the concept of resting, thinking and reflecting is lost. This is a disadvantage for any student, but even more so for those already struggling with their internal states. Choose a calm quiet space in school, play some relaxing music, ask the students to sit in a circle and do some short breathing exercises, followed by a calming meditation (you can find some easy meditations on my website). Through these short sessions you are helping develop the students’ skills with regard to wellbeing as well as helping them manage their internal state for that particular day.

New initiatives

As ever, make sure any new initiatives are fully explained to the students the day before they are introduced. Go over the rules and expectations and explain what happens if they rules are not followed.

Making small changes to education that focus on mental health will have a huge impact on the young people and offer them skills for the future. Good luck!

  • Shahana Knight is a qualified play therapist and director at TPC Therapy. The advice offered here is linked to her Therapeutic Teaching Programme. Read her previous articles for SecEd, go to http://bit.ly/2PFiW9h

Further information

If you are interested in training to become a therapeutic school with Shahana Knight, visit her website or email tpctherapy@gmail.com. Free homework meditations and classroom ideas can be found at www.tpctherapy.co.uk/resources/free-resources


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