Project Write-Up

Liz Robson-Kelly recently interviewed Anne Marie Knowles, head teacher and senior mental health lead at Hazlehurst Community Primary school in Bury, Greater Manchester – and one of Wellbeing Club’s founding members – about how they are providing their own early prevention provision.

Why did you join wellbeing club? 

The positive psychology side of things really attracted me. Our school is founded on mutual respect, valuing children's opinions, listening to what they have to say, and we use positive reinforcement in everything we do. The value for money also attracted me as we're not a school that gets a lot of funding, so budgets are tight. The Wellbeing Club offers things that I can do at my own pace, but with support elements built in, such as face-to-face sessions, which appealed to me. And with the Wellbeing Club based around the SEARCH framework, I thought it provided the logical steps for me to start my work in school.

What made you feel like you needed to work on mental health as a school leader? 

I think for us, it was the fact that we had a spike in challenging behaviour from our children who have experienced trauma. And it had an explosive effect around school – we were firefighting and none of us felt equipped to deal with the issues that suddenly arose. We could feel it right through school and people's stress levels were on the rise.  We had some children who were really dysregulated, so it was about how were we going to help support these children and how was I going to help support staff to feel like they could cope in those situations, and we just couldn't get any support externally. The decision was made as a senior leadership team that we needed to equip ourselves as best we could, that's where it kind of started from. Then with lockdown, more and more children were displaying anxiety and the beginnings of some mental health issues. We realised that we needed a universal approach, not just targeted interventions, and we felt we needed to be the people who carried out that work, not a stranger. 

How did you start developing wellbeing in your school? 

We'd started work looking at the way that we spoke to children and thinking about empathy and had done some work about self-regulation as well. Then, when I came to Worth-it’s discovery workshop, I got some ideas about kind of bringing staff on board. 

We decided to have wellbeing monitors for the children, that was our first step. We had little meetings with these children who nominated themselves as wellbeing monitors each term, and they act as a bit of a check in the classroom. We have a self-regulation chart where children say how they're feeling in the morning. If the teacher forgets or misses a child, if they've not put themselves on green ready to learn, the wellbeing monitors intervene and have a chat with that person and try and help them get to green. The wellbeing monitors help give out care cards that are created in school based on our four key values and just to try and help within the classroom to keep people feeling happier. All the children wanted to sign up!

Have behaviour issues improved since improving wellbeing? 

Yes, it's unbelievable!

When I go in and observe lessons and see the children, they just take themselves off, and they might just go there for a few minutes, or the adults will suggest, ‘I'm noticing that you're feeling this way well, how about a little timeout and reset’ and they'll go over to the regulation station. You can see through all the children it has a ripple effect. If someone is sad, several children will go over and try and help them, not just the wellbeing monitors, they just want to help their friends because they can see them feeling dysregulated. And that's been really big. I think that's been a massive impact for staff and for children – just having that empathy for one another.

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Can you tell me about using positive education and strengths for school wellbeing?

Our most recent venture through the Wellbeing Club is the character strengths. I delivered some CPD with the staff first, and we all did the character strengths survey to find out what our character strengths are, which the staff really enjoyed learning about themselves.

We've decided we're going to introduce seven character strengths this academic year and stay focused on those. We introduce a new character strength in each assembly, and it'll be linked to a book – we try to link everything to stories because children can hook into them. We’ll find a character in the book who may have shown, for example, bravery, and we explore that with the story and then the staff will use that to then design an activity to do outside when they go and do the outdoor learning lessons. 

The character strengths are linked to house points and teachers will recognise strengths in pupils and give them a house point for this. Children also recognise strengths in each other and do class activities that help them build on strengths. 

We give out loads of different rewards during our Friday celebration assemblies. But our certificates now are based on the character strengths. The teachers pick out three children to get a certificate based on the character strength that we're focusing on, to really describe what it is that they see and admire in those children in the good work assembly.

Children recognising strengths in each other and themselves and naming them is nice to hear around school – it’s really lovely as we want children to build up their self-esteem and self-worth. Children are naming things and recognising things that they've done well and that they’re proud of – I'm just blown away by them!

We've been working hard on active listening to children and having an empathic response to some of the behaviours that they might be displaying to help us look out for the children's wellbeing and detect if their mental health might be slipping. To do that, we needed to be talking about our strengths. It's it can so easily forget to talk about those things with children, can't it? In a day in the school, it can be very busy. Using the character strengths framework from the wellbeing club toolkit means that I know that staff and children will be explicitly talking about things that will help them have good mental health and wellbeing and it's not forgotten or pushed aside – it’s kept top of the agenda. We want our children to be happy and unless you've got happy children, they're not going to learn. So that's why it must be top of the agenda because we want our children ultimately, to learn. We need them to feel happy, feel connected, feel like they belong, and I think the wellbeing toolkit has given me that.

We want our children to be happy and unless you've got happy children, they're not going to learn.

Did you have concerns around developing whole school wellbeing? 

I don't think so. I just felt like it was a big piece of work to embark on. I was worried that, since I've taken over as head, I've changed a lot of things. And sometimes I expect everyone to keep up with my pace, and just change and change, and this can scare people. So, I've consciously tried to slow down to not change too many things, but then reflect on what we've already changed and try to make sure that we embed it: thinking how it will fit in our school, not just be another add on. On our school development plan this year I've highlighted we need to explicitly say to children when we’re going to do something because it’s going to help us with having good mental health, we're not just going to magically find good mental health, it takes work.

Did it help getting staff to work on their own strengths first? 

Yes, it did, because it helped them understand what we were trying to do with the children and they were excited about looking at their own strengths, so that was a good buy-in. I know lots of staff went home and said they got their partners or their husbands to do theirs. And in fact, now we joke about things because one of the lowest down the scale on my strengths survey was something like appreciation of beauty. Someone just the other week said to me, ‘did you see that sunrise?’. One person found that teamwork was a less of a strength for her, so we were working on something in a staff meeting she said, ‘count me in, I'm working on my character strength of teamwork’. 

You've also got a wellbeing dog, haven’t you? 

Yes, Saint, she's nine months old now so she's just reached the age she can do it and she's getting booked into her temperament test so that she can be an official therapy dog too. She is owned by one of our teaching assistants, who supports one of our children who's in care. In the mornings, the dog meets and greets one of our children who has selective mutism and struggles to just get in through the gates in the morning. Another boy couldn’t cope with assemblies and had not been able to sit through an assembly for years. Now he brushes Saint during our assembly – it just calms him down and he can sit through.

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What other impacts has your whole school approach had? 

We’ve set up our Hazlehurst hideaway outdoor learning which is a universal offer for children. We also do a termly wellbeing assessment. We use the wellbeing measurement tool for schools, and the Louvin scales for our younger children in reception and year one. We do that coupled with a little sheet, ‘I wish my teacher knew.’ Sometimes children just randomly want their teacher to know that they like red, or they've got a rabbit at home. But sometimes it alerts us because there's been some quite interesting things that children have put down, and we realise that they just need a bit more help. 

I think sometimes it's the children who are the quieter ones, who you think they're okay, who can fly under the radar. And then when we do that, we realise that actually there's a bigger problem. Often when we talk to the parents, they're already aware of it or might have been trying to seek some support but have not told the school. So, we've got a whole host of different interventions that we deliver as part of everyday practice in school that we didn't have a few years ago. 

We've got our hideaway sessions once a week. We have cognitive behaviour therapy group intervention that's called ‘sailing the anxiety boat’ that quite a lot of our children have taken part in. Our SENCO is trained in drawing and talking therapy now too so some of our children have one-to-one sessions with her. We have Lego club, and people sign their children up to take part in that – it’s like Lego therapy. And then we've got some other wellbeing interventions that we can either deliver one to one or in groups. 

Do you think that helps staff as well, knowing that you can refer to this range of interventions? 

Definitely. And we have half-termly pupil progress meetings. Those used to be purely academic, focusing on how assessments have gone and what interventions children needed with English and Maths. But now our conversations are much more around wellbeing interventions and children who might just need some help. For example, if there might be something going on in a child's life, and we send out an email that just says, ‘handle with care,’ and we say the child's name, so all staff don't necessarily need to know exactly what's happening, but what it means is they'll check in with that child. So, if they see them on the playground, or around school, they can make a point of saying hello to them or recognising them. That's working now as an intervention, as it boosts the child. 

Can you tell me about your staff wellbeing initiatives? 

I think the strengths survey itself supported our staff wellbeing. We also have our Angels team – they're responsible for leaving little treats or messages. We've had pin badges with nice messages on, just things to cheer us up – at Christmas we all got a Christmas Eve box with some treats in. A group of us went in over the Christmas holidays and decorated the staffroom to freshen it up for the new year. It’s also the intention to make sure we have things going on outside of school, booking a theatre trip or a night out and recognising that not everyone will want to do everything but making sure a range of things are offered. Staff used to have to pay for their own tea and coffee, but they don't anymore. 

I created, with the help of the senior leadership team, a wellbeing charter for our school which lists all the things that we do. We don't have marking, there's no marking policy, it's a feedback policy. We try to give children the feedback directly in the lesson and they act on it – that’s massively helped reduce teachers' workload. 

We're a small school, so as a subject leader you might have three or four subjects that you’re meant to lead, and how can you actually do that as well as a full-time teaching job? So, what we do now is once every half term, we have a team day, so the children are led by the teaching assistants, they do all sorts of different activities in their house team, working across school with all the different classes. And the teaching staff have a day working on their subjects.  It's recognising the fact that you can't do everything all the time and building that time in reduces teacher workload and the children are still getting something from it, because they're having a team building day. 

Everyone has a wellbeing day, every year, so they can decide when they take that day off. For example, one member of staff said she'd never been able to celebrate her daughter's birthday with her as she’d always been a teacher and had to work – her daughter was about to turn 21, so she was able to book their 21st Birthday off with them, which was lovely. 

What advice would you give to somebody joining Wellbeing Club? 

I think it's just going at your own pace and having a look and deciding which area might be the best to start with for your school. There's an audit tool in the Wellbeing Club that was really useful – I recommend getting your senior leadership team to complete it to help buy-in. 

I like a mixture of reading and video and I enjoy that side of the Wellbeing Club. I watched a video that was about random acts of kindness in one of the sections of Wellbeing Club. And that set us off onto a whole kindness week at school. On our final day that week we went out and did random acts of kindness throughout the community. The power of that was unbelievable. Before some of the classes had even come back, we had phone calls to school, just to say how lovely the children were and how it made that person’s day, and the kids couldn’t wait to come back and tell me about what they’d done and they were excited to share it with their families too. You could feel the ripple effect as the kindness spread. It's that feeling of positive emotion when they're doing the act of kindness that boosts their wellbeing. 

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