MLinsights_JULY2020

A flourishing student wellbeing model

The King David School was recently announced as a finalist in the Australian Education Awards for our outstanding student wellbeing program. While we will have to wait until the awards ceremony to find out if we will be crowned as the winner, being shortlisted is welcome recognition of a vital aspect of our educational offering and programming.

The significance of a flourishing student wellbeing model in delivering positive educational outcomes cannot be understated. Through fostering the key social and emotional skills emphasised in this space, the School is able to both better prepare our students to thrive in whatever environment they are in both inside and outside of school, and also to be in the best position to progress in their learning.

Our wellbeing programs focus on the delivery of explicit skills and curriculum. They provide opportunities for all our staff to model such skills and ideas implicitly through their language and pedagogical choices. They also allow students to practise application of these skills in safe environments designed to elicit growth in their social and emotional capacity.

Neuroscience and educational research emphasise that optimal brain-based learning occurs when a student feels safe and connected to their environment. Our focus on delivering a program that teaches emotional intelligence, friendship skills, mindfulness, resilience and positive communication strategies is helpful in maintaining this necessary calm and supportive environment.

While this is often understood from a social learning perspective, it is confirmed through an understanding of neurophysiology. Our brains are hardwired to respond rapidly to threats. The famous fight, flight, or freeze response is directed by the amygdala which responds rapidly by releasing the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. In so doing, the amygdala takes priority instead of the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus. This is important as the prefrontal cortex is responsible for executive functions including decision making and problem solving and the hippocampus is responsible for remembering details and thus connecting with prior learning. Through prioritising an amygdala-based emergency response, the brain bypasses the two areas of the brain most required for meaningful learning. An exacerbating factor is that humans are not always great at threat perception and commonly experience this fight, flight or freeze response in inappropriate circumstances. For instance, the increased heart rate, sweating and hyper-alertness to the environment that would be useful if confronted with a tiger or shark, is less so when participating in a science test.

US high school teacher, Daniel Vollrath, explains what this looks like in the context of a classroom: “At the end of a class, two students learn that they have received a poor grade on a science test. This is not a life-or-death situation like the approaching shark, but the physiological response is the same. The students’ cortisol levels are high and they are anxious, a state of mind that doesn’t support clear, conscious thinking. Upon entering their English class, the two students are visibly upset. One heads straight for their seat and begins to cry, while the other throws their book bag on the floor and punches the desk. For the teacher, recognizing these signs before beginning class is important.”

This is where teachers who have been trained in wellbeing and students with the requisite skillset in emotional intelligence can apply their strategies to calm down and refocus for learning. The School’s focus on practising daily mindfulness and on embedding the skills of our emotional intelligence-based RULER program are paramount in normalising such strategies.

The prominence of student wellbeing curriculum and programming is likely to grow as schools increasingly recognise their vital function in supporting holistic learning. We are immensely proud that our KDS approach has gained such a positive reputation as we are certain that this is beneficial for all of our students.