Compassion in the classroom

Written by: Emma Lee-Potter | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

A compassionate approach can improve mental wellbeing, promote prosocial behaviour and underpin ethical and moral development according to Dr Mary Welford. Emma Lee-Potter finds out more

It is three years since SecEd highlighted the work of clinical psychologist Dr Mary Welford (December 2015).

At the time Dr Welford was working with Marine Academy Plymouth, an all-through academy in Devon, to improve the wellbeing of teachers, students and the local community using compassion-based initiatives.

She has defined this approach, based on Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) and originally developed by psychologist Paul Gilbert, as one that “generates psychological wellbeing for students, staff, parents and the wider community”.

Her view is that the wellbeing of teachers and students is inextricably linked and that getting staff to adopt an empathetic, compassionate and reflective approach to themselves, their colleagues and their pupils helps teachers and students alike.

She is convinced that addressing the wellbeing of teachers has a positive impact on the wellbeing of pupils – because happy, engaged teachers are better equipped to teach their students.

As she explained in 2015: “The analogy we often refer to is that if you are in an aircraft and there is a change in pressure the first thing you do is put on your own oxygen mask and then you help somebody else.

“If you are asking staff to tune into and put themselves in the shoes of students we need to make sure they have the resilience within themselves to be able to do that. It would be wrong of us to ask staff to do all this without being mindful of the impact on their own wellbeing.”

Three years on, Dr Welford’s work has broadened considerably. She has now worked with around 25 secondary and primary schools in the UK and is writing a children’s book based on the approach. She has also taken part in a University of Derby research project to evaluate the outcomes of compassion-based initiatives in education.

Many of the schools involved in her work have focused on staff wellbeing, using INSET days to highlight the importance of compassion and running training programmes on team-building and meditative practices.

This emphasis on compassion in the classroom is timely. Seemingly every teacher knows someone who has quit the profession, taken early retirement or been signed off work with stress.

A recent National Education Union survey of more than 8,000 teachers reported that 81 per cent of them had seriously considered leaving the profession in the past 12 months because of their workload. Forty per cent said they spent more than 21 hours a week working at home in the evenings and at weekends and 84 per cent said their workload was manageable “sometimes” or “never”.

“We all know about the pressures on teachers today,” said Dr Welford. “I think one of the reasons why teachers warm to our approach is because we aren’t giving them something else they’ve got to do. I’m saying to them: ‘I wish I could give you more hours in the day, more non-direct teaching time, but I can’t. However, I can suggest things that can help you.’”
The strategies she suggests include asking teachers to develop an awareness of their stress levels during the working day, where the “pinch points” occur and the situations where they feel more stressed.

She then recommends ways for them to ease that stress. Sometimes she asks them to use heart rate variability monitors so they can compare their heart rate at different moments of the day.

“It means they have an objective measure that says when a lesson was really quite stressful, whereas another one wasn’t,” said Dr Welford.

“Mindful minutes are really useful. We train staff to work out approximately how many breaths they take in a minute. I get them to slow down their breathing and breathe more deeply than they usually do. They know that it’s something they can do just before the start of a lesson and it really helps.

“We’ve found that some staff have started to introduce this into their lessons. When I was at school our teachers would every so often ask us to cross our arms on the desk, put our heads down and take a breath – and this is a similar approach. Calming and soothing ourselves are really helpful starting points. If you are trying to learn something, a calm mind is one that enhances memory functioning, learning capacity and creativity.”

The schools that Dr Welford has worked with have introduced compassion-based initiatives in a host of different ways. Some have used music and drama to raise awareness while others have run day-long training days for their staff. She advises a minimum of six hours of training for staff and also offers schools training materials and resources.

One school emphasised the importance of a whole-school approach, thereby ensuring that compassion “permeates all aspects of school life” rather than simply being associated with one subject. Teachers posted notices around the school with messages like “success is not always what you see” and “if I am not good to myself, how can I expect anyone else to be good to me?”.

Meanwhile, psychotherapist Maria Law has led initiatives at Ackworth School, an independent school near Pontefract, West Yorkshire. These included introductory training sessions, one-to-one support for staff and 12 weeks of small group work with sixth formers.

The verdict was encouraging. A preliminary case study concluded: “Respondents were particularly positive about the impact on team cohesion and relaxation and there were a number of comments indicating that staff members were grateful for the attention to their own wellbeing.”

Another way in which Dr Welford is promoting compassion in the classroom is by writing two books about it, one for children and the other for schools.

Who is Sam? – co-authored with colleague Dr Nicole Parish and aimed at pupils in years 6 to 9 – will guide readers through a series of scenarios and ask them to look at how their minds react to each one.

“If only we could stay upbeat all the time,” says a line in the first chapter. “Unfortunately life isn’t like that. But what can help manage this emotional rollercoaster is understanding why you can go from grumpy to happy in a split second.”

Dr Welford plans to self-publish the book, which is due for completion this spring and use the profits to place copies in school libraries.

The University of Derby has taken a keen interest in compassion training for schools. It used a £33,000 grant to deliver free training to primary and secondary schools in a bid to improve the emotional, social and behavioural wellbeing of teachers and students. As part of the initiative it paid for portable heart rate monitors to track teachers’ stress levels.

Speaking at the project’s launch, project leader Dr Frances Maratos said: “Compassion training should be part of every school’s ethos. There is growing evidence that it improves mental wellbeing, promotes prosocial behaviour and underpins ethical and moral development.

“In addition, compassionate mind training helps people understand what compassion is and isn’t, enables individuals to have improved emotion regulation and deal with stress and conflicts in new and helpful ways.”

Dr Welford is delighted that the interest in compassion-based initiatives is steadily increasing.

“There is a lot of interest and recognition these days,” she said. “To have an impact it doesn’t have to be teachers and students sitting down for 12 sessions led by a highly specialised therapist. It can simply be a teacher sharing skills they have learned and found useful with a class of children – and it can make the world of difference.”

  • Emma Lee-Potter is a freelance education writer.

Further information

Case study: A compassion-based approach to pupil and staff wellbeing, SecEd, December 2015:


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