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Student wellbeing: Caring for the whole girl

Beth Oakley Caring for the Whole Girl article 

Schools exist to educate. But learning how to do calculus or gaining an appreciation for Shakespeare is only part of the story; there are also social and emotional capabilities to consider. As educators, policy makers, researchers and parents agree, schools have a significant role in this area too.

Research shows that girls’ inner emotional lives have a marked impact on how well they learn and that the better a person’s social-emotional learning (SEL), the greater the likelihood they will succeed in school and in life. Studies have also shown that feeling connected to school is strongly connected with academic success, positive behaviour and wellbeing, whereas feeling chronically disengaged from school is linked to a number of high-risk behaviours. For these reasons we put a great emphasis on Pastoral Care at Wenona.

Our approach is two-pronged. We run structured SEL programs focusing on self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making. But in addition to this, all staff have a responsibility to contribute to a school environment that models and nurtures caring relationships, and to get to know and understand the needs, passions and potential of the students. Genuine, caring connections with adults who have an interest in each girl’s progress can make a huge difference.

The degree to which students feel engaged with school pivots on their daily interactions and relationships with peers and teachers. Our shared values, expectations, and the way we live and relate to one another as colleagues, peers, parents, adult to adult, adult to student, student to student, form the foundation of our unique school culture. Unsurprisingly, one of the things that keeps students feeling enthusiastic about school is receiving emotional reinforcement for doing good work and making positive contributions.

For both teachers and students the challenge is to recognise the gold that lies within the ordinary each day, valuing the small shared moments and creating space to be truly present.

One of the hurdles to being present is the lure of social media and mobile apps. Young and older people alike are often absorbed by Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook, music and other diversions offered by our devices. But there are many benefits to both cognitive function and general wellbeing benefits that come from stillness and silence. Are we at risk of losing the art of stillness and the skills and self-discipline necessary for a deeper level of self-reflection and self-awareness? It is questions like this our Pastoral Care team considers as we explore ways to enhance our girls’ engagement and connectedness, including providing opportunities for them to learn to be present with themselves without distraction. Encouraging this capacity for reflection and self-awareness promotes self-confidence and a stronger sense of identity, building all-important resilience.

The team members also continue our own professional learning, exploring evidence-based practices in the delivery of our programs. As part of my Masters of Education (Student Wellbeing) through the University of Melbourne, I recently completed a study which confirmed the value Wenona girls place on Pastoral Care within the School: overwhelmingly, students expressed their appreciation of the opportunity to build relationships with their Pastoral Care and class teachers and their enjoyment of both formal and informal Pastoral Care activities and discussions.