Developing an emotional health initiative for all
by Rachel Higgins and Nadine de Mascarel
GEMS Jumeirah Primary School in the United Arab Emirates won the wellbeing initiative at last year’s International School Awards. Here Rachel Higgins and Nadine de Macarel describe their successful positive education programme.
There were two motivations behind our wellbeing initiative. GEMS Jumeirah Primary School is very much part of Dubai’s international context; for many members of the school community, this means living away from our extended families. In addition, we had become increasingly aware of evidence-based research within the field of positive education.
Jumeirah Primary School has always had an ethos of inclusion, community and positive relationships, but, as a result of our increased understanding, we identified a need to integrate emotional health more explicitly into every aspect of our school. During the 2017–2018 academic year, we decided to introduce a whole school wellbeing programme with a model that supported children, parents, staff and the community.
Live, learn, teach and embed
We began by creating a model to guide us. It followed the PERMA model, which focuses on positive psychology, and adapted to our existing school ethos. The six domains of this model are positive emotions, positive health, positive relationships, positive achievement, positive balance and positive community. Our implementation planning was based on the best practice recommendations of learn it, live it, teach it and embed it.
We initially started by training our staff through CPD, focusing on nurturing their own wellbeing based on the positive psychology model of ‘flourishing’. Alongside this, we shared with staff the scientific validity of teaching wellbeing to students, encouraging them to embed this into their classroom environments.
We created a positive education curriculum for our students, presenting whole school topics to the children every half term. Themes included self-awareness and self-control, cultivating optimism, balancing screen time, friendship skills, making positive choices, and ‘we are change makers’. These themes were taught – and continue to be taught – weekly in class, as well as in assembly, and are embedded into lessons throughout the school day.
As a result of our wellbeing discussions around these themes, many of our students have been inspired to implement their own successful initiatives. For example, following the topic on friendships, a group of children decided to set up an anti-bullying council. They produced a bullying ‘worry box’ and were given an anti-bullying bulletin board to share messages with the rest of the school community.
Each school year, we now appoint two student wellbeing leaders. Students wishing to be considered for this role present their ideas and a selection is made based on the proposals. Our student wellbeing leaders work closely with the wellbeing department to ensure their initiative is supported and implemented, and that students’ perspectives are considered within all wellbeing initiatives. One example of a student-led initiative was a healthy lunch box club, where children can share and prepare their favourite healthy lunch box recipes during break time.
For parents, we initiated a series of ‘positive education’ talks hosting presentations and discussions on the importance of self-awareness and self-control and balancing screen time.
In staff training, we shared our vision of focusing on positives and strengths when working with children and when interacting with parents and staff. This training included the importance of differentiating learning based on students’ preferred learning styles.
Measuring well-being progress
We measure the impact of our wellbeing initiatives through surveys, scales and feedback from different stakeholders.
Our wellbeing initiative has had an impact on our students and their feelings of happiness and engagement, in both their relationships and their learning. During the November of our first year of implementation (2017), all 171 Year 6 students participated in the Dubai student wellbeing census with 64,000 other students in the region. 96% of our students reported medium to high levels of happiness (compared to 84% in the whole of Dubai), 99% felt safe at school (compared to 89% in Dubai), 96% felt optimistic (87% in Dubai) and 95% enjoyed the school climate (79% in Dubai).
Our parents also regularly report positive feedback, which we track. One parent of two children reported that he had noticed how the Principal's weekly letters talk about the wellbeing work being implemented: “I love reading about this!" he said. Other parents have commented on the school atmosphere, where student wellbeing is evident, and this has even impacted the choice of the school by some new families.
Since its implementation, our staff wellbeing initiative has been tracked using the PERMAH workplace survey. This is a positive, psychology-based questionnaire measuring wellbeing at work. The results of this helped us to see that staff were scoring high on some criteria, including meaning, positive relationships and engagement, but lower on health. Consequently, we implemented a choice of healthy CPD options for staff, including yoga, cardio tennis, Zumba and healthy cooking challenges. The staff gave positive feedback on the healthy living CPD (generating a 99% satisfaction rate) and asked for more.
Teacher retention rates are now at an all-time high, with staff turnover showing a downward trend over the past three years.
All combined, it resulted in a positive impact on the wellbeing of the entire school community.
To ensure long-term success of our well-being initiative, additional funding was allocated to hire an additional staff member, taking our wellbeing team to three part-time psychologists.
All our psychologists are as passionate about promoting whole school wellbeing as they are at responding to the individual needs of students, staff and parents.
The leadership team is also fully committed to the implementation of our initiative; allocating wellbeing CPD time for staff as well as allocating funding, integrating wellbeing into the curriculum and communicating to parents about our whole school topics.
Dubai is a city of many cultures, nationalities and religions, so the pursuit of wellbeing for the entire school community is an inspiring common ground for our students, staff and parents. This shared goal unites us and nourishes our personal need for purpose, engagement and positive relationships.
Rachel Higgins is Principal and CEO and Nadine de Mascarel is Head of Wellbeing at GEMS Jumeriah Primary School in Dubai www.jumeirahprimaryschool.com. You can learn more about the PERMAH model and workplace survey at www.permahsurvey.com
Nadine de Macarel