Five key emotional wellbeing points to consider when choosing a school for your child

It can be a daunting experience choosing a school for your child.  Your child has every right to feel safe not just physically but emotionally too.  Here are a few points, compiled in collaboration with parents with children currently at or have been through the school system.  We focus here on emotional wellbeing, meaning how we think, feel and act on our emotions. Good emotional wellbeing enables us to cope with life’s challenges, bounce back from set-backs, socialise with ease, be comfortable with who we are and those around us.

Whole school approach - Is emotional wellbeing of staff, students and parents a priority of the head teacher?  It’s important for an emotional healthy school to involve the whole school community – students, staff and parents.  Stressed teachers cannot ‘pour from an empty cup’.  If staff feel emotionally supported, they are in a good place to ensure optimal emotional wellbeing of students.  Ask how many staff are trained in mental health first aid to support both staff and students.  Has the school any mental health awards or are working towards this?  Are there any parenting skills workshops offered?  Is there a welcome, open door policy for parents to be included in discussions or concerns they or teachers may have about a child?  Does the school have any mental health information on their website or any wellbeing tips in school newsletters?  If a child disclosed an issue regarding their mental health, at what point would you contact the parents to see how things were at home?

  • Attitudes to behaviour - Children express emotion through their behaviour.  As adults it is helpful to seek out the emotional behind their behaviour – what is the child trying to communicate through their behaviour?  How does the school address bullying in terms of supporting the victim and the bully?  If a child was struggling to engage at school, being ‘naughty’, not attending, disruptive, how would the school work through and resolve this to the child’s satisfaction so that they were happy to attend school and learn?   Are students encouraged to openly talk about their feelings and emotions without fear of stigma and being ridiculed? 
  • Children learn resilience by making mistakes and problem solving.  Learning through creativity, ‘having a go’ and being allowed to fail and try again, builds confidence.  Ask teachers how they go about building confidence and support students who may struggle with self-belief in the classroom.  Do they give space, time and encouragement for students to work through problems?  Is there extra support available if a child is struggling with their self-esteem?
  • Physical activities - Physical activity is a tonic for emotional wellbeing, helps us thrive and cope with daily challenges.  Exercise boosts the brain to release  ‘happy chemicals’ (endorphins) - it really is energising!  When looking at schools ask how many sessions of physical activity are offered during the school day.  Are there a variety of extra curricula activities offered after school and how does the school ensure all students are encouraged to access these?  In primary schools, ask how the playground is supervised? Is there a buddy system or something in place to ensure all are included?
  • Food and Nutrition - Our bodies need to be well fuelled and hydrated for optimal emotional wellbeing.  Water is particularly important to prevent fatigue and sluggishness.  Does the school really embrace a healthy eating culture and ensure students have access to water during the school day?  Another important topic is how schools support students with eating disorders.  If you have a child that has an eating disorder or issues around food, ask the school what options are available to them around meal times at school.  Some children may find it a struggle to eat in front of others or find the whole dining hall experience extremely daunting.   This is a great opportunity to sound out the schools’ openness to talk about mental health issues and find out what support they have in place for students who may be struggling emotionally.  
  • Social skills – Schools are social places this can be exciting for some but excruciatingly painful for others.  Connecting and forming good relationships with other people is essential for our emotional wellbeing.   Does the school have a mentoring system whereby older students are encouraged to look out for and engage those younger?  Does the school offer guidance on social media etiquette? Do they address issues such as cyber bullying?  Are students encouraged to speak out about mental health issues?  Transitioning from primary to secondary school (or indeed changing school at any time) can be a socially challenging time for young people.  Ask if there are any ‘icebreaking’ activities that can help new students to settle and feel included, particularly if you know your child may find this hard.

Here are some extra questions you may want to ask:

  • Why is emotional wellbeing important to you?  
  • What are the school’s strengths and weaknesses?
  • Who is responsible for students’ emotional wellbeing and how do I contact them if I’m worried about something? 
  • How do you balance emotional wellbeing with academic achievement?
  • How do you show young people and their parents that they are a valued member of the school?
  • If I came into school to explain that my child seemed to be struggling (such as frequent meltdowns when they got home) - but they were not communicating this in school - what would you do? 
  • What would your first thoughts be, and what would you do, if my child’s behaviour was disrupting your lesson?