I recently attended an exceptional IB Leadership training session on “well-being and student leadership” that was facilitated by @moyerteacher in Seattle, WA. The training was part of a new leadership series put out by the IBO in response to the ever-changing needs of all students, including those who attend IB World Schools. This specific training challenged us to explore how we support student wellness within an IB World School while considering how we can empower students to take control of their own well-being.
The importance of focusing on the “whole child” in education is not a new concept. If you spoke to educators ten, twenty, or even fifty years ago, they would more than likely have told you that the “well-being” of students was important. For some, it might have even been a priority, though many teachers, particularly at the high school level, would have likely indicated that their primary focus was on content and academics and that the “feeling stuff” was more for the school counseling department. This mindset has significantly shifted in recent years as schools are finding more and more students in crisis. Though it’s easy to find many anecdotal examples inside of our schools, the National Alliance on Mental Illness recently shared some unsettling data that sheds more light on this growing crisis. According to the piece, 18.1% (42 million) American adults live with anxiety disorders, and statistics around depression continue to rise while the number of children and adults who suffer continue to go untreated.
So how do we define well-being? In the most basic sense, well-being is a sustainable state of positive mood and attitude. It goes beyond basic welfare and aims for all students to be healthy, happy, successful, and productive. This latter point is one that we regularly emphasize at DFHS, particularly at our IB DP Information Night for 9th and 10th grade parents. Simply stated, students who are happy and healthy perform better academically. They have better mental health, make better choices, enjoy greater social inclusion, and ultimately leave high school better prepared for new challenges and change. So decisions around academic choices, whether or not to pursue a full IB Diploma, and the number of co-curricular activities that students get involved with needs to be closely monitored.
The very nature of the IB MYP and IB DP lends itself to support student well-being despite the perception by some that both programs promote intense academic demands that in turn lead to higher levels of stress and anxiety for students. At DFHS, our entire faculty and staff has examined how we can promote student well-being and social and emotional learning within our existing programs without it becoming an “extra” for students (and teachers!). Here’s some of the ways that our school has helped to achieve this goal:
- Faculty and Staff Well-Being: If our goal is to ensure the well-being of students, then it is critical that we first focus on the well-being of the faculty and staff who work with our students. The importance of creating a positive culture in a school is at the very core of promoting well-being among faculty and staff. I have said time and again that if you treat faculty and staff like professionals, 99.9% of the time they will act professional and the culture in the school will be positive. At DFHS, we have extended this mindset to include explicit experiences for teachers in the area of mindfulness, meditation, breathing, and stretching. As an example, @meghalberg leads daily mindfulness sessions for teachers who are in need of a quick meditative break from the daily grind. In addition, we have had Jennifer Monness from The Meditation Lab attend some faculty meetings to lead our teachers in meditation and yoga. This is an experience that is designed exclusively for our faculty with the focus being on their health and well-being. Finally, our Innovative Classroom Initiative (ICI), led by Assistant Superintendent @dfdciberry, has further supported this endeavor by emphasizing mindfulness and how we can promote well-being for all students and teachers in our district.
- Student Well-Being: As noted above, when faculty and staff are happy, healthy, and well, students that are inside of our classrooms become the direct beneficiaries. Our focus on staff wellness has resulted in many examples of teachers at our school who implement mindfulness types of activities into their lessons. @MsCairoHistory, for example, sometimes opens lessons by having students participate in a quick meditation. Other teachers such as @Mrs_Fahy and @llcgrove have had students get up for some light stretching and yoga-based exercises as an opening to a lesson. We are also inviting Jennifer Monness back to DFHS in May to engage our students in the types of relaxation/meditation exercises that she led with our faculty and staff. The idea is to provide our students with some strategies to “destress” before state exams. The key to all of this is recognize that student wellness is everyone’s business, and finding ways to naturally integrate mindfulness practices into what we do every day is a much surer way to promote ownership among all.
- Interest Based Learning Experiences: Both the IB MYP and IB DP provide students with seemingly endless opportunities to pursue personal interests that can directly promote well-being. The Personal Project, for example, provides tremendous flexibility in terms of topic selection so that students can virtually engage in any area that is of personal interest. If implemented correctly, this can be an excellent vehicle for reducing student stress while providing an “escape” from the grind of academic classes. The IB DP core provides similar opportunities, and at DFHS we encourage all students to take TOK or to engage in CAS activities regardless of whether or not they are pursuing a full IB Diploma. While each IB program provides opportunities, however, the key is to provide a structure that allows these experiences to be enjoyable and pressure free for students. This involves aspects of scheduling, staffing, and of course proper counseling.
- Service Learning: In recognition of our 20th year as an IB World School (#DFHSIB20), we have focused more exclusively on finding opportunities within our existing curriculum to inspire service among our students. Our work in this area has been documented in previous posts and our teachers continue to find new ways for students to give beyond themselves. The selfless act of “giving beyond oneself” is perhaps the greatest form of wellness, and the intrinsic reward that one receives is beyond measure. This mindset is also a core principle of the IB, and one that truly takes form when schools have a positive and supportive school culture that emphasizes wellness for all.
- Counseling: It’s not possible to write a piece on student well-being without highlighting the critical role of our counseling department. I am proud to say that our district fully supports this belief and has continued to allocate resources in this area. In the past few years, we have added a third school counselor, a full-time social worker, a dean of student affairs, and a full-time student assistance counselor. In addition, our conseloring department has teamed with our special education department to implement programs such as Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) in an effort to support students in need while further promoting mindfulness and empathy among all staff members. The enhancements within the counseling department have provided our students with more individualized support, an expanded focus on social and emotional learning, a team approach to student wellness and mental health, and a restorative approach to student discipline. Our school counselors are also IB trained, serve as college counselors, and have the same caseload of students from grades 9-12. This approach allows our counselors to build personal relationships with students and families so that they can quickly intervene in moments of crisis.
In addition to the examples above, our district is in the midst of designing a K-12 Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) curriculum that will provide teachers and students with more explicit experiences throughout our existing curriculum and program. In this regard, the key is to maintain the mindset that “well-being” needs to be embedded into all aspects of our school by faculty and students alike. The teachers of DFHS have certainly embraced this belief, and as always continue to lead the way in terms of how to best support the needs of all students each and every day.