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The Alleynian Review: Community Building When the Stakes Are High

Dulwich College International's Director of Senior School, Sian May draws from the voices of our students and international research in addressing how a culture of wellbeing flourishes from the systems and pastoral relationships in a school environment.

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Where now for Dulwich?  

“Wellbeing” as a term has been in vogue within education and beyond for some time and has been used arbitrarily by different people and therefore with a limited shared understanding. Whilst a working definition can appear to be reductive, for the purposes of our discourse it is likely to be very helpful. For this discussion, wellbeing will be addressed as a culture in which:  

  • The community promotes belonging and connectedness for all its members 

  • Each member of the community is known and valued both collectively and individually (from their own starting point) 

  • Each member of the community perceives themselves as competent and capable 

  • The community develops both individual and collective efficacy 

Such a community must be led by both values and evidence in tandem. The whole school approach is key, for instance, the autonomy in learning which students frequently experience in Early Years must continue through to both Junior and Senior Schools. Student agency is key to wellbeing. Each student’s ability to express voice, choice, ownership and leadership within their school community builds their self-perception. Students thrive when they experience communities which acknowledge and are responsive to their needs.  

Teachers’ wellbeing is integral to achieving this and we wish to create a thinking community which is reflective and progressing. Therefore, professional learning for our teaching colleagues, a supportive working environment and an engaged parent community are vital factors in achieving this. Similarly, the beliefs of our teaching colleagues regarding our students are key indicators of a proactive wellbeing environment. 

For wellbeing to thrive, teachers will:  

  1. Have high expectations for students which in turn creates higher student achievement.  
  2. Demonstrate a greater locus of control and take responsibility for student learning which, in turn, has an effective impact on student achievement.  

The Dulwich College school vision and ethos, therefore, must support colleagues in these two beliefs, by espousing such beliefs but also living them out contextually within the school system.

What do students think?  

In 2019, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, (a leading organisation in which global governments share their experiences) asked students from around the world to describe the future they would like, to articulate their hopes, dreams and the necessary actions to achieve well-being. Students answered in a variety of ways, referencing visions for education, health and the environment. However, one message from young people was clear regardless of their personal contexts and experiences. All young people expressed a desire for shared agency and partnerships with adults in achieving these goals. 

As part of the Dulwich Education Team, we had the privilege of having similar discussions during the last academic year (2018-2019) with over 5,000 of our students. Our aim was to understand authentic student experience and for young people to guide us to the next necessary steps. The results were strikingly reminiscent of the OECD’s findings and this is the backdrop in which our next steps will be formed. 

Current international discussions 

Contemporary wellbeing discussions can, at first glance, appear to be in contrast to popularised notions of grit and resilience in which research is misrepresented. Such misconceptions can lead to notions of “toughening students up” which does not accurately represent the findings of global research into wellbeing.  

In practice, most discussions of grit are a re-branding of older notions and can represent the perpetuation of previous attempts to prepare students for life beyond education. The world our students are graduating into has altered and will continue to change beyond the recognition of previous generations. This provides an exciting opportunity as well as a need to be cognisant of this transformed environment.  

For our students to fulfil our strategic mission of “developing the skills and motivation to make a positive difference in the world”, we must provide them with the broadest possible learning experiences in which they can find their purpose, meaning and agency. 

It is vital that given this complexity we are guided by effective systems for our young people and therefore evidence is a useful guide and provocation in our discussions.  Evidence-based practice suggests that we should focus our collective energies to building a conducive environment via a whole school (or College) coordinated approach where the institutional wellbeing identity and purpose is clearly articulated and established. This would empower our young people to thrive, develop self-respect, enjoy positive perceptions of their competency and capacity and belong to a community where they feel a sense of belonging and connectedness and perhaps most importantly of all, that they are valued from their own starting point. 

Each international school faces pervasive complexities regarding global trends in adolescent mental health and the challenge of promoting community wellbeing. The evidence in this area has been building for the past 20 years at an increasingly accelerated rate. Research is telling us that a coordinated and proactive response is both favourable and necessary. For high achieving environments, such as our Dulwich communities where you can expect a “students first” priority, this requires a courageous and nuanced partnership with student, family and staff.  

As a group, we are known for our “pioneering spirit” and wellbeing is a fundamental area in which we can mobilise and trail blaze to the benefit of our students and the next generation of global citizens. We are committed to developing balanced young people and therefore will aim to create a proactive and contextually supportive community. The aims of our social system should incorporate the development of key protective factors in our young people to prepare them for the challenges of their educational career but, also attempt to safeguard their future mental health. This must be a collective effort as our schools alone cannot achieve this. Parents are a key partner in any sustained and successful focus on wellbeing.  

Fundamental characteristics 

Each wellbeing culture must be established first, by embarking on a localised needs analysis so that each strategic aim directly addresses the fundamental necessities of the community. However, there are some evidence-based characteristics of effective proactive wellbeing systems which are discussed below:  

Teacher-student relationships and collective values at the heart of culture  

Young people, particularly in their teenage years, wrangle with the complexity of apparent contradictions on an almost continuous basis. Little of the world that they experience is uniform. For example, the inconsistency of adult behaviour and the scientific knowledge of climate change and global leaders who deny the evidence or fail to act!  

The development of ‘Executive Function’ is therefore advantageous for our young people to possess the critical thinking skills needed to navigate the world in all its imperfection! During school life, young people are developing their knowledge and understanding through thinking and in particular, the use and development of their Executive Functions.  

Executive Functions are cognitive processes which exert top-down influence over actions, thoughts, and emotions. Secondly, Executive Functions are involved in conscious, goal-directed behaviour and not in situations that rely on automated or intuitive behaviour. Consequently, using Executive Functions requires considerable effort. Thirdly, Executive Functions refer to a set of interconnected thought processes and is considered to be a complex multi-dimensional construct.  

The development of such cognitive processes is favourable to our students and best occur in healthy and safe environments. Research studies are now showing that positive relationships and interactions with teachers can promote greater Executive Function in our young people, whereas negative relationships can hinder Executive Functions. 

Increased Executive Function is also demonstrated to increase engagement in the student. Therefore, we can deduce what we have long held to be true, that teacher-student relationships are fundamental to effective learning but also developing each child’s sense of self, belonging in the community and belief in their own competency. Consequently, any proactive wellbeing system must place student-teacher relationships and peer to peer relationships at its core.  

Peer to peer relationships 

Student friendships can be high-octane experiences of tremendous rollercoaster-like periods of closeness, friendship development and, on occasions, conflict resolution. Strong peer to peer relationships are vital in developing a student’s sense of belonging within their community. Many of our students are ‘Third Culture’ (8) which may mean they have interacted with a rich range of cultural contexts but also, are likely to be living outside of their home country. Many of our students will also have relocated a number of times and be multilingual. This incredible diversity of our students means that our community building becomes even more fundamental. Therefore, a proactive social cohesion plan which is evidence-based and age-appropriate for the students is recommended. This plan would ensure that the school actively promotes shared and diverse cultures and religions within the community, gender-specific issues which may arise and, embrace the linguistic aptitude whilst creating a unified identity.  

Studies have shown what we have long suspected intuitively, that peer to peer influence is so vital, that these relationships may be the most important source of life satisfaction and wellbeing for our young people. This spans from the stages of early attachment in infancy, through learning to make friends as younger children and belonging to teenage groups. Further, researchers are increasingly identifying that what is effective for an individual’s authentic wellbeing cannot be separated from what is best for the whole community.  

As a consequence, experts in adolescent psychology believe provision for whole populations is vital in respect of positive mental health. Therefore, regular dialogue from the school with students through a variety of means such as student leadership structures, focus groups, surveys but fundamentally through trusting relationships will also assist in promoting and maintaining positive peer to peer relationships.  

Proactive peer to peer mentoring structures where students support each other vertically within school have been shown to be particularly effective. Students can also receive training in order to promote an emotionally literate environment within the school.

Proactive pastoral care  

There will always be times when our students need us to act as a guiding but, often invisible, hand to set them up for success in terms of their wellbeing and gently intervene when situations require it. Effective wellbeing cultures tend to review their processes and structures to best support relationship development within their community.  

Therefore, a starting point would be the pastoral system. There is no prescriptive structure which works in every community, however, each child must be known. An effective means of achieving this is a proactive tutor or house system with a coaching model where students are able to receive mentoring from a teacher or another student in order to experience reflective conversations about their own progress. The Ancient Greek adage of “know thyself” becomes infinitely more possible if students are guided in terms of how to make sense of and analyse their learning experiences. The better we know our students, the more precise our guidance can be. This allows for seamless transitions through school, both due to the environment we have created and our knowledge of how each individual may require preparation but also, in terms of careers’ and university guidance. This requires highly qualified and motivated teaching colleagues who are student-centred, collaborative and provide additional robust student support services as appropriate.  

Each lesson a student attends is a pastoral experience and therefore, learning which is empowering and allows them to develop and extend their own interest and preferences is key to their ongoing wellbeing. Most educators wish to create self-directed learners who can remain lifelong learners well beyond the school gates, and environments which students are able to shape assists in developing this motivating factor in our students. 

Conclusion 

High achieving schools, like ours, already engage with evidence regularly, therefore the compelling evidence on the links between well-being, learning and school improvement is timely. We are highly motivated as we know that, children with greater well-being, lower levels of mental health problems and greater emotional attachment to school achieve higher grade scores, better examination results, better attendance and drop out less frequently. Further, we know that social and emotional skills are a more significant determinant of academic attainment than IQ. We can be confident that a focus on well-being not only enables our young people to become the global citizens of tomorrow with sound character and values but, also directly supports our key mission, for our students to Live Worldwise.

 

Thank you to Sian May, Director of Senior School, for contributing this thought-provoking piece to The Alleynian Review.

 

References

  1. Many individuals and communities are ‘languishing’ rather than ‘flourishing’; Keyes, C.L. and Haidt, J., 2003. Introduction: Human flourishing—The study of that which makes life worthwhile. Flourishing: Positive psychology and the life well-lived, pp.3-12. 

  1. Weare, K., 2015. What works in promoting social and emotional well-being and responding to mental health problems in schools. London: National Children’s Bureau. Available at: https://www.mentalhealth.org.nz/assets/ResourceFinder/What-works-in-promoting-social-and-emotional-wellbeing-in-schools-2015.pdf 

  1. Zelazo, P.D. and Carlson, S.M., 2012. Hot and cool executive function in childhood and adolescence: Development and plasticity. Child Development Perspectives, 6(4), pp.354-360. 

  1. Huizinga, M., Dolan, C.V. and van der Molen, M.W., 2006. Age-related change in executive function: Developmental trends and a latent variable analysis. Neuropsychologia, 44(11), pp.2017-2036. 

  1. Diamond, A., 2013. Executive functions. Annual review of psychology, 64, pp.135-168; Garon, N., Bryson, S.E. and Smith, I.M., 2008. Executive function in preschoolers: a review using an integrative framework. Psychological bulletin, 134(1), p.31. 

  1. Berry, D., Blair, C., Willoughby, M., Granger, D.A. and Family Life Project Key Investigators, 2012. Salivary alpha-amylase and cortisol in infancy and toddlerhood: Direct and indirect relations with executive functioning and academic ability in childhood. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 37(10), pp.1700-1711. 

  1. de Wilde, A., Koot, H.M. and van Lier, P.A., 2016. Developmental links between children’s working memory and their social relations with teachers and peers in the early school years. Journal of abnormal child psychology, 44(1), pp.19-30. 

  1. Third culture kids are people raised in a culture other than their parents' or the culture of the country named on their passport for a significant part of their early development years.  

  1. Reis, H.T. and Gable, S.L., 2003. Toward a positive psychology of relationships.