How to set up a wellbeing centre in your school

More independent schools are seeing the benefits of having a wellbeing centre, Jo Golding finds out

Having been the editor of IE for a year and a half now, I’ve seen plenty of mental health initiatives from hygge lessons to morning meditation. One thing I’ve noticed as I’ve visited more independent schools is the increasing number which have a wellbeing centre.

But, I wonder, when did they start popping up? What do they consist of? And, crucially, are they a gimmick or do they work?

Edge Grove School opened its wellbeing centre in October 2019. It’s located in the ‘Rose Garden’ block of the school – space that became available due to the opening of its new lower school building.

Headmaster Ben Evans tells me about the space: “It consists of a large, open and light room with a spacious office/meeting room adjacent. The room has large double doors which open out to the Rose Garden and Colts’ lawn providing a very relaxing backdrop and space for quiet contemplation, reading, yoga or recreation.”

It was designed to look completely different to the school classrooms. Evans explains: “This was achieved by using calming paint colours and comfortable and relaxing non-educational furniture. There is a large L-shaped sofa, lots of floor cushions, a large table for group discussions, cosy rugs, jigsaw tables and other home comforts. The room is also a shoe-free zone.”

Evans tells me one of the main reasons the centre was set up was to serve as a base for the school’s head of wellbeing. It’s also somewhere children can go at break times to talk to staff if they need support, take a break from their day, read quietly, play a board game or “just be on their own, but supervised and comfortable”, says Evans.

Staff can use the room as an alternative to the staffroom when not teaching. The centre has also provided a space for “smaller, more intimate parents’ workshops”.

It is impossible to go into the room without instantly feeling different – more relaxed, comfortable and at home

For Evans, the wellbeing centre has become an important whole-school resource. He says: “It is impossible to go into the room without instantly feeling different – more relaxed, comfortable and at home. By also linking it to the head of wellbeing’s office and meeting room, it means the room is always staffed and anyone who visits can seek the support they need.

“It has provided a real centre and focus for wellbeing throughout the school and among the parent body too.”

wellbeing centre
The wellbeing centre at Edge Grove is a base for head of wellbeing, Sally Sharp

Heart of the school

DLD College London opened a wellbeing centre in September 2018. Visible from the central atrium area, the school wanted to demonstrate the importance it places on the wellbeing of students and staff. It’s at the ‘heart of the school’, for everyone to use.

It was built following a recommendation from Dick Moore from the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust after a wellbeing audit.

Irfan Latif, principal of DLD College London, says: “The wellbeing centre is managed by our head of wellbeing, Mark Johnson, who coordinates the proactive measures that the school employs, including the use of the AS (affective social) tracking pastoral assessment for all students.

“This type of data allows us to adopt strategies and measures to support students in a preventative and protective manner.”

Also available are counsellors, a school life coach and a school nurse who is trained in mental health.

Staff have been trained in PAPYRUS and ASIST, effective sleep and support of LGBTQ+ students.

The school is aiming for all staff to be Mental Health First Aid qualified in the next two years. Students and parents are also encouraged to train for the qualification, and it is a pre-requisite of being a student mentor to have this plus counselling, safeguarding and active listening training.

Has all of this worked? Considering ISI judged the personal development of students to be ‘Excellent’, the school achieved the commitment level for the London Healthy Workplace Charter for staff wellbeing, and was shortlisted for the ISP Independent School of the Year 2019 for Wellbeing, I think it’s safe to say it’s had an impact.

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DLD College London’s wellbeing centre can be seen from the central atrium – a deliberate design to highlight its importance

International success

The idea is even gaining traction overseas. Robert Ford, previously principal of Wyedean School near Chepstow, is now the director of Heritage International School in Moldova. Having established a successful student support centre at Wyedean, Ford led the opening of ‘The Oak Centre’ at Heritage in January.

It’s located in a wooden green ‘dacha’ – small house – that used to house a football museum for Zimbru FC.

Ford says: “As the first international school in Moldova with an innovative approach to learning and education aimed at holistically preparing young people for the challenges of the 21st century, we had the opportunity at Heritage to establish a student support centre on the model of what I set up in Wyedean.”

The Oak Centre is an open, light space made of wood, with a dedicated counselling room.

There is a space for independent study, a formal seating area (which can be used for meetings), kitchenette and bean bag corner. Students can visit without formal supervision, but there is CCTV. It is also connected to the school garden.

Ford says the success of the centre is evident in the way the students are using it: “They feel it is their place and they have ownership. Even the issues of key responsibility, e.g who washes up, what music to listen to, were all well-established from week one.

“Students have held meetings in here from the student council to counselling sessions. Some of the harder to reach students couldn’t believe the administration would trust them with such a wellbeing centre and their engagement in school is already noticeably different.

“We very sadly lost a classmate last year and in the spring the students plan to plant a tree to honour their friend. We are painting the outside in the spring with the flags of the over 20 nationalities that make up our international school.”

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Student involvement and a link to outdoor space is key to Heritage International School’s wellbeing centre

Proactive approach

I think one key takeaway from this is that independent schools need to be proactive in their wellbeing approach. I asked a handful of experts, who agree that schools shouldn’t wait for problems to arise.

Chris Forrest, trainer at CPOMS, which creates safeguarding software for schools, says the schools that do this best arrange regular discussions with students. “Whether they’re called ‘catch-ups’, ‘meetings’ or given the term ‘counselling’, these discussions allow safeguarding staff to establish a context for any other information received about students,” he says.

“If there are serious ongoing concerns about a student it can help ground a situation, and if there aren’t any pre-existing concerns it can either set the tone to consider any future incidents that may occur, or provide reassurance that a student’s wellbeing is in a good place.”

Neil Fairbrother from The SafeToNet Foundation, a charity focusing on safeguarding children digitally, says smartphones can be an issue for positive wellbeing.

He says: “The real issue is that smartphones are with children wherever the children are, in whichever spaces they are moving through during their day, at any time of day; with whoever they are with and accompanying whatever they are trying to do in the offline world.

“One of the most comprehensive research programmes on this topic was published in the Lancet and run by Prof Yvonne Kelly of UCL. This was based on the Millennium Cohort Study which gave Kelly access to 11,000 14-year-olds and which demonstrated causal pathways between social media use and depressive symptoms in teenagers.”

However, Fairbrother agrees safe spaces can help. He says: “In my view, creating physical and mental safe spaces is a fundamental requirement for schools, and this can only be done by proactive design.”

Jill Mead, managing director of TalkOut – a voice for mental health in the workplace – believes in early intervention.

“According to Action for Children, 75% of adult mental health problems start before a child is 18 years old, with anxiety, depression, self-harm and low self-esteem being the most common issues among young people. Early intervention is therefore crucial, and schools play a huge role in this,” Mead says.

“It may seem simple but providing regular opportunities for students to talk about their feelings will help to normalise their experiences and give them the confidence to talk about their mental health.

“A dedicated mental health professional within the school is also recommended to provide reactive support to students as and when they need it.”

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The Oak Centre at Heritage International School in Moldova

How to set up a wellbeing centre

Evans offers his advice to schools which want to set up a centre. “Think very carefully about where your wellbeing centre will be housed,” he says.

“It should be somewhere accessible, prominent but also quiet, comfortable and private if necessary. It must also be different in look and feel to other areas of the school so that it is seen as somewhere relaxing and special. Do pay attention to how it will be staffed and managed – a wellbeing centre which is either locked up or uncared for is quite pointless.”

Do pay attention to how it will be staffed and managed – a wellbeing centre which is either locked up or uncared for is quite pointless

For Ford, student involvement is key. “It has to be for the students and therefore their involvement in the project from the concept to the realisation is crucial if it is to work. The link to an outdoor space for better wellbeing is also important where possible,” he says.

Latif says you should evaluate what other schools are achieving and what can be achieved within budget.

He says: “It is important that the governors and the senior management of the school are fully engaged in the need for a wellbeing centre and the associated resources.”

So, wellbeing centres seem to have started appearing in the last two years. They usually consist of a mix of private rooms and open space, are bright, relaxed and comfortable, and are often looked after by the head of wellbeing. You do need to have available space, but a small area still works well.

The positive feedback from the schools speaks for itself, so I’d say they do work. Considering we all have somewhere in our homes where we like to relax – whether it’s the sofa or even the bathtub – why not have a similar space at school, where so much of pupils’ and teachers’ time is spent?

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