Julia Knight, Head of Primary and Senior Girls, Beech Hall School, Riyadh. She has been working internationally since 2012 and is a passionate advocate for children’s well-being in and out of the classroom as well an advocate for teacher development and research-based practice. Having worked extensively across all phases from EYFS to Sixth Form in a variety of roles, she knows that happy children are successful students.
We seemed to have stopped talking about covid-19 and the pandemic that stopped the world in its tracks. For many it has been given a page in the history books and the world moved on. Yet as educators, we need to reignite the conversations around our students’ mental health and wellbeing post-pandemic. We can all see the effects of pandemic and we are all still feeling the effects.
As far back as 2014, the UK government recognised that wellbeing has a significant impact on student attainment and schools were implementing SEAL (social, emotional aspects of learning) in the USA and UK. Ten years later, and we are still discussing the benefits of embedding a wellbeing curriculum and with the pandemic in full hindsight, it is an urgent requisite for all schools.
Every stage of a child’s school life has been affected by the pandemic and as educators, we are increasingly seeing children present with a range of difficulties that weren’t as prevalent pre-pandemic.
Every age and stage of schooling has been affected. A record 50% of 4 and 5 year olds are not considered to be “school ready”- a term used to support transitioning from preschool to school- by their class teachers. Frequently, teachers are reporting that many more children are unable to share with others to being unable to feed themselves- a number far higher than previous years. In the Kindred² commissioned YouGov poll, to which over a thousand primary school teachers responded: over half of UK teachers are spending teaching time helping students to meet developmental milestones.
The correlation between academics and wellbeing has never been more stark and we haven’t seen the future educational impact of the pandemic.
Even at university level, young people are continuing to report and feel the effects of covid lockdowns. According to UK Nightline (a charity for university students which is staffed by anonymous student volunteers) it “recorded a 51.4% increase in calls in 2020-21, and that this has grown since, with early data suggesting numbers for 2021-22 were 30% higher, and up a further 23% since the new academic year began”. Students calling Nightline felt isolated, lonely and unprepared for life at university and cited the pandemic as a reason why.
So, what can K-12 educators do?
We have to embed wellbeing in the curriculum. An urgency must be placed on delivering lessons that address the issues that are becoming more and more challenging for our young people. International schools are not immune to the effects of the pandemic: In research conducted by Tes: ‘70 per cent of international schools reported an increase in wellbeing issues and 58 per cent reported a rise in mental health issues among pupils. If we accept that wellbeing and attainment are linked, then we cannot ignore that future life chances are also affected by this worrying trend.
It is pleasing to see that accreditation boards are now increasingly likely to have wellbeing as part of their inspection framework. NEASAC (New England Association for Schools and Colleges) already include a wellbeing element to gaining accreditation and the ISI (Independent Schools Inspectorate) introduced a new inspection framework at the start of the inspection cycle in September 2023, which included the following proposed changes: “Emphasising the importance of school leaders’ responsibility to actively promote the wellbeing of all pupils.”
International schools are at the forefront of change and development, and many have taken the lead in developing their own programmes. At Beech Hall School Riyadh, we use the Chatsworth Tapestry which has partnered with Happy Space. The UK based mental health charity believes in prevention rather than cure and offers practical lesson plans and guidance for schools to ensure that the pillars of good mental health are addressed such as mind, food, body finance and the arts. By helping children develop good mindsets from the age of 3, it can reduce the terrifying statistic that most mental health issues are formed by the age of 14 years.
The Chatsworth Tapestry is formed of six strands that develop children’s skills outside of the traditional classroom, one of which is wellbeing. The Chatsworth Tapestry forms an educational overlay to any curricula and is unique to the Chatsworth Schools family and designed to prepare young people for their futures, not just examinations.
Wellbeing must become more than a tick box for accreditation, as educators we must view it as important as English or maths perhaps even more so if we want our students to be academically successful. We have an obligation to address the issues left over from the pandemic; we already have enough research to know we have to.
Without addressing the impact of the pandemic and acting upon the research our young people will continue to feel the effects of the pandemic long after the world’s desire to forget and consign it to the history book.