As we roll out the first year of our Positive Perspectives course, never before has it felt more pressing to ensure young people’s thinking patterns are as healthy and helpful as they possibly can be.
Life for a lot of people can feel pretty bleak at the moment, with many difficult and uncomfortable emotions swirling around. It is important that we support young people to reflect on and cope with these emotions, and help empower them to develop more positive ways of thinking.
In October, the government produced a fresh State of the Nation report, attempting to capture a clear picture of how our children are doing. The report starts with a grim statement: “The wellbeing of children in England and the UK remains relatively low compared with other countries and with decreasing trends over time.” The comparison with other European countries on measures such as life satisfaction is troubling, with the UK sitting at the bottom on this measure. Interestingly, the UK also reports the worst score for children feeling fear of failure, as well as declining satisfaction with friendships – both important indicators of overall life satisfaction.
The State of the Nation report surveyed young people at the height of lockdown, whilst they were living through all the implications of the pandemic. It makes for confusing reading in some ways, because it reports that, on average, young people didn’t fare too badly from March to August. This is what is frustrating about averages: it seems that there were some great positives, and those who reported improvements – but also some serious negatives, and groups who seemed to suffer badly. Among the positives were the better relationships many young people and parents reported between siblings, and between parents and their children. Many families were spending quality time together in ways that was really bonding and fulfilling: doing activities outside, or playing games together, online and in person. Relationships are vital to our overall wellbeing so it makes sense that, for these people, they reported feeling really well during lockdown. It also makes sense that those with challenging home lives did not report so positively about their sense of wellbeing. Among the negatives were the increased difficulties for those already suffering from or vulnerable to a mental health problem; for those facing anxiety and other related conditions, lockdown was hard and some, who hadn’t overtly struggled before, did find problems coming to the fore.
What the data does not represent is what happened when children returned to school; the study ended in August. Anecdotally, September has been a breath of fresh air for many and has brought a resurgence of appreciation of friends and activities and the structures of life. For others, it has brought into focus their worries, whether they be about socialising, performance or family dynamics once everyone has gone back into ‘full-speed’ mode again. So, while some young people have coped pretty well over this past year, others have had a really trying time, with lasting effects. Indeed, one of our local mental health services has reported a 400% increase in referrals since September.
We worked hard during lockdown to ascertain, boost and support pupils’ mental health.
At South Hampstead, we worked hard during lockdown to ascertain, boost and support pupils’ mental health. We had initiatives online designed specifically with objectives of fun and bonding; we regularly surveyed girls and liaised with parents if we had concerns; we reached out, one-to-one, to those who needed a chat; and our counsellors continued their work online and on the phone.
We also anticipated that some pupils would find the return to school difficult. We had specific training for staff before the start of term, exploring some of the sources of difficulty that might exist for girls. We adjusted the Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) curriculum to allow for some exploration of issues related to mental health and lockdown, and teachers assigned a reduced load of homework for the first few weeks, to allow girls to settle in and re-learn how to work within the more rigid time constraints of a school week.
This year has also seen the start of our Positive Perspectives course, initially in Years 7, 8 and the Lower Sixth. This course is built on the principles of Positive Psychology – a scientifically researched approach to considering the power of human thoughts, feelings and behaviour, with a focus on strengths instead of weaknesses. Recent developments in scanning technology has led to a wealth of understanding about the plasticity of our brains and the ability we all have to sculpt our thinking patterns and habits through consciously reinforcing the positive or helpful ways of thinking and minimising the more destructive or unhelpful ways of thinking.
It is about strengthening the resilience of our brain and establishing a habit of helpful thinking patterns.
Positive Psychology is not about always smiling or always looking ‘on the bright side’; it is about establishing healthy, helpful ways of approaching challenges and setbacks, so that we are strengthening the resilience of our brain and establishing a habit of helpful rather than hurtful thinking patterns. When we first learn to swing a tennis racket, we need to think carefully about every movement. It is a conscious effort and we can either develop a good stroke or a bad stroke depending on the discipline and attention to our practice. With time, and lots of conscious thought, the good version of the swing becomes more automatic and we can turn our attention to other aspects of our game. We can never be complacent about that basic stroke – it will always need our attention – but we can also count on it to carry on in the background, whilst we turn our attention to other aspects of our game. This happens with our ability to think in healthy or unhealthy ways. Our brains are malleable and can be strengthened in certain areas. We can learn good habits and helpful thinking patterns and, with time and practice, these become more automatic and stand us in good stead for the things that will come our way.
Our students are learning some techniques from the study of Positive Psychology through their Positive Perspectives courses. In Year 8, for instance, they have learned about the value of flexible thinking and the ability we all have of looking at the same problem in many different ways. Lower Sixth have learned about the inner critic – reflecting on the positive role that criticism has to play, as well as how it can take over in an unhelpful or hurtful way; crucially, they are learning strategies for coping with the latter, should it become a regular problem.
One of the important aspects of our Positive Perspectives teaching is to help pupils to understand that feeling worried, sad, angry, uncertain or frustrated does not constitute a mental health problem. These are normal emotions in life that are a part of the human condition and part of the journey of life. We don’t seek to minimise the challenges faced by those who are suffering from an acute mental health condition, but we do aim to help the girls not to assume that, if they are feeling any of the emotions we think of as negative, that it automatically means they are ‘unwell’ or can’t cope. We aim to empower them to use strategies to reframe their thinking, with the hope that, with enough practice, they will start to employ the strategies as a habit they can return to again and again over their lifetime.
Difficult emotions are a part of the human condition and the journey of life.
We continue to develop our work with the girls, both the proactive work, such as in Positive Perspectives, and the reactive work, such as our pastoral one-to-ones, counselling services and work with outside professionals where necessary. For those who need a little extra help, the prognosis is good. Young people can and do recover, with professional help and through learning to employ successful strategies when symptoms flare up. Alongside strategies and support structures, the most valuable thing we can give to all our girls is our care, our attention and our understanding. The staff here are marvellous at all three and provide a wonderfully solid and stable platform to help underpin everything else we do.
Blog post written by Ms Brass, Senior Deputy Head, who heads up the pastoral programme at South Hampstead.