Interview with Jenny Blackman, health and wellbeing lead and physical education teacher at Branksome Hall Asia.
Could you tell us about the wellbeing programme that you have set up at Branksome Hall Asia?
As the health and wellbeing lead at Branksome Hall Asia, my role involves coordinating the health and wellbeing curriculum and developing projects across the middle and senior school. One of the main goals of the curriculum was to create greater awareness around inquiries into health and wellbeing. My full-time role of middle years physical health teacher complements this role as they have overarching topics, which I have been curious to explore further over the last 18 months.
The main vehicles of the programme’s delivery are extended advisory lessons, middle school health and wellbeing days, pastoral days, and the Student Health and Wellbeing Committee. Alongside this, the social counselors have worked tirelessly to introduce a health and wellbeing survey to encourage students to reflect on their own wellbeing and seek further support.
At what point did you feel you needed the programme?
Around 18 months ago, a group of middle and senior school teachers were assembled by the strategic leadership team to explore how the topics of health and wellbeing could be taught and embedded more transparently in the curriculum. At that time, the Covid pandemic was taking a grip on the world, and our students were more sedentary due to online learning and had fewer opportunities to socialise due to social distancing.
“The social counsellors have created a survey that gathers information on the students’ wellbeing.”
Following these discussions, we received a professional development opportunity to attend the 2021 EARCOS Weekend Workshop on health and wellbeing, where we learned from specialist speakers on health and wellbeing, such as Amy Smith. They talked about stress management, healthy coping skills, mental health, and sexual health awareness. There was a strong emphasis on a collaborative approach to learning, which inspired me to invite Amy to be a consultant for our school.
What was the big motivation behind the project?
In regards to our cultural context, our international day and boarding school is located on the island of Jeju, South Korea. One of the many reasons that sets Branksome Hall Asia’s health and wellbeing efforts lies in its cultural context. Our students and families tend to focus more on academic excellence, and health and wellbeing tends to be less weighed. I believe this particular reason is one of the drivers of our Health and Wellbeing Programme.
The social counsellors have worked very hard on creating a survey that gathers information on the students’ wellbeing. This survey has provided a great deal of data about students’ needs and habits. After surveying the students, it was evident that they also wanted more knowledge of how to take care of themselves, and the Student Health and Wellbeing Committee echoed these desires. The survey also allowed students to discreetly request a meeting with their social counsellor, and over 70 students did.
What have been some of your proudest achievements in relation to wellbeing?
Without a doubt, my proudest achievement was the creation of the Student Health and Wellbeing Committee. There were three clear lines of engagement with the student voice. Firstly, we created a subject-specific committee in health and wellbeing. Secondly, we encouraged students to network either in their own cohort or with students around the world. Thirdly, we encouraged students to develop a cross-curricular voice, where they interviewed health scientists to gather relevant information to feed back to their fellow students.
“The survey also allowed students to discreetly request a meeting with their social counsellor, and over 70 students did.”
This committee was created to develop a cross-curricular voice where the students contributed to International Women’s month by interviewing Dr Elesa Zernhofer, a prominent researcher and lecturer in health and anatomy and physiology. The students from the Health and Wellbeing Committee created a range of inquiring questions about the challenges that adolescents face in health and wellbeing. The interview was open to the student community, and the feedback from the students was thoroughly reflective. For example, we had the following from a Grade 9 student:
“The presentation was a very precious experience for me. I learnt many tips about how to maintain my health and wellbeing and how I need to be careful using social media.”
What has the impact been?
When considering the impact so far, it has been insightful to hear students’ wisdom on the challenges they face in their adolescent lives, and fascinating to empower the student voice to guide the provision for their needs and provide cultural context.
The main role of the committee is to discuss the challenges students face around their health and wellbeing at each grade level. The student committee have chosen to currently work on initiatives that revolve around building a broader awareness of mental health, physical health, nutritional health, and student voice through the extended advisory programme.
For example, the Grade 10 representatives were concerned that not enough G10 students were physically active so they organised a survey to discover which activity the majority of G10 students would like to take part in during extended advisory sessions. As a result, they organised a dodgeball and bench ball competition for the students.
If you were to give three top tips to schools when devising a wellbeing policy, what would they be? What should schools think about?
The International Baccalaureate (IB) suggests that having a “wellbeing policy is one of the most effective means of improving students attainment outcomes”. The “what is wellbeing” document uses evidence-based research to support IB teachers and school leaders to better understand and integrate wellbeing into the architecture of their school policy and practice. It ensures the students and the wider community are part of the creation of the wellbeing policy. Secondly, it is also valuable to choose a wellbeing framework such as the PERMA, PERMAH, SEARCH or other frameworks to establish a structure specific to your school perspective
Establishing a student committee has been extremely useful. Our student committee was formed by advertising to the middle and senior school students during a pastoral day, which was the launch of our new Health and Wellbeing Programme at the start of the academic year. To get representatives from Grades 6–12, we created 14 places for students so each grade had two representatives. The students were selected based on their passion for improving health and wellbeing.
Thirdly, exploring the Harvard University, EASEL Lab, would be beneficial to further develop understanding of the complex field of social emotional learning. This website provides some really clear diagrams on how different curricular frameworks have strengths and areas for improvement in different areas when addressing social emotional learning, and to have a greater awareness of this is highly valuable.
Staff versus students – how does your approach differ, and can you talk us through how your wellbeing focus supports all of your school community and how the different elements join up?
At the beginning of the health and wellbeing project, I wanted to create a centralised platform for staff to be able to go to for up-to-date evidence-based resources, IB policies on wellbeing, and World Health Organisation documents on health. This website is linked to the Health and Wellbeing Advisory Programme, and staff can access resources to improve their own knowledge of health and wellbeing. As the programme has evolved, so has the website, staff are regularly updated on the progress of health and wellbeing projects and student triumphs. As the academic year progressed, we also launched a student and parent website to offer up-to-date evidence-based resources, which is currently in progress.
Engaging with the student voice would also be greatly encouraged with the student committee to consider health and wellbeing challenges locally and globally. There was a chance for students to network globally during a spin-off project with Buddies Without Borders, an international forum where students were privileged to network and collaborate with esteemed global academics and consultants from the World Health Organisation. The challenge for students was to brainstorm solutions to the problems faced by a specific country assigned to their group, researching both the challenges and possible solutions in regards to the global mental health crisis.
Do you use any products or set programmes to support wellbeing in school? What resources/support is your school drawing on?
I truly believe that the biggest resource is the student voice. Our students have led numerous initiatives and used inquiry-based skills to determine what our students need. While it is sometimes difficult for staff to relinquish control of projects, trusting the students’ passion, drive, and creative ideas is a healthy and fruitful approach. As such, we encourage our students to put on their thinking hats to find solutions to the challenges facing adolescents in the current educational climate.
My newly created role as the health and wellbeing lead has been instrumental in the strategic development of the Health and Wellbeing Programme and ensuring the programme is progressive. We also draw on the support of subject matter experts. For example, over the past year, the school has employed both a health consultant and a wellbeing consultant, and they have worked with various members of staff to understand our individual school and cultural context. Professional development is also important, and several staff members with particular interests in wellbeing and social emotional learning completed a course in “Teaching and Learning for the Greater Good”, which was particularly useful in broadening their knowledge and perspectives.
I would also encourage schools that follow the IB curriculum to attend the “Leading Well-being in the School Community” course, which offers the opportunity to create ideas for wellness and wellbeing projects for the wider community.
This article first appeared in the latest print edition of Wellbeing in International Schools Magazine, out now.