An Abu Dhabi school has won international recognition for its enterprising efforts to support the mental health of its pupils during the Covid-19 pandemic and beyond.
Staff at Aspen Heights British School in Abu Dhabi were eager to ensure children never felt alone even when measures in place to stem the spread of the virus meant they had to learn at a distance.
The school received the School Mental Health Award from the Carnegie Centre of Excellence for Mental Health in Schools, part of Leeds Beckett University in the UK.
The silver standard certification was awarded to the school for its approach to addressing mental health problems in its community.
“We recognise that particularly during the pandemic, the connection of our community was under strain because we couldn't be together,” said Emma Shanahan, principal of Aspen Heights British School.
“We anticipated that our oldest pupils felt the most disconnected during the pandemic. The younger children assimilated back into school with their friends but teenagers years are a challenging time, where children can withdraw.”
Schools are now returning to a long-awaited sense of normality, with classrooms full again as infection rates fall and safety restrictions ease.
But staff at the school are well aware that the well-being of pupils remains paramount.
The school’s mental health programme includes social and emotional learning classes, a well-being hub for secondary pupils, yoga sessions for families and calming corners for children who are anxious.
At the end of every day, all classes spend 20 minutes in a well-being session with their teachers.
The school has also adopted two hens, three tortoises, four kittens, 10 giant snails, a hamster and two fish tanks for pupils to engage with.
Ms Shanahan said she was happy that families were engaging in conversations on mental health.
“We were very proactive during the pandemic to pre-empt that feeling of disconnection by maintaining a daily connection with teachers and circle times with classes and interactive games,” she said.
“We also had community events online, but it could not replicate the face-to-face human connection.”
The school applied for the mental health award and had to participate in a year-long programme in which they committed to meeting and maintaining all the requirements. While they initially aimed to receive a bronze certificate, they were awarded the silver instead.
Pet project pays off
Redah Khan, the school's counsellor, explained the benefits of having their own animal kingdom on site as well as a well-being hub.
“We've got little kittens that children are always petting and that's quite therapeutic in itself to engage with animals,” said Ms Khan.
“Anyone who is having a hard time can come in to the well-being hub, they get a pass from the teacher and sit there, read, recollect their thoughts and then go back.”
School said the institution focuses on the mental health of everyone associated with it.
“We realise that focusing on the well-being of the community is really important. No child's well-being is in isolation of the well-being of their family or the school staff,” said Ms Khan.
The school organised a workshop during which they addressed parents on how they could spot signs of mental health decline in their children and another on stress management, which focused on making sure parents did not pass on their anxieties to their children.
The school also has themed assemblies, social media posts and a weekly newsletter with a well-being section.
Making the step up to secondary school
“We do have a very comprehensive transition programme for our year six pupils who are moving into secondary school and I'm really proud of that,” Ms Khan said.
“Children are able to visit the secondary school before they start and we talk to the parents about what to expect and skills they need to be teaching their kids that will help them.”
The school has started social-emotional learning lessons for pupils.
“For years four to six, when kids have returned post pandemic, we've seen some regression in terms of social emotional skills and development,” Ms Khan said.
“And so we're trying to tackle that by giving them lessons about how to deal with different types of conflicts that occur in school and how to resolve conflicts, how to de-escalate situations, how to manage their feelings.
“I'm really pleased to witness a shift in mindset in the children who have received these lessons.”
Pupils encouraged to speak up
Keira, 15, a year 10 pupil at the school from the Philippines, said counselling sessions at school helped her handle burnout and stress.
“It helped because there was this time during the pandemic where people were getting stressed over everything,” she said.
“I overworked myself and found I really was getting burnt out. So I asked if I could go for counselling to adjust with what was happening around the world, which really helped.”
The award was established in 2017 by the Carnegie Centre of Excellence for Mental Health in Schools, part of Leeds Beckett University, and by social enterprise Minds Ahead.
The Carnegie Centre of Excellence for Mental Health in Schools aims to strengthen pupils’ mental health by supporting schools to make a positive change at all levels.
Dr Steve Burton, interim dean of Leeds Beckett’s Carnegie School of Education, said: “Achieving this award is not just recognition of a whole-school approach to mental health, it’s a recognition of the school’s commitment to improving the life chances of children and engaging with the wider community including staff and parents/carers.”