If the last seven months have taught us anything, it is that the happiness and wellbeing of children in schools, and at home in the event of needing to isolate, is absolutely crucial if we are to successfully keep up momentum on learning through challenging times. School life through a global pandemic may not be quite what it was, but it can still be mindful of our priorities to place physical and emotional wellbeing at the heart of teaching and learning.
Fortunately, there is plenty of useful research and great practice on how to highlight and nurture happiness in schools, much of which is just as relevant if not more so in a global pandemic that could see children spending weeks at a time at home. Dr Tina Rae, child psychologist and author focusing on the social, emotional and mental health of children and young people, feels that this term has to be about more than just the curriculum. She told Eteach, “It is more important than ever that we move away from any narrative of catch up and focus instead upon children's well-being and mental health. This has to be nurtured through trusting relationships that build confidence, security and reinforce self-esteem and safety. Without this our children will suffer longer-term damage as they attempt to navigate the next year of insecurity and potential disruption to their education due to outbreaks and partial or whole lockdown.”
Ruth Swailes, Early Years Education Consultant and School Improvement Advisor, has advice for early years settings in particular on supporting the development of happiness in young learners. She explained, “In the Early Years Foundation Stage, practitioners and teachers look for signs of wellbeing. Many use the Leuven Scales, based on the work of professor Ferre Laevers. Physical signs such as relaxed posture, open gestures, singing, humming, laughter and smiling, convey a feeling that children are comfortable in their own skin. Laevers describes this as being "like a fish in water". Children who are comfortable and confident, even when they may be quiet or reserved express their happiness in a range of ways. It may be the quiet smile, or they may clap their hands with delight and excitement. Teachers know that when children are comfortable and happy in the classroom, and feel that they are in a safe space, they are well placed to learn and will be more willing to take risks and try new things without fear of failure. They will often express delight and excitement in new learning. A happy EY classroom has an unmistakable buzz.”
That “unmistakable buzz” is more than possible despite all the necessary restrictions around ensuring our classrooms are as safe from Sars-CoV-2 as possible. As Chris Dyson, headteacher of Parklands Primary School in Leeds, explains, “The school, touch wood, is Covid-free as we speak, so we are happy entering our 4th week, with happiness along every corridor. The soul has returned to the place with laughter, smiles, respect and an unprecedented attitude to learning. It has been a pleasure to return. The 'gap' we find is extremely small. The children missed the place, they realise that school is the happiest place in the world after being forced into lock down between late March and June. The staff have their wellbeing at the core and are just happy inspiring the children. The “Fun Palace” has reopened and is thriving here at Parklands.”
There are some straightforward strategies for focusing on happiness in schools, that may well be a timely reminder as the term progresses:
Give children the opportunity to take a deep breath and focus with intent on the day or lesson ahead. A stretch, or a short visualisation or a deliberate setting out of equipment for the task ahead can all help in the development of a calm and happy frame of mind for what lies ahead.
Whole-class or whole-school projects are a great way of drawing people together for a common aim, and creativity is a known route to getting in “the zone” for many.
3. Get outside
As well as being an effective way of helping to reduce the spread of Sars-CoV-2, spending time outside has been shown to contribute positively to our overall sense of wellbeing. Play outside, exercise outside, and learn outside, as much as you possibly can.
4. Time to talk
Such are the pressures on time in the curriculum, there is not always space for children and young people to simply talk about what is happening in the wider world with an adult who can contextualise for them where necessary. These kinds of conversations built into the school day, can greatly contribute to reducing anxiety and improving overall levels of happiness.
While the role of a teacher undoubtedly includes the care of the wellbeing of children and young people at school, there are times when this is most effectively done with the support of experts from outside the school community. There are many organisations that can help with this (see below for starters) and there may also be experts from your locality (perhaps from health services or your local authority) who can support on a local level. Signposting support is essential for assisting children and young people in developing their own path to happiness and wellbeing.
Find out more...
There are many organisations that support the nurturing of happiness in schools. Try these:
- Action for Happiness Keys to Happier Living Toolkit for Schools
- Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families
- Family Links
- Mindfulness in Schools Project
- Action for Happiness
- National Children’s Bureau Schools Wellbeing Partnership
- Relax Kids
- Young Minds
Dr Tina Rae: @DrTinaRae
Chris Dyson: @ChrisDysonHT
About the author
After graduating with a degree in Politics and International Relations from the University of Reading, Elizabeth Holmes completed her PGCE at the Institute of Education, University of London. She then taught humanities and social sciences in schools in London, Oxfordshire and West Sussex, where she ran the history department in a challenging comprehensive. Elizabeth specialises in education but also writes on many other issues and themes. As well as her regular blogs for Eteach and FEjobs, her books have been published by a variety of publishers and translated around the world.