Worried About Wellbeing? Successful support strategies for sixth form students
Anyone who has worked in schools over the last few years has become increasingly aware of the rise in issues around mental health and wellbeing. National data and research supports this anecdotal evidence, with recent reports from both the Department for Education and Young Minds highlighting the severity of the situation. With significant underfunding of support services over the last decade, schools are having to take on more and more responsibilities when it comes to providing support, without the funding - or often training or expertise - to be able to ensure specialist help is available for all. This seems to be particularly critical for students aged 16-19, who sadly fall between services in the community; often students may have been supported via CAMHS previously, but end up in a ‘no man’s land’ awaiting transfer to Adult Services which can mean a sudden gap in their support, arguably just at the time they need it most. The transition to adulthood, whilst certainly exciting, is clearly likely to be an unsettling period for all young people; for those who are vulnerable in terms of their mental health and wellbeing, it can be extremely problematic.
With such a concerning picture emerging, what can we do as sixth form leaders to at least attempt to ensure that support is available for our students during these challenging years?
A whole school approach to wellbeing
To ensure that wellbeing support is not simply a ‘bolt-on’, it is imperative that it is explicitly covered in whole school development plans. All secondary schools have access to funding to train a Senior Mental Health Lead in each school. It is something of a ‘no-brainer’ that schools should access this training if they are yet to do so. If nothing else, this will ensure there is someone within school who has access to a basic level of expertise and research around planning a wellbeing strategy across school. The thinking is that a whole school strategy might seek to mitigate many wellbeing issues, by ensuring support is provided early and in a preventative way, rather than merely responding to students when they reach crisis point.
Whilst a lot of what we do in supporting sixth form students has to be reactive (based on their own specific experiences), having an agreed ‘approach’ and some staffing structures in place to support this is extremely useful. It is also worth ensuring key staff within your sixth form team have access to Mental Health First Aid training, if possible, so they are equipped to respond to students reporting concerns to them, at least in the first instance.
Staffing structures will determine the level of support any sixth form team might be able to offer, and these will vary depending on the size of the sixth form. I am extremely fortunate in the sixth form team I lead that there are a number of highly skilled members of staff when it comes to providing wellbeing support. Our sixth form leadership team structure seeks to put wellbeing at the heart of our approach, with experienced and skilled Heads of Year, an approachable and compassionate student services manager, and, crucially, a Senior Tutor responsible for wellbeing. We are incredibly lucky that our Senior Tutor (Wellbeing) is also our Head of Psychology and so she arguably has a huge advantage in terms of knowledge and expertise as a result; she also undertook the DfE-funded Senior Mental Health Lead training last year and is absolutely fundamental to the expansion and success of our wellbeing provision. Our tutor team also includes several members of staff with significant experience of pastoral and wellbeing support who go above and beyond for our students.
I have written previously about our sixth form’s ethos, based on the concept that sixth form students are #RoleModels. Embedding this ethos throughout all aspects of our provision has been fundamental to our approach over the last few years. Some might argue that setting students up as role models from the outset may put undue pressure on them to be resilient and constantly inspire others, therefore adding to the pressure they face. This is where communicating our ethos is key; it is an aspirational message. Many of the examples of student success that we promote as part of this ethos are focussed on students supporting one another, giving something back to the community or raising awareness about particular causes. We also have a dedicated member of our Student Leadership Team linked to wellbeing support, who works closely with our Senior Tutor (Wellbeing) to help with initiatives around wellbeing support. This allows students to feel some ownership over the ethos and culture we are creating together, and therefore the message is always a positive one, rather than one that might impose undue pressure.
This idea of ownership is mirrored in our super-curricular provision. Students have the autonomy to set up and lead their own clubs and societies. This gives students opportunities to explore things they enjoy at lunchtimes or after school, from traditional societies such as Debate and MedSoc through to our new K-pop Dance and Harry Potter societies. Along with providing more opportunities for student leadership, this growing aspect of our provision offers some balance to the demands of sixth form study and the increasing number of students participating suggests they feel this contributes positively towards their wellbeing.
A significant strand of Key Stage 5 PSHE focuses on physical and mental health and therefore education about wellbeing is a fundamental part of our provision. All students learn about the following aspects of wellbeing and mental health (from the Key Stage 5 PSHE Association Programme of Study) and our focus in their morning registration sessions is around self-awareness and self-care, along with care for their peers. This is supported with regular assemblies throughout the year on pertinent themes.
We are seeking to expand and embed this further over the coming year with a new peer-support programme through which Year 12 students are being trained by an external provider in mental health first aid and wellbeing support. Pairs of trained Year 12 students are then to be matched with Year 11 peers to provide support over their final few months at school (with appropriate safeguards in place). The idea is that this model is then replicated year on year, so that this peer-support can be provided earlier on, in the hope that we can equip students with preventative approaches and self-help strategies that they can employ for themselves. We hope that this will help to support both those being trained and those receiving the support from their older peers.
Specialist wellbeing provision
Another key strategic aspect of our approach is based on giving our students access to a wealth of materials and resources to ensure they can be well-informed and able to practise self-care when they start to feel they might be struggling in any way. During the Covid lockdowns, our Senior Tutor (Wellbeing) set up a ‘Mental Health and Wellbeing’ Google Classroom, to provide remote access to support for our students while they were not in school. Each ‘Wellbeing Wednesday’ she ran a live session focussed on a particular theme and posted resources regularly under different headings on the site. When we returned to school, the Wednesday posting of resources continued and we now have an incredible library of resources on a virtual classroom that all sixth form students are invited to join. We share the #WellbeingWednesday theme for each week via email and on our social media channels too to reinforce the importance of the message and to keep wellbeing a central focus for our students at all times.
Our Senior Tutor also runs termly ‘Wellbeing Workshops’: these run after school in small groups and offer a safe space to learn about strategies to cope with particular wellbeing issues. A student survey is conducted at the beginning of each year to ascertain the key wellbeing concerns of the cohort and then workshop themes are based on the level of responses for each concern listed in the survey. Students are provided with a pack of resources at each workshop so that they can continue to practise the strategies they have learned about in the sessions at home.
In addition to the above provision, we also run a project in school (‘C.A.L.M.’ - Communicate, Acknowledge, Learn, Motivate) specifically to support with exam stress and anxiety, as we found this to be a huge issue, especially when we returned from Covid lockdowns. Now in its second year, student voice is used to offer bespoke support for students with exam anxiety. This approach is explained in a video on our school website. Again, I am extremely fortunate that one of our fantastic sixth form staff team volunteered to lead on this project last year and its success (based on student feedback) meant that we have continued to offer this support moving forwards.
In the last year, we have been delighted that our student leaders have also led an initiative to support wellbeing, through their ‘Coffee, Cake and Confidence’ event (I wrote about this in a previous blog post). The first one last academic year focussed on the theme of perfectionism and our second event is planned later this term on the theme of procrastination. The fact that our student leaders are seeking to run events focussed on wellbeing not only shows how important it is to them, but hopefully also confirms that our central focus on it is both appropriate and worthwhile. We were particularly proud a couple of weeks ago when the student who led on the original event got in touch to ask permission to run a version of the same event at her University of Oxford college!
It is important that students and parents know that there is support available for wellbeing as part of sixth form provision. It is, however, equally important that stakeholders realise that school staff are not trained mental health professionals, and therefore pointing out the limitations of support available is key to managing expectations. School staff who go above and beyond, even with great training and expertise, cannot and should not take the place of specialist services and all parties should be very clear about this. This year, based on her research and training, our Senior Tutor has adapted our model to a ‘triage’ system of targeted support which we will implement in full next year, through which staff are guided to decide whether a student’s needs are mild, moderate or high. For each level, there are indicators for staff to use to aid in their decision-making and recommendations about the nature of support required, from self-guided help via our dedicated Google Classroom and their form tutor through to appropriate signposting and the creation of safety plans or referrals to external agencies for specialist support.
In future years, I plan to include our approach to wellbeing support in a more detailed way as part of our induction process and welcome booklet for new year 12 students and their parents/carers, to ensure there is clarity from the outset.
Effective pastoral support
Alongside all of the above evidence-led strategic approaches, the key to effective support for wellbeing is most obviously found in the day-to-day relationships forged between staff and students. Effective tutors, Heads of Year or pastoral support staff are the absolute golden tickets to effective wellbeing support. Compassionate, well-informed, professional staff allow students to seek out trusted adults. Without this trust, students will not access support (and we know, from the recent reports to which I referred earlier, that students of this age are the most reluctant to seek support). Whilst pastoral support for this age group - and all that comes with it in terms of the demands placed on staff trying to plug the gaps created by a lack of external support - is a huge challenge, it is also arguably the most significant, and often most rewarding, aspect of sixth form leadership.