What do parents look for in school wellbeing?

The Schools Wellbeing Partnership works with parents to help them choose a school based on its record on mental health. Parent champion Michelle West considers some of the common questions that schools can expect from parents

This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on Headteacher Update

It can be a daunting experience for parents, choosing a school for their child; children have every right to feel safe, not just physically but emotionally too. Parents with children currently at school, or who have been through the education system, have worked with the Schools Wellbeing Partnership to compile a list of questions to ask when choosing a school for their child. The questions focus on emotional wellbeing – meaning how schools help pupils to think, feel and act on their emotions.

Good emotional wellbeing enables children to cope with life’s challenges, bounce back from setbacks, socialise with ease, be comfortable with who they are and those around them; in short, it is about asking if a school is a happy place where children can thrive. So, what can schools expect to be quizzed on?

A whole-school approach?

It is important for an emotional healthy school to involve the whole school community – students, staff and parents. Stressed teachers cannot ‘pour from an empty cup’. If staff feel emotionally supported, they are in a good place to ensure the emotional wellbeing of students. Key questions parents want answered include:

  • Is the emotional wellbeing of staff, students and parents a priority for the headteacher?
  • How many staff are trained in mental health first aid to support both staff and students?
  • Has the school any mental health awards or is it working towards this?
  • Are there any parenting skills workshops on offer?
  • Is there an open-door policy for parents to be included in discussions about their children – especially when there are concerns?
  • Does the school have mental health information on their website, or wellbeing tips in school newsletters?
  • If a child disclosed an issue regarding their mental health, at what point would the school contact the parents to see how things were at home?

Attitudes to behaviour

Children express emotion through their behaviour. As adults it is helpful to seek out the emotional impulse behind their behaviour – what is the child trying to communicate through their behaviour? A key question is how does the school address bullying in terms of supporting the victim and the bully?

If a child was struggling to engage at school, being ‘naughty’, not attending, disruptive, how would the school work through and resolve this to the child’s satisfaction so that they were happy to attend school and learn? Are students encouraged to openly talk about their feelings and emotions without fear of stigma or being ridiculed?

Children learn resilience by making mistakes and problem-solving. Learning through creativity, ‘having a go’, and being allowed to fail and try again builds confidence. Schools should be able to tell parents how they go about building confidence and support students in the classroom who may struggle with self-belief. Do they give space, time and encouragement for students to work through problems? Is there extra support available if a child is struggling with their self-esteem?

Food and nutrition

Our bodies need to be fuelled and hydrated for optimal emotional wellbeing; water is particularly important to prevent fatigue and sluggishness. Does the school embrace a healthy eating culture and ensure students have access to water during the school day?

Another important topic is how schools support students with eating disorders. Some children may find it a struggle to eat in front of others, or find the whole dining hall experience extremely daunting. If a child has an eating disorder, or issues around food, parents may ask the school what options are available around lunch time.

Having conversations like this with parents is a great opportunity to show the schools’ openness to talk about mental health issues and tell parents about the support they have in place for students who may be struggling emotionally.

Social skills

Schools are social places, and this can be exciting for some but excruciatingly painful for others. Connecting, and forming good relationships with other people, is essential for everyone’s emotional wellbeing.

Does the school have a mentoring system whereby older students are encouraged to look out for, and engage, the younger ones? Does the school offer guidance on social media etiquette? Do they address issues such as cyber-bullying? Are students encouraged to speak out about mental health issues?

Transitioning from primary to secondary school (or, indeed, changing school at any time) can be a socially challenging time for young people. Parents may ask if there are any ‘ice-breaking’ activities that can help new students to settle and feel included, particularly if a child is known to find this hard.

Above all parents will want to be assured that someone is responsible for students’ emotional wellbeing and will want to know how they can contact them if they are worried about something.

If schools feel comfortable fielding questions like these it is a sure sign that they are taking a whole-school approach to mental health and wellbeing and that there is a happy balance between emotional health and academic achievement.

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