Laura Anthony, Learning Manager Coaching & Mentoring and Mental Health Lead, Hertfordshire & Essex High School and Science College, describes how this approach to wellbeing led to special arrangements for anxious GCSE students becoming unnecessary
Back in January 2017, our school had a Leading Edge article published on how coaching had contributed to success and wellbeing within our school community. Towards the end of it, I explained how while retaining our traditional goal-orientated GROW coaching model, we had also begun working from an understanding that we called ‘inside-out’ coaching. Two-and-a-half years on, we believe it’s a journey worth sharing.
Our GROW (goals, reality, obstacles/options, way forward/will) model, facilitated by coaches made up of both teaching and support staff, still offers a wonderful opportunity for anyone in our school community to self-refer. This is an integral part of the wellbeing support on offer in our school. In line with many other schools, we realised that we were moving towards a perfect storm of threats to wellbeing, and our own effective early intervention and prevention would be a key determinant of our success in supporting our young peoples’ wellbeing and mental health. With the guidance and knowledge of one of our younger coaches, who had been working with practitioners in the United States, (where ‘inside-out’ understanding is improving inner-city communities, education, the justice system and psychiatry to name just a few), our journey began.
An understanding, not a strategy
First and foremost, ‘inside-out’ is an understanding – there are no strategies to learn, there is no curriculum to follow, but instead discussion-based interactions point towards how we work as human beings. The main premise is that we can only experience life via our thinking. Gleason (2017:21) states: “Thought is behind all our experience. Without thought we cannot have an experience.” This concept is not new and holds parity with the philosophical outlook exemplified by a number of the stoics – Marcus Aurelius advised: “all is as thinking makes it so”. Moreover, thought is seen as transitory, an illusion that has no substance beyond the capacity and energy we choose to give it to keep it alive. It is not a permanent truth. Put simply, everyone has the capacity for health, wellbeing, wisdom and common sense and it is only our thinking that at times can prevent us from seeing this. Allowing the mind to settle allows the innate gift of natural thought to come through. Kelley (2016:66) states that this is: “… the intelligent, responsive, effortless way that the human mind is designed to think.”
It so happened that my own research to complete a Master’s degree on the work we were undertaking focused on the much-touted concepts of resilience and wellbeing. While divided opinion still exists, the 50 or so years of research that have since developed in the field of resilience have led to a general consensus that a self-righting ability is innate within us all, the ‘ordinary magic’ that Masten (2015:8) so eloquently refers to. Similarly, as I read around the thinking relating to wellbeing, I was struck by the regularity with which the concept of happiness, as part of our essential nature, shone through. Neill (2013:59) voices it as our “…original grace”, while Martin Seligman (2012:40), who led the positive psychology movement over many years, similarly suggests that wellbeing is the “…positive strength of ‘seeing into the soul’, nurturing it and letting it be the buffer against the ills that will ensue.”
As we began working with our first group of volunteer year 11 students, we wondered whether our young people would be able to quieten enough to reconnect with their inner wisdom or common sense (whatever we choose to call it). When we pointed towards experiences from a ‘have you ever noticed….’ point of view, they fed back remarkable changes to us over the ensuing months that demonstrated huge potential.
In my 10 years of supporting this year group through their GCSEs, for the very first time the exams team and I did not have to discuss making any special arrangements for anxious students. Nobody crashed out and some students involved even exceeded their target grades (!). In fact, the general calmness within that whole year group as we headed up to and through exams was palpable, and we suspected that this was due to our group sharing with their friends what they were seeing differently in their own lives. We had students tell us that their family relationships were much easier, anxiety and stress levels had lessened, and that they were ‘feeling lighter’.
Students told us that their family relationships were so much easier, anxiety and stress levels had lessened, and that they were in the words of many of them, ‘feeling lighter’
Thinking creates reality for students
Three years on, our experience has been that most of our students, as they begin to truly see for themselves that their thinking creates their reality, experience insights that bring deep, permanent shifts in their understanding. From this point on, they are only ever one thought away from everything changing. This is the knockout – nothing in their outside world has to change for everything to change.
The data from my Master’s action research study added further depth to our work and evaluations. While this is hugely limited, it offers an interesting insight into the journeys students and staff have undergone. The past three years have given us many transformational examples (and I do not use the word lightly). This work forms the core intervention in our main Annual Development Plan focus this year on ‘creating a mentally healthy community for students and staff’. We continue to build our shared work in partnership with a not-for-profit community interest company, Mental Wellbeing in Schools. We work closely with them to deliver this understanding to other local schools, and our wider community, for example through parental workshops. The breadth and makeup of this work has led to the Gold Award for Mental Health in Schools from Leeds Beckett University.
There is an interesting aside as to how mental health is currently being perceived. Professor Peter Kinderman, the outgoing president of the British Psychological Society last year, issued in the summer of 2018 a new manifesto. He, along with other eminent colleagues, suggested that mental health problems are fundamentally social and psychological issues. Thus, instead of labelling people, we should be talking to them about their problems. It goes without saying that this is being forcefully rebuffed by many professionals in the field and pharmaceutical companies.
Rethinking this issue on such a scale gives us hope for the future. I am not suggesting that our work is a guarantee of an amazing or even a quiet life – we are human, we have our ups and our downs. But understanding that thought is transitory means that we do not get stuck. As Vernon (2008:6) argues, it is “about the search for the good in life”. And, slowly, we are moving in the right direction.
Gleason, M. (2017) ‘One Thought Changes Everything’ (self-published – Amazon)
Kelly, T. (2016) ‘How Good Can You Stand It: Flourishing Mental Health through Understanding the Three Principles’ Bloomington: Authorhouse
Kinderman, P. (2014) ‘A Prescription for Psychiatry’ Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan
Masten, A. (2015) ‘Ordinary Magic: Resilience in Development’ New York: The Guildford Press
Seligman, M. (2012) ‘The Epidemic of Depression Among American Youth’ The Carter Centre: disseminated by National Resilience Resource Centre www.nationalresilienceresource.com/research.html