November 17, 2023
Everyone needs to belong somewhere. The feeling of belonging is a basic human need: it gives us a sense of place in the world and is critical for our resilience and wellbeing.
For children and young people, feeling a valued part of a school community gives a sense of belonging. Schools that are working hard to build inclusive school communities where all students feel they can participate – none are marginalised – are protecting the mental health of their pupils.
We all know how hard it can be to join new groups, to put ourselves forward in situations that don’t feel natural to us. And what’s natural about schools at the moment? During lock-down young people were at home for months, their interaction with their peers, if any, was mainly through the use of technology, through screen time and virtual classrooms. This has resulted in missed opportunities during critical adolescent developmental stages to learn the skills to build positive and supportive friendships with peers and relationships with school and contributing to the increased mental health problems we are seeing in young people.
While there are many different factors that can impact the mental health of young people, one of the most significant is relationships. Positive relationships with peers, teachers, and other adults can make a massive difference in young people's mental health, both in the short-term and the long-term. (1)
Feeling like you belong is an essential component of good mental health. When young people feel like they belong to a school community, they're more likely to feel valued, seen, and supported. This sense of belonging can come from a variety of sources, including peer groups, extra-curricular activities, and class communities. As educators, we can encourage students to get involved in school activities and work to create a sense of belonging in our classrooms.
Positive relationships can help students build resilience. When young people face challenges, having supportive relationships can help them stay optimistic and focused on their goals. These relationships can provide a source of motivation and encouragement, even in the face of adversity. Helping students learn to build and maintain supportive relationships, which can serve as a foundation of resilience throughout their lives and support the protection of positive mental health.
Positive relationships act as a container for any other mental health tools, strategies and interventions in your school, not only do the relationships act as a wellbeing intervention they also amplify and make other strategies for mental health more effective.
For those going back into schools they’ve been at for years, the sense of belonging they have to the school community may still be strong, more so in students who have positive relationships with their peers and have an established friendship group. To some children, especially those in year 7, may seem like a replay of the primary to secondary transition. Moving from primary to secondary, can cause stress and anxiety. It takes time for young people to find a sense of belonging in a new school and there will be higher levels of anxiety and stress in many students.
Although lock-down happened a couple of years ago now, we are still seeing the impact of it on the mental health of young people. Many young people felt isolated during lock-down and missed vital opportunities to build relationships and friendships with peers essential to protect against the onset of mental health problems.
There are many other risk factors associated with lock-down that have impacted on young people's mental health. Some young people will have been experiencing difficulties at home resulting from financial and other pressures on their family and the additional stress these bring. Some young people will have been witness to domestic abuse and some will have been victims of abuse themselves. School is a way for young people to escape unhappy homes, but this escape route was taken away and for some, the worry that schools may shut again at any time could be overwhelming.
Never before has there been a time when the mental health of young people has been more important to look after, if we are to reduce the risk of mental illness in young people now and in adulthood.
Many young people find it easier to talk to their peers than to discuss their feelings with family members or professionals. Nurturing peer to peer relationships builds trust and can increase feelings of control in the peer and the ambassador. Positive relationships help young people feel that they belong at school, which is essential for wellbeing.
School connectedness can be defined as the belief by student that both peers and teachers in their school care about their learning and them as individuals (2). Students are more likely to engage in healthy behaviours and succeed academically when they feel connected to a school.
Our Wellbeing Ambassador Programme, through combining both coaching psychology and positive psychology techniques, ensures that groups of young people are trained and supported to develop peer wellbeing in their schools.
I saw the impact the Wellbeing Ambassadors Programme had on the other students we were supporting they became more open and friendly with not only us but their peers around them.
Lydia Year 11 Wellbeing Ambassador Brig House High School
The Wellbeing Ambassadors Programme can help young people build resilience and improve wellbeing by enhancing feelings of belonging through positive peer relationships. Students feel cared for and listened to, feel like they are part of something. The benefits of this wellbeing programme are not only for the peer being supported but are also for the ambassador as they learn new skills that improve wellbeing and contribute positively to their school community.
Worth-it has developed this programme over several years, working with CAMHS, schools and local authorities. Most importantly, the programme has been developed with young people themselves. As Wellbeing Ambassadors, young people build on their listening, communication, reliability, responsibility, supportiveness, empowerment, and motivational skills as well as learn the importance of being non-judgemental towards others and themselves.
Once trained, young people lead a variety of wellbeing initiatives in their school or setting. These vary depending on what the Ambassadors themselves have identified as key priorities to improve peer wellbeing. Students may choose to run initiatives such as reducing racism, raising awareness of suicide prevention, offering LGBTQ+ support groups and running campaigns to reduce stigma surrounding mental illness. The Wellbeing Ambassadors decide what’s best for their school community and, in opening up conversations and offering support, contribute to an increased sense of belonging for their peers.
The full effects of the pandemic on the mental health of young people will not be realised for years to come, but the time is now to put interventions in place to minimise repercussions, protect mental health and reduce the risk of mental illness. Find out more about the impact on young people's mental health and wellbeing of our Wellbeing Ambassadors Programme by accessing our free impact report.
Find out further information about developing your own peer wellbeing intervention by downloading our wellbeing ambassadors free cheatsheet.
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