The following article comes from Matthew Barrett, Head of Primary of GEMS FirstPoint School in Dubai, UAE.
Is there anything more important than the mental health and wellbeing of the next generation?
We live in a world where, in multiple countries, suicide is one of the leading causes of death in young people (Office for National Statistics 2021, Centres for Disease Control, 2023). This statistic underlines the importance of preparing our young people for the challenging, ever-changing world they are entering as they leave education. Poor mental health is a pandemic in itself, not helped by the recent COVID-19 pandemic and the severe impact this has had on our societies.
As educators, we have a collective responsibility to identify and accept this reality and do something about it. We know that mental health services across the world range from being non-existent to chronically over-stretched and it is our absolute duty to turn the tide.
At GEMS FirstPoint School, we believe that fostering positive mental health and wellbeing is an integral part of supporting our students’ holistic development and we are privileged to share our school’s journey towards prioritising mental health and wellbeing within our community. Our commitment in this area is authentic and demonstrated by our collective and collaborative GEMS Education work to achieve the prestigious Carnegie Centre of Excellence for Mental Health in Schools Award. Our journey towards achieving this award is driven by a shared commitment to prioritise mental health and wellbeing within our school community. We invite you, as global guardians of the mental health and wellbeing of the next generation, to collaborate with us in sharing best practice in this important field.
Join us as we delve into the competencies, strategies, and initiatives that are transforming our school into a thriving hub of wellbeing.
1. Leadership and Strategy
At the core of our approach are strong leadership and strategic planning. We have embedded mental health and wellbeing into our school’s vision and values, ensuring that every decision we make aligns with our commitment to student wellbeing.
Our leadership teams at all levels serve as passionate advocates, driving this initiative forward and providing clear direction and support – and, yes, this includes our governors. Through collaborative efforts, we have developed a comprehensive mental health policy and action plan, outlining the necessary steps and key responsibilities needed to enhance mental health provision and support across the entire school community.
2. Organisational Structure and Culture for Students and Staff
Creating a nurturing and inclusive culture is vital for promoting mental health. Our aim is to foster positive relationships, promote a sense of belonging, and cultivate a safe and supportive environment for all. We pride ourselves on being ‘emotionally available’ adults – ready and willing to listen to and swiftly address concerns. We recognise it is also imperative for us to be a trauma-informed school – knowing that each child has a unique story and deserves a bespoke approach to their wellbeing. We have implemented strategies to ensure that mental health and wellbeing are integrated into all aspects of our school’s organisational structure. This includes dedicated wellbeing committees comprising staff, students, and parents who collaboratively shape and drive our mental health initiatives. Our school-wide positive behaviour and culture support systems focus on reinforcing constructive behaviours and creating a sense of community, where every individual feels valued and supported. Who wouldn’t want to take part in a student-led festival of wellbeing?
We have implemented strategies to ensure that mental health and wellbeing are integrated into all aspects of our school’s organisational structure.
3. Support for Staff
Recognising that staff wellbeing is instrumental in supporting student wellbeing, we provide comprehensive support for our educators. Access to training, resources, and wellbeing programmes ensures that our staff members are equipped to support students effectively. We are planning the prioritisation of regular wellbeing check-ins and professional development opportunities that focus on self-care, stress management, and building resilience. By valuing our teachers’ mental health, we know we can create a positive ripple effect throughout the school, fostering a healthy and supportive environment for both staff and students.
4. Support for Students
Tailored support for our students’ mental health and wellbeing is a top priority. As well as the usual offer of a robust pastoral care system and counselling services, we capitalise on wellbeing data to strategically plan and track targeted interventions to meet their individual students’ needs. Our dedicated wellbeing team collaborates closely with teachers, parents, and external agencies to ensure a holistic approach to student support. We have recently joined forces with local mental health and wellness clinic The LightHouse Arabia so our staff and parents can learn from their experts and our community can access their services. We are also beginning our journey of implementing evidence-based programmes that promote emotional literacy, social skills development, and mental health awareness. Additionally, we actively engage students in the decision-making process, creating student-led initiatives and clubs that promote wellbeing and foster a sense of ownership and empowerment. The ‘Wellbeing Warriors’ are our student ambassadors for mental health and wellbeing and their offer of peer support is both frequent and impactful. Our dedicated student wellbeing policy is built around a Positive Psychology framework, to enable our students to truly flourish.
5. Professional Development and Learning
Investing in ongoing professional development is crucial for equipping our staff with the knowledge and skills to address mental health concerns effectively. Our educators receive a wealth of training in mental health awareness, resilience-building strategies, and promoting positive wellbeing. We facilitate workshops, seminars, and peer learning sessions to enhance their understanding of mental health challenges and equip them with evidence-based practices. By staying informed and prepared, our teachers are increasingly able to nurture the wellbeing of our students.
6. Working with Parents and Carers
We recognise the significance of partnership with parents and carers in supporting students’ mental health. We actively involve parents in our mental health initiatives through workshops, newsletters, and parent support groups. We provide resources, information, and practical strategies to help parents support their children’s wellbeing at home. Additionally, we encourage open communication and collaboration, ensuring that parents feel heard and valued as essential members of our school community.
A final consideration is the emergence of Artificial Intelligence and how this imminent educational paradigm shift can be utilised to support our students’ mental health and wellbeing. It’s a topic for a separate blog post, but I would be happy to hear your thoughts!
We hope our experience and strategies resonate with you on your journey to prioritise mental health and wellbeing in your own educational settings. Together, let’s create a world where every student thrives emotionally, academically, and socially.