Mental health in schools: Using the arts to bolster wellbeing

Written by: Matt King | Published:
The arts and wellbeing: A Freedom Foundation session at Nottingham Academy, which have had a notable impact on the wellbeing and resilience of students (image supplied)

Nottingham Academy has worked with the Freedom Foundation to try and improve mental health and promote responsible social media use at the school through singing, song-writing and dance. Principal Matt King explains

The arts are a particularly constructive way to help young people manage their mental health, whether it is to help them build coping mechanisms or to offer them an alternative outlet to express themselves.

This is part of why we have been working with creative local organisations to help pupils learn how to open up and best support their mental health, while also teaching essential life-skills such as how to form a positive relationship with social media.

Why music and dance

We are committed to supporting the mental wellbeing of our pupils as we understand good mental health as being key to helping them thrive and excel in their academic and personal lives, both now and in the future.

In doing so, we encourage an open dialogue with pupils about how they are managing their mental health. However, knowing the common reluctance of many teenagers to share their feelings, we wanted to pursue a more contemporary approach that would better engage pupils and which would encourage a positive relationship with social media – a significant influence on their mental wellbeing.

We approached the Freedom Foundation, a local social enterprise that helps young people learn how to cope with anxiety through the use of movement and music, to work with our pupils through a series of classes.

At first, we asked them to deliver their Motivational Morning sessions – a class-led assembly lesson during which the Foundation’s principles were introduced.

These include body positivity, creativity, aspiration and self-belief, and the sessions involve helping the pupils to develop simple tools, such as breathing exercises, that allow them to break the cycle of anxiety.

The positive response and impact this had for our pupils meant that we collectively decided to involve the Foundation further, asking them to run the programme at the school, holding three separate classes each week.

These programmes were available for three different year groupings, ranging from year 7 to 10. The classes ran for two hours each, covering various mental health topics and the impact of social media on mental wellbeing, and used the mediums of dance, music and discussion to engage pupils in a non-judgemental and fun way.

We were so impressed with how positively our pupils responded to this coaching and discovered how music and dance can be great tools to help communicate more sensitive topics.

Often pupils may find it hard to talk about their emotions, but by using creative tools such as song-writing, for example, they found it easier to communicate their feelings. For those pupils who were experiencing any negative or challenging emotions, turning them into a song created the opportunity to transform them into something positive, while also having an outlet that comfortably communicated their feelings.

Too often, young people bottle up what they are feeling due to embarrassment or a fear of being judged. This communal process of talking things through and creating something together showed our pupils that they are not alone, which ultimately helped them learn to recognise and communicate their feelings more effectively.

How things evolved

We started by asking pupils to talk through issues they were facing, anything from problems and challenges they were experiencing at school to those in their community. The younger groups of pupils took to this well and were happy to speak honestly about their emotions, and while it took a little longer for the older year group, everybody found their voice in their own time.

To help ease our pupils into this process, they were provided with jotters and asked to write down their thoughts – anything from their feelings to song lyrics. They were then encouraged to continue writing in these throughout the programme and beyond.

Our pupils were talked through a variety of tools they could use to help manage their mental health, including discussing the impact of social media and the ways in which the use of social media could be controlled.

Young people can place a lot of value on social media and as a result they can compare themselves to the unrealistic and curated content of their peers, celebrities and social influencers.

In these discussions, our pupils discussed why it is important to not make these comparisons and how social media only shows the rose-tinted version of a person’s life and is therefore a distorted version of reality.

They also talked through their experience with cyber-bullying and how that has affected them. Listening to our pupils talk through these negative aspects, it was interesting to see how it helped them realise how damaging overuse of these sites can be.

However, it is worth noting here that our aim was not to deter young people from using social media, but to help them use it constructively so that it was a positive influence on their lives. For example, it is a great platform for young and inspiring artists to promote their work, for young people to build their communications skills, and to share creative projects with one another – throughout this process they were shown how to make social media work for them.

As part of the creative development of this programme, rappers, singers and song-writers from the local community came in to join these sessions, helping teach pupils the skills they needed to turn their jottings into full songs or performances.

The pupils responded well to this. As they became more and more confident in their creative abilities, this trickled into other areas of their life; they became more comfortable performing in front of one another and engaging in more open and honest dialogue.

Using these skills and self-confidence the pupils were encouraged to work together to create a production they could put on at the school. They were given a basic structure, but were in charge of everything else, from plot to choreography. Working together is an important part of this process as it builds vital communication and team-work skills.

They decided that the final piece would be about their community and experiences in Nottingham so that it was not only relevant and relatable to the group creating the performance, but so that it also resonated with the wider school community. The piece they devised was brilliant – the pupils involved were incredibly happy with what they achieved, but sadly they were unable to perform their final piece because of coronavirus.

In response to the recent events, we have been rethinking how we can continue to reach the pupils with this work during the pandemic. Currently, we are using an online learning hub to deliver the programme and this has seen a positive response from pupils while giving the school a chance to look after pupil wellbeing while they are at home.

This has also played an important role in continuing to create a safe online experience for the pupils and is interactive, so they can chat with their peers and teachers, ask for help, and can access any information and signposting they need.

The results

At the end of the programme our pupils were noticeably different. They had really embraced the creative process, the use of music and dance, and the spirit of the programme, and our staff and facilitators were incredibly proud of their progress.

It was noticeable that they had started to use social media more frequently for developing their skills and had become less vulnerable to its negative side. Our pupils were also clearly more open to talking things through with each other in person – they no longer needed to hide behind a screen to talk about their emotions or the challenges they were facing.

The arts, such as music and dance, play an invaluable role in education provision but by blending these subjects with challenging topics, like appropriate social media use, self-confidence, or cyber-bullying, we can provide pupils with an effective, non-judgemental and fun way of looking after their mental health and wellbeing.

  • Matt King is principal of Nottingham Academy, which is part of the Greenwood Academies Trust.

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