Saturday, 21 June 2014

Why teaching and learning through health and wellbeing makes sense

I am going back to my roots today. I am a teacher, although the term educator is probably more apt, and I have also specialised in the health and wellbeing field for a number of years. It is from this place that a lot of what I have been writing about this year comes from.

Health and wellbeing are essential for learning. Having respectful relationships, managing ourselves and so much more... if we want more pleasant people in our communities it might pay to check that their needs are being met first!

WHO has the following definition "Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity." For me this means that it is vital to address health within any teaching and learning situation, it is about social justice and providing opportunities for all to develop to their fullest potential. 

However it would seem that this isn't always as highly valued in the discourse about education, at least in the media. Perhaps it is because the outcomes that we seek are not easily measured or reported in quantifiable terms, to see the results we need to look at the whole person and how they develop over time and in different settings. Perhaps it is because those big outcomes we look for are things that need a multifaceted approach, not just what happens in school hours, our learning in health is happening all the time. If we think about health concerns like obesity, bullying and behavioural issues we are looking at a radical change and that doesn't happen overnight or at the end of a two week unit before we move into the next thing. Health and wellbeing of our learners are a concern for the whole community, not just the school, but when looking at teaching and learning I advocate for health as an important curriculum subject and even moreso for wellbeing as a lens through which we teach (I know that we are all passionate about various subject areas and a literacy teacher may well advocate that literacy should be the lens but please read on...) so it is present in our thinking throughout our planning, delivery and evaluation processes.

Happy, healthy, resilient people learn better 

Like many folk I believe that happy, healthy, resilient people learn better and having a wellbeing lens in place will support us to help our learners improve these aspects.

Firstly, if our basic needs are not being met then our brains are not operating to their full potential. It is said that what is needed for a healthy body is also needed for a healthy brain and if you think about it that largely makes good sense. If we are underfed or poorly fed then our brain is not getting the fuel it needs to help build the neurotransmitters required. Sleep, among other needs, is also part of the recipe for neurotransmitter production. Serotonin and dopamine are essential for emotional regulation and memory, both useful in learning, so if we do not have enough of these we are on the back foot.
When we feel unsafe we often work from a hypervigilant perspective, on alert looking out for potential threats, therefore less able to access those higher functions for deep learning and securing memory.
So addressing basic needs in teaching and learning environments as much as we are able (and I know this is hugely challenging in some areas) then the better prepared the brain is for learning.

Emotional intelligence and self awareness are essential for managing ourselves and developing positive relationships with others. When we are able to identify and name our feelings we are better able to cope with them so we can then move on or get support. It means we will not expend energy and thinking time unnecessarily allowing us the opportunity to focus on the learning at hand. Having healthy ways to cope with negative emotions and stress is one tool which contributes to positive resilience.

I have been reading Dan Siegel's book, Brainstorm and another thing that a health and wellbeing focus provides our young learners with are skills to support prefrontal integration. Developing healthy patterns of behaviour like mindfulness help us navigate through the potential risks of adolescence and encourage the ability to focus on individual tasks.

We are preparing our children for an uncertain future... we do not really know what they will face or what skills they will need but it is likely that interpersonal skills, coping with change, being aware of one's own thinking (metacognition), managing ourselves and critical literacy (questioning what we are being told through varied media) will all be vital going forward. With a wellbeing mindset we can ensure that these things are being catered for within our teaching and learning programmes.

Some implications 

The list above is not an exhaustive list, there are many possible benefits for learning if we adopt a health and wellbeing lens. As you will see in the diagrams used happy, healthy and resilient behaviours and qualities are interdependent and interrelated.

As teachers we need to have mental headspace and time to ask ourselves, or the learners themselves, some of the following questions:

  • "what is happening right now for this individual?"
  • "what is the most important need for them?" 
  • "what can I do to help/support this person so they are better able to learn?"

We need awareness so we can support and guide those who need it.

It may be that their basic needs are not being addressed fully, perhaps there is something going on at home that is really distressing. As teachers (in any setting) we cannot control the external environment our learners come from however if we have an understanding we may be able to provide support to bolster aspects of wellbeing that will enable them to get more from the learning opportunity than they would if we did nothing.
If there is something we can do to improve outcomes and opportunities then in the interest of social justice we need to be able to do it.

None of what I am saying is necessarily easy. Nor is it confined to teaching and learning in schools. We have learners in tertiary institutions, we have learners in the workplace, we may have people who are studying in our home (like our children for example), we may belong to a community group where people are engaged in learning... in all these settings and more, supporting these learners through the lens of wellbeing will help them to get more out of the learning opportunities they are presented with.

As stated earlier, there is good reason to support the wellbeing of our learners, and I believe long term it may help make our communities healthier, happier, stronger places for us to live. 

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