Children's mental wellbeing really matters
The social, emotional and mental wellbeing in the developmental stage of a child’s life has never been as important as it is today, certainly in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. But, with support from their parents, teachers and peers, help is on hand.
Managing pupils’ stress amid pandemic
In light of the 2020 global Black Swan event we call “the COVID-19 pandemic,” the importance of mental health has become prominent.
Teenagers who have sought to manage academic stress during this time of uncertainty have not been exempt from the impact of stress.
Below are a few recommendations for parents to assist your adolescents in managing the stress they may be facing.
During times of stress it is easy for teenagers to lose track of the reasons why they are doing what they do.
This lack of focus can significantly impact productivity and enjoyment.
It is important for parents to guide or remind children to focus on the purpose of education, as well as other values held by the family.
Additionally, encourage your child to consider how or if these identified values are important to them.
Once values have been reflected upon, it is important for parents and adolescents to collaboratively develop a plan of priorities.
Daily, weekly and monthly activities can be categorized into one of four quadrants: not urgent, not important; urgent, not important; important, not urgent; urgent and important.
Organizing these tasks can help teenagers clearly see what they should and shouldn’t focus on.
Because of their limited life experience and brain developmental stage, it may be difficult for adolescents to maintain proper perspective during times of stress. Teenagers may feel their world has ended if they failed an examination or have lost a friendship.
As parents, it is key to help your child gain a proper perspective for the significance of a situation, in the context of life.
This is best done not by minimizing their experience or feelings, but by listening, empathizing and then gently sharing an alternative way of seeing the situation.
Remember though, your teenagers are not you, and though seemingly similar, their lived experience is different.
Sometimes parents may forget that an important way to support adolescents in dealing with stress is to make sure they have set aside time for enjoyment.
Weekly time with friends, family and creative exploration are keys to maintaining a healthy and balanced life.
This sometimes may mean stepping in and forcing your teenager to have a break when you see that they need it, even if they do not want to.
(This article is contributed by Alan West, senior school counsellor at Shanghai Singapore International School.)
Simple ways to reduce stress and anxiety
At Dulwich College Shanghai Pudong, high expectation, high achieving academic environment can put stress on students that is counterproductive.
Research is clear, however, that simple interventions can have a very positive impact on students both in lowering their anxiety about taking tests while also enhancing their ability to perform both in the classroom and beyond.
Here are six simple strategies that I’ve employed with students to reduce stress that have positively impacted performance and psychological wellbeing.
These tips are drawn from my own insight as well as from the research of UPenn psychologist Adam Grant and University of Chicago psychologist Sian Beilock, both of whom have expertise in the psychology of peak performance.
Firstly, interpret your anxiety as excitement.
Instead of telling yourself “I’m so nervous,” tell yourself “I’m excited for the upcoming challenge.”
Research is clear that when students were told to get excited when they felt nervous, they delivered speeches that were rated 17 percent more persuasive and 15 percent more confident than students who were told to calm down. In another experiment, when students were told to get excited before a big exam, they scored 22 percent higher than students who were instructed to stay calm.
Secondly, use positive comparison.
Take the upcoming stressful event, test, interview, etc, and compare it to something familiar, easy and less important.
For example, if you’re nervous before your IB exams, you can tell yourself, “These are just like mock exams.” Relating something unknown to something familiar reduces anxiety and increases the amount of energy that can be used to perform complex tasks, like tests.
Thirdly, focus on what you can control.
I do a lot of public speaking and when I’m getting ready for a particularly important presentation, I give particular focus on being really confident and comfortable with the first three minutes of the presentation.
When I do this, my anxiety is reduced and it also makes me feel confident and in control, both of which reduce anxiety and allow me to deliver the rest of the presentation with clarity and focus.
Another example of using this technique effectively comes from Hall of Fame baseball pitcher Greg Maddux, who judged his performances on how many pitches left his hand the way he intended.
In other words, he focused on what he could control (the ball leaving his hand) and very little on what he could not control (whether or not the batter hit the ball). As such, he often hit peak performance.
Students can reduce anxiety by focusing on what they can control (preparation, taking practice exams, asking teachers for help, good nutrition, sleep, mindfulness practice, reducing outside distractions, etc).
In addition, try to optimize your stress, not eliminate it.
Research is clear that people perform at high levels when they are under the right amount of stress.
Think about it, if there is too little stress (e.g. a very easy exam), then students will get bored with studying and not be motivated. If the stress is too great, like a very difficult test with little preparation time, then students will be feeling incredibly anxious and this will hinder their ability to prepare well.
The key to peak performance is finding the state of psychological “flow,” where the skill of the student meets the appropriate amount of challenge.
When students enter flow state, they study with more focus and for longer periods of time. They also don’t experience intense anxiety or frustrating boredom, but rather feel appropriate amounts of stress that keep them motivated and moving forward.
One of the biggest issues facing students is “psychological rumination,” which means thinking carefully about something for a long period of time.
Rumination is a critical skill when you’re trying to create or improve something, but it decreases performance if you’re constantly ruminating (or complaining to your friends) about how difficult your upcoming exam is going to be.
Writing reduces people’s tendency to ruminate because it provides them with an opportunity to express concerns.
The process also gives students a psychological insight into the potential sources of their stress, which allows them to reexamine the situation with more clarity and less anxiety.
Finally, focus on positive projections rather than negative projections.
Instead of thinking what could go wrong, think about what can, and has, gone right. For example, instead of thinking negatively “I am a student taking a difficult math test, I will not perform well,” you think or say to yourself “I am a student at a top international school, who has prepared for this challenge, I will do well.”
These simple techniques have benefits beyond the classroom.
Learning to perform, when the pressure is high, builds confidence which will grow as students graduate and assume leadership positions within their chosen universities or professions.
(This article is contributed by Peter Rogers, director of community wellbeing & leadership formation at Dulwich College Shanghai Pudong.)
Nurturing mental, emotional resilience of students
At Concordia International School Shanghai, we believe that balance is integral to academic and general life success.
From a mental wellness perspective, our school counselors and teachers work hard to build resilience in our students so they have confidence in their ability to adapt to changes, persevere in the face of challenges and learn new skills.
One of the most effective ways to help students manage academic stress is prevention, which is a proactive strategy rather than a reactive strategy.
Essentially, the goal is to help students develop sufficient underlying coping strategies and character strengths from a young age so they are able to manage inevitable life stress.
To achieve this, school counselors in each division provide lessons in social-emotional learning at each grade level, delivering a comprehensive, research-based and preventative program.
Starting from preschool and continuing all the way to high school, we use social-emotional learning programs appropriate for students’ each developmental stage.
Skills in terms of executive functioning, planning and organizing, self-management, emotional regulation, problem-solving and socialing are taught, allowing students to successfully navigate their academic environment.
These soft skills are critical as they are easily transferred to other environments such as the work environment.
For students who require additional targeted support, school counselors work with students in a small group or on an individual basis.
Strategies from evidence-based psychological modalities such as cognitive behavioral therapy are adopted to help students develop better coping skills.
The school counselor also collaborates with the learning support team and school psychologist to identify potential barriers to learning that may be causing unnecessary stress.
Moreover, the team partners with the student’s family to develop an individualized learning plan to mitigate barriers, support the student and support the student in self-advocacy.
Finally, school counselors work closely with parents to ensure that school support is aligned with support provided at home.
For example, counselors may work with parents to ensure the student is getting sufficient sleep, that they are balancing academics with exercise and social activities and that home is a calm, nurturing environment that addresses student stress and promotes resilience.
(This article is contributed by Dr Alice Fok-Trela, school psychologist and early childhood family & child counselor at Concordia.)
Mental wellbeing an agent to a student’s success
The World Health Organization defines mental health as “a state of wellbeing in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”
The Children’s Society (2008) found that whilst 10 percent of children and young people aged 5-16 have a diagnosable mental health problem, 70 percent of children and adolescents who experience mental health problems have not had appropriate interventions at a sufficiently early age.
At Dulwich College Shanghai Puxi, our core values are: “Aim high. Work hard. Be kind and respectful. Make a difference.”
A study by Bostani (2014) concluded that there is a direct correlation between positive mental health and academic success; so it is truly in the best interest of educators to develop an ethos and program which positively impacts student’s mental health.
Fredriksen and Rhodes (2004) built upon this by concluding what a crucial role teachers have to play, in that by building good relationships with the students, they open a pathway to motivated, happy young people who have the ability to achieve academic excellence.
This is displayed at our school by our ethos that the student is at the center of everything we do. Staff seek out opportunities to build relationships with students by having open door policies, where they are approachable at any time to talk. Our university and guidance counselor, Zarate, provides both whole class, small group and one-on-one sessions with students and coaches them through any worries or concerns they may have. He also provides guidance regarding lesson options, friendships and exam stress.
We liaise closely with colleagues at a local hospital, who provide both the school and families with guidance and strategies to improve mental health in our students.
Another approach used is the use of “drop down days,” where students will move off timetable to take part in workshops to support wellbeing.
Holistic education is described by Lauricella and MacAskill (2015) as an approach that provides students with the “necessary skills and tools to succeed in environments beyond the confines of a classroom.”
At Dulwich, wellbeing for education is part of our holistic offering.
We believe that if a child is feeling safe and secure, that this will benefit other aspects of their life, such as academic achievement, having a sense of purpose and the ability to form healthy relationships.
We provide holistic curriculum opportunities for students to develop their essential life skills that they need to graduate “Worldwise.”
High profile education reformers such as Sir Ken Robinson have called for the education system to personalize teaching in this way to reach students individually, rather than treating the education system as a linear process, which expects students to all learn and participate in the school community in the same way.
Additionally, at Dulwich, we encourage students to be each other’s biggest supporters, and inspire children to form bonds and have a sense of belonging.
An example of this is that the students are sorted into one of four “houses” by a sorting hat when they first start at Dulwich.
It is an enjoyable experience for the children, and throughout the year they take part in various competitions and team building activities in their houses that strengthen this bond. Activities such as this benefit a student’s well-being and help them understand they have a support system they can rely on.
Educational outcomes are often assessed in the form of exams. The existence and detrimental effects of exam anxiety have been known for over 50 years and there has been a large amount of discussion in the education community about how this can be minimized.
Alexander Graham Bell first coined the phrase “Before anything else, preparation is the key to success.”
It is imperative that students are provided with the tools for success and that schools are proactive in addressing exam stress as an issue.
Such ways to do this may include having open conversations about exams and the pressures they may feel to succeed — giving the students an opportunity to discuss their worries and then working collaboratively to formulate a plan to minimize this stress and to prepare fully for what lies ahead.
An invaluable tool that is used with senior school students at Dulwich is “AS STEER,” which helps schools signpost children whose cognitive learning and social biases are fixed and are at a greater risk of mental ill health.
This analysis frameworks tangible action plans and provides an invaluable extra set of pastoral eyes. These plans are then discussed at weekly pastoral meetings, where our team monitor student wellbeing.
As our cohort look toward their future goals and set out a pathway to success, the school supports them by holding open forums of discussion.
Topics for these include interview support, the criteria for getting into highly esteemed colleges and universities and talking to representatives from universities to gain valuable insight into their future and how they can prepare. This will also be a key time for parents to hear how best they can support their child through this process.
(This article is contributed by Natasha Dennis, teacher of Additional Educational Needs at Dulwich College Shanghai Puxi.)
Support key to help scholars flourish on all levels
The concept of wellbeing is one which is not new in education nor new in societal mindset. However, what is new is the realization of the importance it really holds in our capacity to flourish both personally and professionally.
Students have always faced challenges whether due to academic or social pressure, yet today these challenges of growing up are combined with life in the 21st century.
Our thirst for speedy knowledge, the interconnectedness of social media and the manipulative nature of news media all means that student wellbeing is being tested to new levels.
All schools will prioritize wellbeing, mental health and mindfulness, but the aim of Nord Anglia International School Pudong is to equip our students with the tools they need to cope with life’s challenges — to become independent, self-aware adults and global citizens.
Foremost I believe we are lucky that we have such close relationships between our students and teachers. Each and every teacher really knows their students — meaning that delicate topics can be approached and students feel comfortable within their school environment.
We recognize the impact that balance can have on our wellbeing.
This year we have raised the profile of the arts. We have seen greater participation, increasing confidence and a wider community appreciation of the talents of our students.
The musical performances in Shanghai venues, creative artistic displays around school, high quality journalism in our student magazines and the internationally recognized prizes have fostered positivity and pride.
Our balanced approach is also maintained for our IB students including those in the final year of their Diploma. In our Extended Essay week, the students took time out for yoga and mindfulness sessions to help provide ways to cope with the potential stresses of their looming deadlines.
Sports have always been a way to permit a healthy break from studies and whilst competitive sports have not been possible due to COVID-19, we have adapted. Our house and sports events and our whole-school 2-kilometer runs were big highlights in seeing our students support each other’s wellbeing.
At NAIS Pudong we also believe that we should empower our students.
Our student leadership team is developing and taking part in thoughtful initiatives to bring wellbeing and mindfulness to the forefront in 2021.
One such project is the creation of our mindfulness room which is being decorated and run by our leadership committees — providing a space for students to switch off from their studies or channel their creative minds. The students fully believe that service and social responsibility should not be tokenistic endeavours but reflect a consistent awareness of the power that kindness can hold in both the school and their wider communities.
Our student community is truly international.
Embracing this enhances our students’ empathy and cultural awareness thus bringing the emotional intelligence that enables them to best support each other.
This is developed within our student-driven assemblies, global-curriculum and our co-curricular provision.
We also enjoy the benefit of being part of the Nord Anglia family allowing students the opportunity to take part in activities online on our global campus, interlinking all 69 schools in a collaborative way that many schools are unable too.
Though wellbeing is often not quantifiable by graphs, results and tables it is certainly evident in the form of a positive, supportive student body.
(This article is contributed by Greg Siccardi, deputy head of secondary at Nord Anglia International School Pudong.)