With the new academic year now well underway, it’s a good time to start to think about the ways in which we can create classroom and home environments that will support and nurture our children, and especially those who might be beginning to struggle with the school environment. Wellbeing is a term commonly associated with our mental state of health. As adults we put a lot of thought into how we can maintain children’s physical health, but wellbeing is not always considered as much. But research has shown us that children who have low levels of wellbeing struggle to cope with school-based sources of stress and is generally related to positive development.
Sometimes children’s wellbeing can begin to suffer because they have just made a big transition from one school to another which can provoke anxiety for some. For others, it can be because they are starting to develop a heightened sense of being different, or not quite meeting expectations: either their own, or the ones they think we as adults may have of them. School is a place where learning is evaluated, and over time children’s academic self-esteem can (and frequently does) decline. What can we do then, as teachers and parents, to counter this?
First of all, we can recognise that we are part of a system that our children exist within. Their experiences are shaped by the interactions that they have with parents, peers and teachers. There are also wider ‘cultures’ that we create (sometimes unintentionally, sometimes deliberately) which communicate expectations and norms which some children may struggle within. This all means that small changes we make to what we say and do can have huge positive benefits for the children we connect with.
Here are some simple things that you can do straightaway which can benefit children’s wellbeing:
1. Be positive
What we say to children can easily become their internal voice. Negative comments can easily become part of a child’s inner dialogue when they are struggling. When you are helping children to learn, focus on asking them to do things that will help them to achieve what they need to, rather than avoiding mistakes (i.e. tell them what to do to be more successful, rather than point out what they are doing wrong). So, for example, in the case of a child who needs to improve their handwriting, it is better to say “See if you can sit your writing on the lines”, rather than “Stop ignoring the lines when you are writing”. Research tells us that positively framing advice and support in this way positively impacts children’s wellbeing and their learning improves.
2. Reward effort
Children respond to rewards, but we need to think carefully about how we use praise and reward. If we praise everything children do, no matter how small, it diminishes the value of that praise in the child’s eyes. Crucially, it is better to reward children when they are working hard and making a real effort to improve, rather than only rewarding them when they achieve a particular outcome. Rewarding effort encourages children to try hard again in the future and helps them to see the link between effort and success. If your child is working hard towards a particular goal it is a good idea to reward all that work and preparation. And remember, what may be rewarding for one child may be problematic for another, so knowing what will work is key. Similarly, try not to use rewards as a ‘carrot’ by telling children that if they will do X then they will get Y at the end.
3. Create a ‘Safe and Secure’ Classroom
All children benefit from a learning environment that is predictable and where they feel understood. They also learn their behaviour from us as adults. Reflect on the following questions in relation to your own classroom:
• Do you know which children do get on or don’t get on?
• Do all children understand the rules that are put in place and why they are there?
• Do you model acts of kindness in your classroom?
• Do you recognise and reward acts of kindness and friendship in the classroom?
• Are you consistent in your application of classroom ‘rules’?
• Do you discuss incidents with pupils when you yourself have felt scared or worried?
• Do you have a mechanism for allowing children to leave situations when they feel overwhelmed?
• Are you calm in stressful or unexpected classroom situations?
There are many other things that we can do to make children’s experiences at school more positive and successful. The important thing to remember is that we can influence those experiences through the smallest, easiest changes in our own behaviours and ways of thinking.
Thanks to Clare Wood, professor at Nottingham Trent University, and author of Wellbeing and Attitudes to Learning: Survey and Strategies. Clare's current research is focused on understanding the factors that impact on educational achievement.