- The importance and benefits of wellbeing.
- Linking wellbeing and attainment.
- Descriptions of some wellbeing exercises and approaches.
- A head teacher’s evaluation of wellbeing practices.
In the last few years the focus on children’s wellbeing, represented by Every Child Matters, SEAL and Healthy Schools, for example, has shifted for many schools, largely being replaced by a focus on passing Ofsted inspections and raising attainment. The financial cuts to many support systems have contributed to a challenging environment for people who care about the wellbeing of children.
Despite these changes, we live in times of great opportunity. Recent research has shown the great benefits that wellbeing practices can bring to schools, in raising the health, happiness and achievement of children.
For example, between 2009 and 2012, the Wellbeing In Schools project worked at 16 schools in England, creating simple and accessible wellbeing tools and testing their effectiveness. Wellbeing In Schools was founded by Giles and Juliette Bryant, and involved the collaboration of many health and educational professionals.
Whatever the focus of government education policy, a fundamental principle expressed in the feedback given to the Wellbeing In Schools project by countless teachers remains: If a child isn’t happy and healthy they won’t learn effectively.
The link between a pupil’s wellbeing and attainment is important to make. One Ofsted spokesperson confirmed to the Wellbeing in Schools project that ‘Children’s wellbeing and happiness in school underpins their attainment and achievement in school.’
From theory to practice
Members of staff often agree about the importance of wellbeing but lack an understanding of how they could implement wellbeing practices in school. Developing simple, effective and accessible wellbeing techniques has been the focus of our work at Wellbeing In Schools.
In delivering wellbeing sessions at schools and attending to feedback from staff, it has been noticeable how well SEN pupils respond to wellbeing techniques. Whether the issue is physical, behavioural, emotional or mental, it’s observable that those who practise techniques such as proper breathing, gentle exercise, meditation and singing can all find greater harmony and balance, and therefore improve their capacity to learn.
One of the most fundamental and important practices that affects our wellbeing is how well we breathe. It is obvious that a body and brain starved of sufficient oxygen, and not removing sufficient toxins through the breath, will not function at its optimum level. Children who have physical, emotional and mental special needs may all benefit from learning to breathe properly and then using the breath to help calm, balance, de-stress and feel safe.
Learning to breathe properly is very easy. We need to breathe into the belly and expand it when we breathe in, and bring the tummy in when we breathe out (For two simple breathing techniques see the Toolkit.)
Yoga and wellbeing exercises
While all forms of exercise have merits, yoga stretches are quite rightly gaining popularity in schools. Yoga is non-competitive, gentle, fun and benefits all-round wellbeing. Harvard University published a report in 2009 entitled Clinical Applications of Yoga for the Paediatric Population: A Systematic Review, which indicated many benefits of yoga for children. The Special Yoga Centre and many other organisations are doing great work taking yoga techniques to those with special needs (see www.specialyoga.org.uk).
For a series of wellbeing exercises that have been really successful with SEN pupils, see the Toolkit. These take less than five minutes and are simple, gentle and easy to do in a classroom. Regular practice improves concentration, stress-release, co-ordination, self-confidence and focus.
A common problem for today’s children is over-sensory stimulation and a lack of stillness and silence in their lives. Meditation and mindfulness are becoming popular in schools as ways to help develop calm and focus, and to balance the right and left hemispheres of the brain, leading to enhanced learning capability.
Music is not just for entertainment but can be a powerful tool of healing. Using the voice, songs, live instruments, percussion and pre-recorded music, we have seen how concentration, co-ordination, confidence and happiness are enhanced for SEN pupils. There are some amazing musical resources available for schools. The word ‘harmony’ is aptly used as a link between music and wellbeing.
SEN pupils can be extremely sensitive to their classroom environment, and the prevalence of fluorescent lighting, computers and lack of fresh air can have adverse affects for some. We encourage outside learning when possible and agree with the evidence of movements like Forest Schools of its all-round benefits.
The worldwide technique of creating a space or ‘peace circle’ is a way to help bring a more harmonious classroom environment. Getting children to make their own peace circle together encourages co-operation and a sense of inclusion and unity. As a therapeutic tool we have seen enormous benefits to SEN pupils when they make their own individual peace circle.
‘We are what we eat’ and ‘Let food be your medicine’ should be written up in every school canteen and staffroom! Put simply, good nutrition can heal and help us excel, while poor nutrition can cause physical and mental problems. Modern nutritional science is revealing important links between food and the brain. Here is some food for thought:
- In Gut and Psychology Syndrome (Medinform Publishing, 2010) Dr Natasha Campbell-McBride reveals links between learning disabilities, the food and drink that we take, and the condition of our digestive system.
- In The Medicinal Chef (Quadrille Publishing, 2013) Dale Pinnock shows how a range of food factors can affect our health, including how boosting levels of essential fats can assist brain function.
- In The Mind Game (Credence Publications, 2003) Phillip Day shows how vitamin and mineral deficiencies can affect mental health.
- In Your Body’s Many Cries For Water (Global Health Solutions, 2008) Dr F. Batmanghelidj shows the many health benefits of proper hydration.
There is so much that can be done to enhance children’s wellbeing and especially to benefit SEN pupils through implementing wellbeing practices. It is also important that SEN professionals have the tools to enhance their own wellbeing as well as to pass them on to the children they work with.
Head teacher’s view
Julie Sarti, head teacher of Colne EngaineCEVA Primary School, a small rural primary school in Essex.
"What we particularly like about the wellbeing techniques are that even five minutes of using them with children can make a real difference. They sit comfortably alongside existing strategies and practices designed to enhance learning and wellbeing.
What we have noted particularly is the impact of this work on children with additional needs, especially those with some degree of social, emotional or behavioural challenge. We were expecting the breathing techniques, yoga and use of music to have the immediate impact of calming and soothing children who find the classrooms a difficult place to be at times, which is exactly what did happen. What was less expected and much welcomed is the way these vulnerable children come back to these techniques very readily themselves, when things become a bit of a challenge for them. The breathing techniques, for example, help one child enormously in overcoming his reluctance to engage with any form of writing. Just a moment to calm and focus on finding the right breathing pattern enables him to prepare himself to engage in a more positive way with his learning.
I am not for a minute suggesting that wellbeing practice in schools can replace the myriad of intervention strategies we use to support children very successfully with a range of needs. However, it does enhance what we do, giving children the space and time to focus on themselves and on preparing for learning. By encouraging this self-awareness, we are supporting children in raising their self-esteem, which we know has a dramatic impact on their readiness to engage and to learn."
In order to download the following items in the Toolkit subscribe to Premium Plus:
- Handout - Wellbeing exercises2.93 MB
- Handout - Balance breath19.64 KB
- Handout - Balloon breath21.95 KB
About the author
This article was first published in the July 2103 edition of SEN Leader magazine.