Interview with Joanne McMullan & Charlie Simpson - Wellbeing Ambassador Facilitators at Rainey Endowed School, Northern Ireland

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Project collaborators

 Rainey Endowed Grammar School, Northern Ireland
Rainey Endowed Grammar School, Northern Ireland

Project Write-Up

Rainey Endowed School is a secondary school based in Northern Ireland. Our Wellbeing Ambassadors programme was delivered in house by Programme Lead Kim Carr. This interview was conducted several months later after the programme had been running through the Covid19 pandemic.

First of all, what made you do the Wellbeing Ambassadors Programme?

Charlie:

It was something that I sort of had been looking into as Head of Pastoral Care. Myself and Joanne had spoken before and thought that we were missing something. We didn't feel that we were catching every child in the best way. When we looked about the peers, we realised that they're so good with each other and we have peers helping each other academically. So we thought we really needed to push this onto the emotional side where we could get peer support for each other. So we just thought we could maybe get to some of those kids through other kids who'd maybe been through the same experiences. Maybe they didn't want to come to us as adults.

We looked to go from there. And it (the Wellbeing Ambassadors Programme) was obvious. I'd seen it in another school in Belfast. I then researched online, and then it went from there.

As soon as we went to the Chairman of the Board of Governors they agreed. It was great.

Were there any particular needs that you thought could be addressed?

Charlie:

Well, I think issues related to social media. And other issues where the kids understand what other kids are going through. I mean, even when we were all at school you viewed adults as a lot older, maybe out of touch. But I mean, realistically now, with the way social media is and what kids are facing up to, there were parts where they weren't going to come to us, because we wouldn't understand about it. I mean friendships issues are exactly the same now, as they were back but what else is happening there?

Joanne:

We wanted somewhere that they could go that maybe wasn't an adult, maybe they could get advice from older pupils that had been through it before and have a big sister/brother type thing the younger ones could go to, or even now what we see for example are the year 14s going to the year 14 Wellbeing Ambassadors to talk about issues because they're more comfortable talking to them because they're their age group.

So when we started Children had a specific need, it certainly wasn't a whole school ethos. The Worth-it programme definitely kicked it all off for me in terms of getting mental wellbeing embedded across the whole curriculum, making it something for all staff and all children.

So how did you set that up in the end? How could they go talk to them?

Joanne:

Well, originally they set up a Wellbeing Club for the younger ones. They ran that at lunchtime but I was always very conscious that we needed to bring in the older ones as well. So we did a few presentations. And we got it out there who they (the wellbeing ambassadors) were. We got them bright badges that you could see from miles away!

It started a trickle of the young ones using it (wellbeing club), and then the older one sort of started to become aware of it. We put them in areas such as the gym, and around the dining hall where people could see them and could see that they were available. That's how we tried to do it at the start.

Charlie:

Before COVID blew up, we were looking at extended registration times in the morning with no assemblies where the Wellbeing Ambassadors could go to a certain area so they'd be available. We also wanted to have them moving around the junior classes, chatting and talking to them. But with bubbles, we couldn't then let them go into the classes so they actually did it virtually.

Joanne:

When we returned to school, we had designated areas outside where pupils could go and speak to the Wellbeing Ambassadors face-to-face but also socially distanced. I think it's still really important that they could connect with each other through this time. So that's what we did.

Amazing! And the actual Wellbeing Ambassador training you did with me. How did you find that?

Charlie:

Well, that was phenomenal.

Joanne:

They (the students) loved you. They raved about you for weeks afterwards. They loved it.

Charlie:

But it also gave us a lift. When you came over, we felt that connection. What you came in to do and said fitted in perfectly. We've said that if we won the lottery we'd be flying you over every week just to get the staff going! I think it was really important.

Whatever anyone says, when you bring someone in from the outside, it's their specialism, so you get a feel for it and we were picking up information having you there.

I would encourage anybody else to do that. Before you came in, we really didn't know where we'd go with it. And now it's lovely. It's evolving. It was worth everything. It was perfect.

And what about the young people? What have they enjoyed the most about the programme?

Joanne:

I think probably at the start before they really got into it, they liked that sense of that responsibility. They're really kind and they really want to help. They enjoy the fact that they have the ability to go and talk to people. And that actually might make people feel better, that they could actually brighten up somebody's day or reassure people and that's what they take out of it and that's what they want to do.

I think school mental health and wellbeing is definitely an area that's hugely worth investing in. I think we've seen the impacts on everything, particularly in terms of behaviour, because once you've got amazing behaviour, the children are so, so much more ready to learn that actually, it has a bigger impact on everything you need to improve as a school.

Did you come across any challenges? How did you overcome them?

Joanne:

There was a point when they came back to school that they had a little panic. All of a sudden, they thought they had to counsel and sort things out. There was a little bit of overthinking.

I basically came in and reminded them that they weren't counsellors. All you need to do is go past people and say "hello, are you okay?". Notice people, if you see someone that's maybe on their own, go over and ask if everything is okay? Just explain, we're not expecting you to counsel them, you're not a psychologist. Just be friendly and open.

And how is it that you've supported them since the training?

Joanne:

After the training, we tried to let them do it themselves for a while, but it wasn't quite working. So I stepped in to be their point of contact to help the programme continue to move forward.

We set up a google classroom and I pulled them all together and anything I needed to support I put on there. So I stressed to them that I am their wellbeing ambassador and if they need anything or any support I am the person that they come to.

We now meet every Wednesday at lunchtime. They come to the library with me and we talk about things, what their concerns are, what their plans are.

The first time somebody came to me, they actually waited behind to tell me that somebody had come and spoken to them. And they had talked to them. And it was amazing, they could do it. And they were just so excited and I was so pleased for them. And they realised at that point, it's not that complicated. It's just listening. They felt like a million dollars, they were so delighted.

But I think that it's been slowly building up. They know that I am always there for them. They have my timetable and know when I'm available. They know if they need me at any stage, that they come to me.

I have worked with a couple of them because they're their own insecurities. For some, I have taken them out of the front line, and put them maybe in a more helping role. For example, helping me do the posters for the presentation. It helps them stay involved but also look after themselves.

And are you happy with the outcomes of the programme so far?

Joanne:

I'm chuffed to bits and we have people in 5th year who just can't wait to be interviewed to be Wellbeing Ambassadors. My own daughter who's a 4th year has already put her name down that she wants to be one. So that's the aim, it's getting embedded in the school.

We see how the programme is affecting pupils across the school all the time. For example, we've had one girl that sometimes had difficulty making friends or that sort of thing. She started going to the wellbeing club that our ambassadors ran every lunchtime, and she got to know them really well. And now she comes up to the library and she'll walk straight over to the year 14s that are sitting there and she'll sit down. They just love her and they just treat her as just one of their own small family. She'll walk past them in school and she'll say hello, this that another and she just feels much more settled, that there are older people there that she has a connection with, and that she's not afraid to go to them. And that she knows that they're there if she needs someone.

She wouldn't have done that with any of the teachers. She would avoid teachers. It's the fact that she has got to know these people. She knows that they're not going to make fun of her or they're not going to say anything, they're just going to be there and they'll listen to her etc and they understand her taste in music and reading and she has got something to share with them. And she thinks that's just amazing.

Charlie:

I mean the programme has developed into sort of another programme. My son, who has SEN, went along to the wellbeing club with his close buddies. they absolutely loved it because it was a bit of structure at lunchtime. That's a hard area for those kids with autism.

Whereas, we're sort of now telling them that they go into year 11 next year, we're going to encourage them to look after year 8s. There was one year 8 boy that didn't mix with anyone and he wasn't being accepted as peers, but when we put him in with the year 10 guys where they sit at lunchtime.  All of these kids are autistic, he totally just clicked. They just thought he was brilliant and my own son came home saying what a great bloke he was. He's so knowledgeable on this.

It doesn't matter what it is it the kids can get a link and that's what we feel so strongly about. It's not the route of talking to teachers but just even to walk by these kids who say hello to each other if no one's talking to him is a massive thing. Having that shared music taste you know. It's because it's their peers and the kids are friendly, and there are good relationships. At the end of the day they don't want to come and talk to me about stuff I don't understand like 'Fortnight'. Now we have form tutors telling the pupils that if they don't want to talk the them, they can always go to their wellbeing ambassador.

For me, starting the Wellbeing Ambassadors programme was the catalyst to starting so many other things within the school.

What advice would you give another school or setting running the Wellbeing Ambassador Programme?

Joanne:

Not to bite off more than you can chew. I think you come with great ideas, we're going to do this, this and this. But that doesn't always end up being the case. You're working with wellbeing ambassadors, and you realise that they have their own issues. And it tends to be those children that are actually drawn to this type of work. They maybe haven't addressed the issues that are in their own life. And sometimes that can be a bit of a stumbling block for them.

You just have to take it slowly and develop it. It takes time to build that team and build that trust in the team, and that they have that trust in you. When I say I'm going to be there, I'll be there. If I say I'm going to do this, I do that. So that they know no matter what I say, it will happen.

Charlie:

I would also say make sure that everybody realises it's not just a standalone thing and that it runs alongside other things. It's a very important strand of the holistic approach.

And I think it's really important to make sure that you recruit Wellbeing Ambassadors that want to do it because they care and want to make a difference. Not just for their UCAS.

I would say to make sure and make sure that not only does the whole school, but the kids realise where they fit in. And, you know, make sure that everyone's on board from the governors. We made sure when we were going to do this, we wanted to do it right. And that's why we didn't want to do it in half measures. Everyone bought into it in the school and making sure you keep telling people it's there. You know like really mini launches all the time, especially after COVID. And making sure parents know.

And as Jo said, don't try do too much at the start. Realise you're not going to reinvent the wheel but you will make a difference and it doesn't matter how big it is. The small differences are key.

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