Ben Levinson, Headteacher at Kensington Primary School and winner of The Pearson National Teaching Awards Primary School of the Year 2020, shares his school’s approach to supporting mental health and wellbeing in Covid-19 and beyond.
Children’s health and wellbeing is a moral priority for us all. It is also crucial to their learning: if they are not well, they will not learn effectively. A recent YouGov survey found ‘64% of parents believe that the wellbeing of their children is more important than their academic attainment’.
Read the wellbeing survey
At Kensington Primary School, our vision is, ‘A place everyone loves to be’. We’ve worked hard over recent years to ensure this is a lived experience for everyone within our school community – our children, team, parents, and governors – every day. To do this we have prioritised health and wellbeing across the school.
This long-standing focus on the social, emotional and mental health of our school community has no doubt supported us during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Over the past year, children have gained much and lost much. While we cannot undo what has happened, our approach has been to continue putting the health and wellbeing of our children, families and team first and foremost.
Since our students returned to the classroom after recent lockdowns, we have focused on settling them back in, rebuilding relationships, giving them time and space to get back into routines. As we move forward, we will be doing what we always do – teaching what is in front of us. And we will prioritise our resources to make sure they get the best possible experience and make the best possible start in life.
While Covid-19 has put mental health and wellbeing even more firmly in the spotlight, our school’s approach to this has been largely unchanged. Here are some of the key principles that have helped us to build a healthy, happy school before, during and after the pandemic.
1. A positive and supportive ethos and culture
To achieve our vision of a school with mental health and wellbeing at its core, we set six strategic goals. These include, ‘All in this together’ and, ‘Take care of ourselves and each other’. These are supported by two guiding principles, one of which is, ‘Be positive and supportive’. Our starting point is that humans are fundamentally good. Through this lens, we use our emotional intelligence to reflect on motivations and provide support as much as possible. If someone is angry, our starting point is not to react, but to step back and consider how we can help a child, colleague or parent.
Trust and autonomy is of fundamental importance within our school. We support each other to achieve our goals. We do not have overly developed monitoring systems or punitive performance management. We know everyone is working to achieve their best. This isn’t easy and we need to support, encourage and challenge each other but we do that as a team – ‘All in this together’.
Open and honest communication is also crucial. Everyone is able to share concerns or worries, ask questions, or challenge decisions. We have many mechanisms – formal and informal – to ensure representative communication but the most important is the relationships we have developed. These allow people to speak openly and honestly.
We undertook an important review and subsequent overhaul of our curriculum. There were many drivers for this but, certainly, the physical and mental health crises facing our young people were at the forefront. Our new curriculum has ‘Health’ as one of four strands alongside ‘Academic’, ‘Communication’ and ‘Culture’.
5. Physical health
Physical health is an important part of children’s overall wellbeing. We ensure our children take part in fitness and Skills for Life lessons; Active Learning; active breaks, and lots more. They also use heart rate trackers to help motivate them and develop their fitness.
6. Emotional health
We have always worked with Place2Be, Headstart and CAMHS to support children struggling with mental health, but we wanted an approach based on prevention not cure. Our Emotional Health curriculum combines the latest thinking in emotion coaching, emotional intelligence, and wellbeing to provide a progression of skills and knowledge that supports children’s emotional health. Regulation stations help children to regulate their emotions when they need to; emotion diaries support reflection, and wider links with the community enable a broader appreciation of their place in the local infrastructure.
7. Health science
Alongside this our health science curriculum gives children the biological and chemical understanding of their physical and mental health. Children learn about the processes, actions and interactions happening within their body when they are active or when they experience different emotions. We believe a better understanding of the science behind their health makes a huge difference to their overall engagement and progress.
8. Ongoing commitment to impact
Our approaches are designed to impact everyone’s lives now and for the long-term. In that context, it’s early days.
However, today, our team are really happy and they have had the resource to deal with the challenges of coronavirus very well. Very few teachers leave and a recent survey found 98% love to be here.
We have noticed visible changes to our children emotionally too. Their relationships are improved and there are very few incidents in the playground or around school. Children are also far more able to discuss their emotions and to take ownership of managing these. Their physical health is improving rapidly. We have some early data to show the improvements, but can also see greater focus and engagement in class.
We’re excited to see the impacts on their wider learning over time, but we are also committed to keep evolving and continuing to look at how best to support our children each day, week, and term, as we always have.
Advice on promoting whole-school wellbeing
1. Culture, culture, culture: This has to be first and foremost. Doughnuts in the staff room are nice but not unless the day-to-day interactions, systems and approaches clearly prioritise wellbeing. People are good and want to do their best. Start from this and the rest will follow.
2. Wellbeing at the heart: The curriculum forms the vast bulk of children’s day-to-day experience so looking at this has to be a part of any change process.
3. Live it: ‘Do what I do, don’t do what I say’. You need to role model the behaviours you expect. Taking care of yourself is a crucial part of creating a whole school wellbeing culture.
About the author
Ben Levinson is the Headteacher of Kensington. He is a founding member of the Well Schools movement; part of the Department for Education’s Expert Advisory Group on school staff wellbeing; a TeachActive Ambassador and a British Council Ambassador, and a judge for the Lockdown Hero Awards.
Kensington Primary School is the 2020 Pearson National Teaching Awards Primary School of the Year and the 2020 TES Mental Health and Wellbeing School of the Year. It is a School Mental Health Gold Award Winner; an Inclusion Quality Mark Flagship School, and an Achievement for All Quality Lead.