‘For us at Withington, it’s about taking a holistic approach to wellbeing’

Posted on: 10 Feb 2022
Posted by: Jen Baylis

Jen Baylis, deputy head and designated safeguarding lead at Withington Girls’ School, explains how a wellbeing and personal development campaign is encouraging pupils to practise self-care and explore their cultural identities.

With the focus on Children’s Mental Health this week, I’m sure most ISC schools will have been working with their pupils to think about how best to promote wellbeing and support our people as we continue to deal with the challenges of the pandemic and the associated social change of the last couple of years.

For us at Withington, that has meant thinking about wellbeing more holistically and recognising the more spiritual and connective aspects of wellbeing as well as the more traditional elements of health and self-care. We also recognise that now, more than ever, our pupils want to be heard, and they need to be at the heart of the planning and delivery of any initiatives.

February is one of those tricky months; still cold and dark (although we are beginning to feel the days lengthening), plenty of work still to be completed with none of the excitement of the festive season or the verve of newly forged resolutions to lighten the load. We decided to introduce Feel Fab Feb a few years ago as a way of focusing attention on wellbeing at a time in the year when energy can flag and motivation is hard to hang on to.

This year, the challenge was to make sure our festival met the needs of our school community following the challenges and changes of recent times. Things are different now and our festival needed to reflect that and address the many different factors that shape mental health and wellbeing. Of course our pupils need to reflect on self-care, self-esteem, exercise and nutrition and work out how to achieve a healthy balance of work and relaxation. But our young people are also anxious because of the world around them, the pandemic, social isolation, social injustice, the ever more visible effects of climate change. An approach to wellbeing that focuses only on ways an individual can make themselves feel better contains the implication (and associated pressure which all our young people recognise even if they can’t articulate it) that anxiety and mental health issues are a failing of the individual rather than a complex interaction between the individual and their context.

In our Feel Fab Feb festival this year, our focus is on wider personal development. It contains some of the aspects of health and wellbeing that we have seen in previous festivals, such as fun exercise activities (the ‘daily mile’, a charity rounders match) and relaxation activities (arts and crafts and sessions with a visiting therapy dog). It features a thought-provoking assembly on mental health by our pupil mental health and wellbeing team. But we have also included some activities that support our young people in making sense of their context – a special screening of the film Mission: Joy, Finding Happiness in Troubled Times and a multi-faith panel event which will consider the links between faith communities and wellbeing. Our digital wellbeing team launched a film about online sexual harassment which challenges the social structures of a world where this is so rife and our Equality, Diversion and Inclusion team and School Council have helped us plan a Culture Day which will allow pupils to dress to express their cultural identity, learn more about their own, each other’s and wider world cultures and develop their cultural competency. At occasional moments in the fortnight, the Harry Potter theme music will play across the school, introducing a ten-minute slot to ‘drop everything and read’, taking the time to read other people’s narratives and engage with different voices as a counter to the echo chambers of social media.

There is, of course a seriousness to the planning and purpose of our Feel Fab Feb, but there has also been great joy in the execution. It’s not only the joy of being able to have a morning walk with the Year 11s or watch a show created by the Year 9s, but also the sense of empowerment and positivity that comes from shared reflection and commitment to each other and the wider world. We won’t solve the mental health crisis in our young people until we start engaging fully with their context and ensuring they are able to do the same with critical awareness and optimism about the change they are going to lead in their lifetime.

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WGS pupils taking part in the 'daily mile' and art for relaxation

About Jen Baylis

Jen Baylis is deputy head and designated safeguarding lead at Withington Girls' School.