Looking after our Wellbeing in the New Year
Term 4 can be a challenge for both students and teachers. The October holiday seems to have already receded into the distant past and the long summer break is too far away to look forward to. Schools also tend to try and fit a whole term’s worth of activities into only eight weeks, which adds to the frenetic pace and can make people feel overwhelmed.
I read an article recently by Dr Tim Sharp, regarding how we can look after ourselves outside school. Although he was writing the piece to advise teachers on how to care for their own wellbeing, it struck me that his sensible advice also actually applies to students, parents and everybody else.
He wrote first about the symptoms which can show that our wellbeing is suffering – generalised aches and pains, headaches, changes in appetite and sleep, as well as pessimism, withdrawal or isolation. It was noticeable that the advice which followed aligned closely with most of the research I’ve read recently on wellbeing – that it can’t be provided by others, but the strategies to increase it can be learnt. This is why we put such an emphasis on wellbeing at Carmel School – to teach our students what they can do to take charge of their own wellbeing and be proactive in helping look after themselves.
Every day at school, I hear conversations between educators and young people that are examples of explicit teaching of strategies to enhance wellbeing. I see this in classrooms, in the playground, in offices, on the oval. I watch educators teach older students how to organise their workload and study little and often, to avoid becoming overwhelmed and having to rush to complete work at the last minute. I hear discussions with younger students about friendship fires, including others and being kind, to help them understand empathy, inclusion and kindness. I see mentor sessions teaching ideas of growth mindset and mindfulness and resilience. And sometimes parents ask why we spend time on these things. “My daughter doesn’t want to waste time talking about her feelings”; “I don’t want my son having to listen to how to deal with nastiness in his peer group – I just want them punished”, not understanding that we are teaching strategies which they will use long after they leave school.
The young people with whom we work often don’t recognise the ways we are teaching them to look after their own wellbeing and sometimes think that the best way to deal with challenges would be to avoid or remove them. I understand that this is probably because prioritising your own mental health and wellbeing outside school (or work) is not easy. It is, however, possible and so very important.
The strategies that Dr Sharp recommends are not new, nor are they particularly technical. Indeed, some people will read the list below, roll their eyes and state that they have neither the time nor the inclination to include these things in their busy lives. I maintain that if these are necessary to keep us healthy and functioning effectively, then we don’t have time to not invest effort into at least trying to achieve some of them.
His list includes taking regular exercise, eating a healthy diet and getting enough sleep. He also writes about getting out into nature and connecting with family and friends. I liked the way he recognised that this will by necessity involve small changes, one step at a time. He wrote that “Too often, too many of us are black and white, thinking if we can’t do ‘everything’ we think we ‘should’ do then there’s no point doing anything. But every little bit counts; even if those little bits are imperfect. So, start where you can and do whatever you’re able to; then, if or when possible, build from there”.
Dr Sharp was also very pragmatic in terms of explicitly recognising that things will inevitably go wrong in life, so it’s important to have realistic expectations and keep things in perspective. His final piece of advice was that reaching out and asking for help from a colleague or friend means we don’t have to deal with life’s challenges alone.
As the new year starts, perhaps now is a good time to consider whether there is anything on Dr Sharp’s list that we could improve in our own lives and those of our children. When could we fit an extra walk in each day? As parents, how can we set things up for our children to be more active and spend less time on their phone or laptop? How can we encourage our children to spend more time face to face with friends outside school? What healthy foods could we include in our lunchboxes and those of our children?
For me, I’m going to try to add five minutes extra on to my dog walk before school in the morning and make the effort to pack myself a decent lunch to bring to work. I might have to also think about breaking the bad holiday habit of watching bedtime episodes of ‘Alone’ on Netflix and revert instead to reading myself to sleep. At Carmel, we shall continue the many ways in which we teach wellbeing strategies. Maybe your shabbat dinner table conversation at home this week could include a discussion of the ways you and your family can proactively optimise your wellbeing as we start the new year.
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