This article originally appeared in the Autumn edition of Little London Magazine.

“It is widely recognised that a child’s emotional health and wellbeing influences their cognitive development and learning,” says Public Health England. It also affects “their physical and social health and their mental wellbeing in adulthood”.

Add to this the fact that over 50% of mental illnesses start before the age of 14 and that one in 10 children and young people currently has a mental health disorder*, and it’s no surprise that pupil wellbeing is under the national spotlight.

Reaching new heights at Prince's Gardens

What is wellbeing?

The Oxford English Dictionary describes wellbeing as “the state of being comfortable, healthy or happy”. The Mental Health Foundation defines it as “a much broader concept than moment-to-moment happiness”. And the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families defines it as “not simply the absence of mental illness, but a broader indicator of social, emotional and physical wellness”. Definitions of wellbeing may differ, but there’s little doubt about the part being played by schools in fostering it.

The mental health charity Young Minds explains: “A good education promotes health and happiness, not just good grades.” It says, “Schools play a crucial role in developing the skills young people need to cope and flourish in today’s uncertain world.” This is all the more important, says Young Minds, now that “children and young people are facing more pressures than ever before, including exam pressure, social media and cyberbullying and pressure over body image”.

Laying strong foundations

Prep schools are taking this message seriously; not just putting pupil wellbeing at the centre of their pastoral care programmes, but doing so from an early age. “As soon as pupils walk through the door to pre-prep, it’s important to prioritise wellbeing,” says Katie Paynter, Head of Pre-Prep at Prince’s Gardens Prep. “Because if they’re not happy, they’re not going to learn.” In practice, this means gentle and age-appropriate support from specialist staff, who collaborate with other important figures across a child’s life.

“We talk about the power of three,” says Katie Paynter. “Parents, children and staff all need to work together and communicate to get the very best outcome for a child.” But happiness isn’t always something that comes naturally. “Most people would agree that wellbeing is something they strive towards,” says the Mental Health Foundation. And this makes it all the more necessary to teach children resilience and positive emotional habits early in their school lives.

Getting personal

PSHEE, or Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education, can be an important part of wellbeing programmes in prep schools. “It helps pupils to develop the knowledge and attributes they need to manage many of the opportunities, challenges and responsibilities they will face as they grow up,” says the PSHE Association. And, by fostering – among other attributes – self-esteem and resilience, it can support emotional health. But, beyond the classroom, there’s no one size fits all.

Every prep school’s approach to wellbeing, like the children they educate, will be different. And new initiatives, like the Wellbeing Award for Schools (WAS), are recognising these individual efforts. Some preps will offer counsellors, yoga and mindfulness. Others, cuddly wellbeing dogs, buddy systems with older pupils and spaces to talk. Others still will look to online solutions such as iSpace Wellbeing to give children strategies and tools to help overcome setbacks and thrive in the face of failure. But all will promote wellbeing with gusto, appointing trained staff to oversee activity; either in pastoral or combined pastoral and academic roles.

If they spot mental health problems on the horizon, they will refer to more specialist support. And the emphasis is always on the proactive; drawing on houseparents, matrons, teachers and others to both help with and prevent problems. Experts endorse collaborative efforts like these. “Evidence shows that interventions which take the ‘whole organisation’ or ‘whole system’ approach are more likely to have a positive impact in relation to outcomes,” says the Anna Freud Centre. And for life after prep school? It’s over to senior schools to carry on the good work.

Prince's Gardens pupil ready to explore

Start here

5 ways to support your child's mental health**

  1. Consider the “5 ways to wellbeing”

    This includes connecting with people, being active and mindful, keeping learning and giving to others. Think about things you can encourage your child to do, or do together.

  2. Watch out for changes in behaviour

    Young people tell us how they’re feeling in many ways, not always verbally. Learning what is normal for your child makes it easier to notice when things change.

  3. Talk about mental health

    Talk about staying connected with others or being physically active, to take care of our minds; just as you might encourage your child to eat fruit and vegetables.

  4. Think about technology

    Using phones and laptops can impact on our sleep, which is important to our mental health. We’re also more likely to listen to each other if we’re not distracted by technology.

  5. Model good habits

    Taking care of your own mental health means it’s easier for your child to see good habits play out.

On Friday 27th September 2019, Cognita celebrated Global Be Well Day. On this day, every Cognita school collapsed the curriculum in order to focus solely on wellbeing, with activities and events involving the entire school community of students, parents and staff.

*Data from the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families
**Source: Mental Health Foundation