Published on: 18 May 2017

One thing is certain, engagement is key to deep learning. This engagement comes from the students but must emanate from the teachers!

The importance of building and developing character in a successful school

By Tony Ryan, Director Dual Hemisphere Training Follow Tony on Twitter @DualHemTraining  

Last week was Mental Health Awareness Week. To be honest I have mixed emotions about this, on one hand I am delighted that student (and adult) mental health is at last being spoken about openly, for so many years, too many people considered talking about mental health and wellbeing as being taboo. On the other hand, it is great to raise awareness, but for one week out of 52...really?

As a school leader with 31 years’ experience behind me, I really cannot see why a school would ever concentrate on academic progress exclusively, without spending time and energy building an environment within which people feel safe to relax, take risks and develop. The two areas are not mutually exclusive, happy children perform better academically and enjoy better employment prospects, it’s that simple!

Earlier this month, I was fortunate to attend the IPEN wellbeing and positive mental health conference. The world’s leading thought leaders in this field all assembled for a day to discuss current research, thinking and practice. It was without any doubt the most informative and inspirational conference that I have been blessed to attend in the last 10 years, maybe longer. So, what did I learn from this conference that can be brought back into schools?

Let’s start with the obvious. As educators, we do not set out our school offer to enable students to lead tolerable lives. That is quite simply not good enough. We have a duty to strive to teach our students the skills and mental agility required to reach for flourishment and enlightenment. To quote directly from last week’s conference, “Let’s not underestimate the potential brilliance of ordinary people.”

Is it possible to build a curriculum around mental wellbeing? Sir Professor Simon Wessely, President of the Royal College of Psychologists believes that it is. Simon is leading some cutting-edge research into how student mental health, engagement and wellbeing, can be positively influenced through the delivery of a carefully thought through curriculum offer, delivered within PSHCE lessons. is a four-year research project involving 11,000 students and supported by the EEF. A bank of materials has been assembled and these are currently in use within the trial schools, these are available to schools outside the trial and are designed to:

  • Build on the previous and be relevant and directed by student input                              
  • Taught applying a wide range of teaching and learning styles
  • Offers realistic, age appropriate and relevant information
  • Encourages students to reflect and practise what they learn
  • Meets and exceeds the personal, social, health education requirement

Another academic working hard in this area is Professor Lord Richard Layard, Director of the wellbeing programme at the London School of Economics. Lord Layard and his team are again building on the concept of a taught curriculum, delivered within the PSHCE slot that already exists in most schools. The PEN Resilience programme includes teacher training and a mindfulness programme, “Breathe”.

The book accompanying this research is, ‘Thrive, the power of psychological therapy’. I have consumed this book within the last week (and a busy week it was too). It is in my opinion a ‘must read’ for anyone interested in the field of psychology and keen to obtain a researched exploration of its benefits, allowing us as practitioners to then confidently take gentle steps to embed this within their own work context.

A reminder of why schools should be looking at positive ways to introduce the teaching of character, enabling the development of a positive mindset, was delivered by David Halpern of the Behavioural Insights Team, Cabinet Office, when he stated, “We need to build in proactive solutions. The CAMHS thresholds are ridiculously high and students are breaking before they get the help that they need.”

This, to me epitomises a key shift in the way that we, as educators should be thinking. We cannot wait for issues to develop before we start to think of a cure; that’s like waiting to fall off the edge of a waterfall before we start to consider swimming lessons. Over the course of the last 30 years or so we have all acknowledged the importance of keeping active and eating well in order to maintain a healthy body, we are only just starting to accept that if we are to truly thrive, the mind also needs regular maintenance.

Mindfulness appears to be taking a central role in the delivery of any school mental health and wellbeing programme. We live in ridiculously busy worlds and are constantly engaged and stimulated by external sources from TV, social media, etc. I have only recently started to practice mindfulness, and I cannot explain just how difficult I found it at first, to just switch off and concentrate on how I feel, what I hear, listen to my heart beating and just take 10 minutes from each day to slow down and check how I am. This has quickly become my favourite 10/15 minutes of the day. There is a lot of emerging research that suggests that students can greatly benefit from mindfulness sessions.

Two very well informed speakers on the topic of mindfulness in schools are Jamie Bristow Director at the Mindfulness Initiative and Richard Burnett Co-founder Mindfulness in schools Project. This is a growth area and one that school leaders should probably be considering now. (Interesting that 140 MPs sat a mindfulness training programme last year.)

And so, to the last area of thought for today, but by no means the last that we should be considering. All of the above require the ‘buy in’, engagement and the continued professionalism of teachers if they are to be successfully delivered in schools.  

The keynote speaker at the IPEN conference was a man described by others as “the father of positive psychology”. Is it just me, or does anyone else now have a mental picture of James Brown?

Dr Martin Seligman, Zellerback Family Professor of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania was quick to state that our first port of call as school leaders, should be to take time to look after the mental wellbeing and positivity of our teaching and support staff, “We must teach the teachers positive psychology first, only this will enable them to pass positivity down to their students.” Amen to that! I am not going to even attempt to cover the area of teacher wellbeing in a paragraph...that’s for another blog.

One thing is certain, engagement is key to deep learning. This engagement comes from the students but must emanate from the teachers! Happy students perform better, this has now been academically proven (as if that were necessary). Engagement and the promotion of enquiry and interest is key.

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