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Improving student wellbeing at BSKL

Growing up today seems harder than ever. On top of the usual difficulties, we now live in a world where technology has made things so easily accessible and we are contactable 24 hours a day. This means that children and young people are experiencing many additional stressors that can sometimes be difficult for us to understand. 

At BSKL we are working hard to research, explore, and have conversations with our students about these stressors so that we are equipped to support them effectively. Wellbeing is essential in facilitating anyone to reach their full potential and thrive in a changing world. At school we take a holistic approach with the aim to teach our students the skills to help them manage their emotions, challenge their way of thinking and alter unhelpful behaviours. Here we will explain some of the areas we work on as a whole school, going beyond traditional learning: 

Mindsight

One of the things we have tried to achieve through participation in the PSHE programme is “mindsight”.

Mindset, a term developed by Dan Siegel, a leading authority in interpersonal neurobiology, refers to the way we can focus attention on the nature of the internal world. It's how we focus our awareness on ourselves, to our own thoughts and feelings, and it's how we're able to actually focus on the internal world of someone else. Understanding another’s internal processes is the basis for empathy and is an essential skill for our students in order to develop emotional intelligence.

Mindsight allows us to understand how our brain functions, how thoughts drive feelings which in turn are translated into action. By developing an understanding of how our brain is structured and is designed we have more choice about how we respond, we have more control and are not at the mercy of our minds. Mindfulness increases the ability to watch these internal processes and psychological education is aimed at explaining the neurological science behind it. In Secondary, the topics we have covered to increase Mindsight in the past have included: the purpose and function of sleep; adolescent brain development; risk taking; suicide; addiction; mental health; illness. One of our parent book clubs was based on Siegal’s book, The Whole Brain Child, with the aim to build parenting practices with Mindsight. The book Brainstorm is also an excellent guide to the brain science behind the adolescent brain, by reading it adolescents and parents can gain insight into this incredible stage of development. This knowledge can forge deeper understanding and connection of one another.

Mindfulness - skill

Mindfulness is the skill of being aware, present and attentive.

A short mindfulness exercise, lasting only a few minutes, can aid teachers in re-focusing the student’s attention from the excitement or stresses of the previous activity and allow them to engage fully with the lesson in front of them.

Being able to maintain focus, while undertaking a challenging activity which also requires a degree of skillfulness, creates a state called ‘Flow’. Psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, describes this as a mental state in which you become fully immersed in a feeling of energised focus, engagement and enjoyment. If you are able to enter a state of flow, you have the feeling of ‘being in the zone’, time appears to move at a different speed and you become fully engrossed in the activity. This feeling is only achievable if you are focussed, present and aware. If you allow your mind to be distracted or be somewhere else, this can also affect decision making skills and the ability to adapt to situations. Understandably, if we are able to be present and more aware when engaging in any type of activity, then we are likely to be more skillful and achieve the outcome we had hoped for. For students at school, this means that they have more opportunity to reach their full potential across all activities including academic subjects, sports, music, art and languages.

Mindfulness has been shown to improve attention, emotional regulation, compassion, adaptability and resilience. All of these areas combined promote an overall sense of wellbeing as we are more able to focus, manage our emotions and adapt. If we are able to integrate a mindful activity into our daily routine and improve these areas then this can facilitate social and emotional development, which is fundamental in children and young people gaining the most out of their learning. It is important to note that mindfulness does not have to include the practice of meditation; simply learning a new skill that requires mental engagement or by using our senses in any situation to be in the present moment, will engage our brain in a way that will transfer back to other activities. By attending to the breath or body we can redirect attention away from distracting thoughts so we can refocus.

Various programmes have been developed across the school to explain and promote the practice of mindfulness in an age appropriate manner.

Whole Brain Awareness

The brain is a highly complex system about which more is discovered by the day. The reptilian brain was the first structure to evolve followed by the mammalian brain. These structures are what we term the lower brain and are the first brain structures to develop. The last area to develop is the higher brain or the cerebral cortex. In young children this grows very rapidly and the child learns many new skills incredibly fast . Their right hemisphere is the first to develop, this is holistic, nonverbal, experiential, autobiographical and highly influenced by feelings and emotions. The logical, literal, linguistic, linear left brain develops and is able to make sense of experience and work with the right brain. We have been working with parents to develop an understanding of these developments and teach strategies to integrate the two hemispheres. Very young children can understand that the right hemisphere can be like a “barking dog” and the left like a “wise owl”. Having some understanding of our brain at any age is helpful to develop Mindsight, we try and integrate this knowledge into everything we do with students.

Adolescence runs roughly between the ages of 12-24 years old and emerges due to normal, healthy changes in the brain. This period of time is known across cultures as being a great challenge for both the adolescent and the adult supporting them. It is important to not view this as a stage of development where young people simply need to survive or get through it - it is the perfect time to thrive. It is common for adolescents to test boundaries and develop a passion to explore the unknown; again this can be a challenge for parents but this allows young people to develop core character traits which can lead to great meaningful lives.

Teenagers will gravitate towards thrilling experiences due to an enhanced dopamine release midway through adolescence, resulting in an increased drive for reward. Increased dopamine causes behaviours such as increased impulsivity, susceptibility to addiction (illicit substances but also food) and hyper-rationality (thinking in literal concrete terms and missing the context or bigger picture).  Also during adolescence the brain becomes “integrated” through neurochemical changes. These more precise and efficient connections in the brain allow for wiser judgements and decision making, rather than being reliant on the drive for reward and literal calculations of early years. Dan Siegel describes the ESSENCE of adolescence in his book Brainstorm. ESSENCE explains the different qualities of adolescence: Emotional Spark, Social Engagement, Novelty Seeking, and Creative Exploration. So as the adults supporting adolescents, we should think about how we can shape our cultures (home, school and wider community) to treasure and preserve these qualities. We must also remember that we are lifelong learners therefore, even in adulthood, we can recapture these qualities. In school we are teaching the students about the stages of brain development which educates them on the changes they are going through and can normalise the difficulties they are facing.

Sleep hygiene

Every living creature needs to sleep and it is especially important for children as it directly impacts mental and physical development. According to leading neuroscientist Matthew Walker, we are in the midst of a “catastrophic sleep-loss epidemic”. Sleep promotes growth, helps the heart, affects regulation of weight, helps beat sickness, reduces injury risk, improves attention span and boosts learning. Children should be getting 9-11 hours of sleep every night, and teenagers 9-10 hours (NHS, 2017).

There is now robust scientific data documenting the role of light in promoting wakefulness. Photoreceptors in the retina sense light and dark, signalling to our brain the status of the outside world and aligning our circadian rhythms (our body's daily cycle) to the external day-night cycle. This signalling of light and dark helps us to be alert in the morning and be able to fall asleep at the appropriate time at night. As day turns to night, your brain makes a chemical called melatonin which makes you sleepy. Light can wake you up therefore your room should be dark when you sleep. The blue light that comes from electronic devices prevents the release of melatonin. A study found when comparing melatonin levels of adults and teenagers looking at computer screens, it was astonishing how sensitive the younger group were to light. Even when exposed to just one-tenth as much light, the teenagers suppressed more melatonin. This is a problem as sleep is especially important to young people who are growing and learning. Consequently we are educating all of our students about the importance of sleep and advise that there should be no electronic devices left in the bedroom whilst they sleep. Also we should stop looking at screens at least one hour before bedtime to allow the release of melatonin, resulting in a restful night’s sleep (Steven Lockley, Sleep Researcher, Harvard Medical School).

Sleep is a worldwide and age-wide problem therefore we have already started to educate our students on the importance of sleep and sleep hygiene. Children as young as year 3 at BSKL have had individual year group assemblies all about sleep.

Stress and Anxiety Management

We want to send the message to our students that stress and anxiety are emotions that are part of normal life, in that they are both experienced by everyone from time to time. If stress or anxiety becomes persistent and unmanageable then students are encouraged to seek help by speaking to their teacher, posting a note in the worry box or going to see the school counsellors directly.

The best way to manage stress is to consider your overall wellbeing. This includes sleep, diet, exercise, taking time out for pleasurable/meaningful activities, spending time with friends/family, and relaxation time. Simple breathing or relaxation techniques are good to practise regularly, when you’re not feeling stressed or anxious, so you are then an expert in the skill and can use it effectively during times of heightened stress or anxiety. Relaxation techniques encourage us to be present which allows us to let go of any unhelpful thoughts which are maintaining our stress or anxiety. Breathing techniques and progressive muscle relaxation techniques also help to reduce the physical symptoms of stress and anxiety such as hyperventilation and muscle tension.

Developing Positive Mindset

In recent years, various initiatives have been put in place to promote positive mindset through acts of kindness and gratitude. In a study conducted by Sonja Lyubomirsky and colleagues (2005), it was found that intentional acts of kindness increase the wellbeing of both the receiver and the giver. Greater happiness and positive social interactions are experienced when something is done altruistically. This means, for others without expecting anything in return, especially when it comes at a personal cost to the giver. This is a message that we have explained to our students and continue to promote in the hope of kindness and gratitude becoming a routine practice. If we all try to do something kind everyday, it will likely make us happier which in turn may make us kinder.

We encourage students of all ages to practice gratitude by thinking of 10 things that they are grateful for each day. We also encourage students to share 3 positive things that have happened at the end of each day and to keep their own positivity journal. In the past we have held ‘kindness week’ and a kindness wall was placed in both Primary libraries for children to post their own kind messages to each other.

Understanding Character Strengths, Values, Goals

Learning outcomes such as engagement, prosocial behaviour (voluntary behaviour intended to benefit another) and connection to school, are significantly improved when a positive classroom culture is created (Patrick, Ryan and Kaplan 2007). Positive classroom culture is defined as teacher-student relationships, the promotion of mutual respect, co-operative and active learning and a sense of support. Values underpin each of these aspects of culture. For example without kindness, generosity and love, we can’t support each other; without honesty, justice and forgiveness there can’t be mutual respect; and without persistence, teamwork and bravery there can’t be full engagement in learning.  Awareness of these values allows teachers to create the positive classroom culture.

The VIA Classification of Strengths and Virtues by Peterson and Seligman (2004) classifies 24 character strengths reflecting six more general cross culturally valid virtues: Wisdom and Knowledge, Courage, Humanity, Justice, Temperance and Transcendence. Research has shown a link between using our own character strengths and increased life satisfaction and wellbeing. We encourage our Secondary students to take this survey so that they are aware of their own strengths and can use the awareness of their top strengths to focus their actions and intentions. Knowing your signature strengths and practising them as often as possible has been shown to increase wellbeing and unlock potential. Understanding what is important to you provides a compass for life.

Outlined in this article are the main approaches and areas we work on as a whole school at BSKL, thinking beyond traditional learning to educate and support students for the future. We have also included two useful leaflets on sleep and bereavement.

If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact:

School counsellor, Claire Ireland claire.ireland@britishschool.edu.my or Assistant counsellor, Becky Deaville rebecca.deaville@britishschool.edu.my