By Karren van Zoest and Rhiannon Phillips-Bianco

@Karren_vanZoest & @RhiPhillipsB

Posted 7 January 2020

This article first appeared in International School magazine Autumn 2019 issue.

Our Journey at JSL, The British School in The Netherlands

As a new Headteacher in Sept 2016, I was keen to ensure our school continued to be ‘excellent in all areas’, as had been awarded during our school inspection earlier in the year. I was proud of how much we had achieved and it would have been easy to be complacent – seeing the school’s success through the narrowly focused lens of achieved ‘inspection criteria’.

Students running the ‘Daily K’

However, one key area concerned me:

How ‘excellent’ are we if we look at our school environment from a mental health perspective?

Mental Health and wellbeing of students has been a subject of growing concern in education, reflecting some shocking world statistics including that at any moment 1 in every 10 children is suffering with a diagnosable mental health illness (1). That means two or three in every class. 

The answer to my question was that we could be doing much better.

At a recent COBIS conference, I had the fortune to listen to Professor Tanya Byron who, having laid out the stark statistics on Mental Health, challenged school leaders in an uncomfortable moment of silent reflection, asking:

…so why aren’t you doing anything about it? 

Good Question. As Headteachers we are lucky to be in the position to make changes which can have real impact. But it is also a responsibility to actually DO something. 

In the last two years at JSL, we have done just that and started a deliberate drive to shift attitudes, break old habits and create an enabling environment rather than paying lip service with a one-off INSET session. We have challenged ourselves to make it ‘as easy for children in our school to ask for help for mental health, as it is to ask a plaster for a cut knee’. We recognise that as educators we have a responsibility to break the stigma associated with mental health so that children can be prepared for their future armed with mental health life skills. I have become convinced during our school’s journey that this is not just about ‘fluffy stuff’ associated with wellbeing, but actually a key component to ensuring children are prepared for the academic rigour they will be facing during their school life time so that they can reach their full potential. Our aim is to enable mental health and wellbeing awareness and strategies, to become integral within the fibre of the school day, rather than bolt on activities. From a whole school perspective, we began to achieve this by:

  • Changing the timetable to break the conveyor-belt experience, ensuring a calm start, middle and end to each day. This has given teachers more flexibility to manage the pace of the day and prioritise talking to students about their daily lives, alongside teaching lessons.
  • Prioritising positive self-esteem by developing a stronger sense of community through student leadership and opportunities to feel pride in being a role model for others. This includes a Responsible Citizen award created to encourage feelings of self-worth in doing things for others in the community.
  • Introducing the ‘Daily K’ (kilometre) taken from the Scottish initiative ‘Daily Mile’ (2). This has so many benefits and has had high impact in children being able to refocus between lessons.
  • Change Teaching and Learning lesson expectations to take account of good mental health practises e.g. pace of lessons, brain breaks, quality time for reflection and finishing work, and enabling use of taught mental health strategies within lessons if needed.
  • Educate parents about breaking the stigma and how they can help at home.
  • Creative curriculum planning which encourages creative expression with no expectations of being right or reaching a specific standard.
  • Appoint a curriculum leader for Mental Health and Wellbeing- to raise the status as an important area amongst core subjects

Karren van Zoest – Headteacher

These changes on a whole-school level, made it possible to focus on wellbeing and mental health within the classroom.  Our work began in September 2018 with a pilot year-group, Year 4. To begin with, we reminded students of the importance of a Growth Mindset, a concept very familiar to them; and the value of resilience that we teach them using James Nottingham’s Learning Pit tool. This linked to two elements of our BSN Character Profile: Perseverance and Courage. Another element of our Character Profile is Compassion and we also started to teach students the importance of empathy and compassion towards themselves, as well as towards others. The key of our message was this: yes, it is important to be resilient and courageous and determined; yet it’s also important to know that there are times that those qualities will not be enough to overcome a challenge. It is therefore vital to learn a range of strategies to both prevent moments of difficulty and to deal with them.

To make this possible we created a slot in the timetable for every student in the year-group to have an hour, every six weeks, of explicitly taught wellbeing tools. Fundamentally, these were then shared with colleagues in the year-group so that the same tools were used and practised daily in the classroom.

Artwork created for the British School in the Netherlands by Juan Arias

They were broken down into three categories: Managing Emotions, Breathing and Brain Breaks. Sessions have included learning to identify and name emotions; understanding the impact of positive self-talk; using a variety of breathing techniques and choosing what works well for each individual; recognizing how your body feels physically if you are struggling; and identifying which ‘brain break’ works best for individuals and/or specific situations. Each of those areas needs to be explored in far more detail than can be provided here, yet what we have observed is this:

  • Students who can identify and name their emotions, are more able to cope with them
  • Students who have been taught breathing strategies, have a tool they can use in any moment of fear, anger or frustration
  • Students who recognise that they need a ‘Brain Break’, and feel empowered to take it, are more able to help themselves re-focus
  • Parent, student and teacher feedback has shown us that these tools are being used spontaneously by students both in the classroom and beyond it

Having learnt a great deal, and seen their positive impact, we began to share these strategies across the school. The creation of a ‘Wellbeing Team’ was vital to support this process. Twelve members of staff volunteered their time to meet every half-term, to discuss ideas and give feedback; as well as to promote tools and resources in their teams on a regular basis. We also held two staff meetings and three meetings with parents to share our work. ‘Calm Corners’, that remind students of strategies they have been taught and provide a calm and safe space for them, have begun to pop up all over the school; and it’s a delight to hear teachers, parents and students share the strategies they are using. This is just the beginning of a long journey. Next year our approach will become more structured. Every class will have a Calm Corner; each phase will explicitly teach wellbeing tools; and Years 5 and 6 will follow a twelve-unit Wellbeing Programme that we are currently devising. Units will be based on key themes – such as managing emotions or coping with change (focused on transition and being Third Culture children) – and students will be taught to coach one another in setting, and reflecting on, wellbeing goals.

The key to remember is this: prioritising wellbeing is not a waste of valuable curriculum time. Students who develop these skills are more able to learn and to deal with the challenges they face. Even more importantly, they are learning life skills that will help them cope throughout life. As adults, one in three of them will face mental illness (3). Yet every single one of them has mental health. We, as educators, have a responsibility to teach them how to take care of it.   

Rhiannon Phillips-Bianco – Class Teacher and Mental Health and Wellbeing Curriculum Leader


  3. Natasha Devon ‘A Beginner’s Guide to Mental Health’

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