Reorienting Schools to be Champions of Physical, Social and Emotional Well-Being
We have the opportunity in education today to reorient our school systems to focus on our community’s Social and Emotional well-being. As we do so, school need to address the following challenges:
- addressing and relieving anxiety in school community members
- bringing the community together to create an engaging learning experience and to strengthen societal bonds.
The pandemic has forced us to look at schools’ function from a different perspective. It has highlighted areas where schools need to improve such as nurturing the physical, social and emotional well-being of its members. It has introduced the value that technology brings to make education equitable and engaging. And, it has reminded us of the importance of connecting with community members and their important role in children’s holistic development.
It is imperative that we take these learnings forward. To do this we need to focus on developing three key areas:
A. Teacher collaboration for a healthier work environment
B. Spaces that enhance all members’ physical, social and emotional health
C. Communication with community members and their engagement in educating, planning and implementing of school solutions.
A. Teacher Collaboration for a Healthier Work Environment
We already know that project based learning in schools can lead to improved critical thinking, confidence and problem solving ability in children. Studies also show that cross-disciplinary learning can help increase student participation and engagement in learning. (Project Based Learning, n.d.), (Cross Pollinated Classes, n.d.) The problem, however, lies in the successful execution of these strategies. As with most school strategies, successful execution of these strategies revolves around teachers. But often, school systems fail to provide the right framework and support for teachers to align themselves to this new form of teaching.
In most school systems, teachers continue to work in isolation from one another. Unlike most other professions, absence of a guided platform has severely limited teacher collaborations. The pandemic has taught us the need for working together. To enable and support meaningful collaborations, schools need to introduce cross-disciplinary projects into their curriculum.
This approach offers a tangible and guided approach for teachers to — become comfortable with sharing their work with their peers; develop curiosity for each other’s approach; understand the protocols for working in a team; exchange meaningful feedback; and develop accountability for all school students rather than just a particular class.
Schools should begin by helping teachers develop these cross-disciplinary projects in small teams of 2–3 members. These small-scale projects will help teachers learn how to work in teams and develop a culture of collaboration in schools. School should facilitate this by providing teachers a guided framework of training sessions, curriculum support and schedule management. They must also regularly observe team sessions, maintain project quality checks and get frequent feedback from all community members. This strategy will help ease teachers’ isolation anxiety, provide a sense of belonging and support and will have long term benefits for the entire school community.
B. Spaces that Enhance Physical, Social and Emotional Health
Nature has always been a great source of physical and mental well-being in these times. And its importance has increased even further in the recent times. According to recent studies, the pandemic has increased our engagement with nature and outdoor spaces. (Morse, Gladikikh, Hackenburg, & Gould, 2020) Schools need to harness this finding to significantly improve how they nurture their members’ physical, social and emotional health. They can do this by looking beyond classroom spaces and engaging with natural open spaces. One of the simplest ways of doing this is through a school garden.
There is already ample data to support the argument that school gardens are an effective tool to help school communities engage with nature, indulge in experiential cross-disciplinary learning and relieve stress and anxiety. (Thomspon, 2018) This can be achieved by promoting learning in open spaces like the school garden from the beginning of the session.
These spaces also offer an engaging space for conducting physical well-being activities such as yoga, meditation and nature walks. School gardens are also an excellent tool to promote good nutrition habits in children. (Let it Grow, 2018)
C. Communication with Community Members and Engagement in Educating, Planning and Implementing of School Solutions
Studies have emphasised the importance of families in a child’s learning journey. Studies show that family involvement can promote elementary school children’s success and can benefit all children — especially those less likely to succeed in school. (Van Voorhis, Maier, Epstein, Lloyd, & Leung, 2013) Yet, schools have not been able to employ meaningful ways to engage families in a child’s formal education.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way schools work. With virtual learning it has become necessary for families with young children to become deeply involved in the child’s school education. In Early Childhood Education, this intimate family involvement helps in providing the child a holistic learning experience.
Virtual learning during the pandemic has helped connect schools and families through various interactive apps such as Google Classroom. An excellent benefit of these platforms is that they allow teachers to comfortably communicate individually with all children and families to provide thoughtful feedback and resources for every child. Such platforms also provide flexibility to families who can check-in with the schools as per their convenience. It is a non-intrusive yet effective way for schools to communicate with families.
This communication should also be supplemented with face-to-face communication. At the Early Childhood Level in particular, quarterly in-person Parent Teacher Meetings are not sufficient to successfully engage families in a child’s learning. The interactions need to be more frequent and purposeful.
We have personally witnessed better results in children’s learning and growth by conducting weekly personal interaction sessions between trained teachers and the children and their families. In these sessions, teachers engage children in activities that help provide immediate feedback to families about the child’s learning. Teachers follow protocols to interact with the families to: establish healthy relationships; understand families’ cultural backgrounds and their hopes for the child; discuss families’ concerns and queries and provide guidance and actionable feedback. Due to the recurring nature of these sessions, if the session highlights any areas of concern, the school administration and staff are time-bound to provide solutions and implement changes where required. Such meaningful interactions also humanise all stakeholders for each other and rather than playing the blame game, teachers and families work together towards a common goal.
Community: Research shows that the community forms an essential part of a child’s informal learning. (Iyengar, 2021) We must work to engage the community in the schools in more purposeful ways.
Community parks and playgrounds are a proven way of increasing community engagement and bonding. (Morse, Gladikikh, Hackenburg, & Gould, 2020) Natural learning spaces like school gardens can do the same for school communities. Schools should involve local producers in the development of these spaces and encourage partnerships between them and school community to take responsibility of the maintenance of these spaces. These spaces can help children develop their social-emotional skills through meaningful engagement with community members.
Schools should also open up these spaces to people outside the school community after school hours. One way of doing that is hosting open workshops and sessions in these natural settings that promote communal well-being. This will help schools amplify community outreach and also develop connections with community members for participation in other school initiatives.
Schools should also look at youth (ages 18–30) as a an untapped resource for mentoring middle school and high school students. School students are fascinated with the idea of life after school and youth represents that. As a school leader, I have witnessed the benefits of inviting youth to interact with students. With their school experience still fresh in their minds, youth are able to empathise with students’ experiences and engage them in honest and meaningful conversations.
This can be particularly beneficial in helping kickstart discussions around mental health among teens. Schools can develop this as a platform for students and youth to exchange stories and find a safe place to be heard.
Schools should also give students the opportunity to engage with trained youth from different fields and professions. This will allow students to get a first-hand narrative of the different fields and get a complete picture of what different career options entail. This will also help in schools’ struggle of providing individual career guidance to students.