With mental health problems on the rise in classrooms worldwide, how are Singapore's international schools focusing on student wellbeing and happiness? How are they putting emotional wellbeing at the heart of the school curriculum to ensure that your child is 'happy'?
Parents are looking for schools to focus on student wellbeing; 66% of admissions staff surveyed across Europe, the Middle East, East and South East Asia said that wellbeing support provided by a school is now considered a “very important” factor during school selection, according to a survey published by ISC Research in February 2021.
A 2018 World Health Organisation report found that up to 20% of adolescents experience mental health conditions, and half of all mental health conditions start by 14 years of age but most cases are undetected and untreated. And a recent survey carried out by The Key, a support service for schools in the UK, found that eight out of 10 primary school teachers reported their students suffering from increased mental health issues around the time of their exams.
It is clear that the pressures of the modern world are weighing heavily on the young shoulders of students today – and wellbeing initiatives are now an essential rather than optional aspect of any curriculum.
There's no one single way for schools to deliver an education with mental health at its heart, and it takes a combination of leadership, teachers, curriculum, support staff, training and parents to deliver a “whole-school” approach to wellbeing. Wellbeing needs to be more than a weekly yoga or mindfulness class, or the occasional wellbeing day, and we are seeing it move towards the top of the agenda within many international schools in Singapore.
There are plenty of international schools in Singapore with a big heart, where wellbeing initiatives run through classrooms and corridors to promote student (and teacher) happiness. We've seen an increase in pastoral leaders and counsellors, homegrown wellbeing programmes, and annual events. The examples below highlight the wide variety of ways that schools are promoting emotional health and wellbeing in their daily teaching and pastoral care.
The school group GIIS runs a mental health helpline for students at its GIIS SMART Campus, which provides confidential counselling to students who reach out for help. International Community School (Singapore) has expanded its counselling department with a dedicated social-emotional counsellor for its middle school and high school. Tanglin Trust School has friendship captains in every class, Wellbeing Diaries with daily tasks such as mindfulness colouring and acts of kindness, and student leadership roles including Wellbeing Warriors. GESS has The Buddy Bench which encourages students to reach out to others in need of friendship, while Sir Manaseeh Meyer International School has its own Mensch (Yiddish word meaning person of integrity) bench to encourage student friendship.
There's a huge culture of kindness at One World International School (OWIS) where there are Kindness Trees, made up of students’ handprints nominated by fellow students or teachers for demonstrating acts of kindness. Its student council has evolved into The Kindness Council, the school has an entry in the Singapore Book of Records for completing the country's biggest felt heart, and in 2021 the school community recorded 5,000-plus random acts of kindness within just a fortnight.
And the International French School (IFS) has created an anti-bullying cell with a team of adults trained in the anti-bullying method “shared-concern”, which intervenes to support students who are targets or witnesses to bullying. In 2020-21, the school says that the cell handled 16 cases of bullying and, in all 16 cases, the bullying stopped.
St Joseph's Institution (International), Australian International School (AIS) and Tanglin Trust School are among those schools in Singapore to follow a global trend for introducing Positive Education to the classroom. Developed by one of the world's leading researchers in positive psychology, Martin Seligman (and originating in Australia), this learning model combines the science of positive psychology with traditional teaching methods.
It aspires to make children more resilient, creative, productive, successful, and healthy by focusing on the student’s Character Strengths – the positive traits that form their personality. Dr Seligman has identified 24 Character Strengths, which are are divided into six Virtues including wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence.
Tanglin has trained teachers at The Institute of Positive Education in Australia and adapted the Positive Education model to suit the age groups across its three schools. For example, in the Infant School, teachers will refer to Character Strengths in their feedback to students by saying, "You showed excellent resilience when solving a word problem, rather than saying something vague like 'good job'."
In the Senior School, the Lifeskills curriculum focuses on students’ Character Strengths and how these can help them transition into adulthood and become global citizens. In Year 7, at the start of Senior School, Tanglin has launched a Character Strengths Day where students are encouraged to use all 24 strengths.
Clare Butler, Tanglin's Head of Senior Lifeskills, said:
"Each child made a flag to represent themselves and their top strength, which created some bunting, which was then displayed in form rooms; this remains there for the rest of the year. All students and teachers were given a badge with their top strength on it to permanently wear on their uniform; the badges can really prompt conversations if two students share the same strength."
At both AIS and Tanglin, teachers and students complete the Values in Action (VIA) Character Strengths Survey designed by Martin Seligman to identify their key strengths. Year 6 students at AIS, for example, take the survey and then work with their class teacher on how they can use their character strengths to achieve their academic and personal goals for the year; so, a student with curiosity as their strength can set themselves a goal to use “curiosity to explore learning in science more deeply”.
SJI (International) has designed its own Character Education programme around Seligman's five Virtues. A Virtue of the Week is introduced every Monday, students then set personal goals for the week with that virtue in mind, and a Virtue Ceremony is held every Friday to celebrate how students have used that virtue throughout the week. the school also holds an annual Virtues Superhero Day and invites parents to Virtues coffee mornings.
With mental health problems on the rise in classrooms worldwide, schools are adding regular events to their calendars to focus on student wellbeing and happiness
Stamford American International School (SAIS), Singapore, Brighton College (Singapore) and Australian International School (AIS) switch the focus to student wellbeing every year for a day. The three campuses join more than 70 other Cognita-owned schools to celebrate the group’s Global Be Well Day, as part of an ongoing campaign to improve young people’s mental health and wellbeing.
You can expect morning yoga, talks for staff and parents on wellbeing and resilience, non-invasive basic health checks, InBody scale machine tests and chiropractor assessments. Early years students make fruit salad and smoothies, and students in primary and secondary learnt about a healthy balanced diet, hygiene, sleep and screen time.
At Nexus there’s an annual Are You Okay? mental health awareness week that’s run by a student council group. And Tanglin Trust School holds an Impact Day at the start of every academic year, which explores themes such as Rights Respecting and mental health.
International schools have the resources and the freedom to adopt global practices needed to fully embrace wellbeing as a core part of their curriculum.
Tanglin Trust School’s focus on promoting wellbeing as part of day-to-day school life has included developing its own version of the UK's Personal, Social, and Health and Economic (PSHE) education – called the Lifeskills curriculum. It has also expanded its ParentWise programme and hosted more than 60 live and online courses, information sessions and workshops covering four main themes: Educational and Curriculum Support, Parent and Student Wellbeing, Hot Button Topics and Inspirational Speakers.is a strong example.
This all-through school has also been awarded the Wellbeing Award for Schools (WAS) by the National Children’s Bureau in the UK for its commitment to promoting positive mental health and wellbeing across the school community. It is also the first non-UK school to receive the Gold Rights Respecting Schools Award (RRSA), run by UNICEF to raise awareness of the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child. While both awards are well-known in the UK, they are less well-known internationally – but they have both guided Tanglin’s six-year journey to embed positive education principles across its curricula through age-appropriate wellbeing initiatives.
The RRSA has encouraged Tanglin Junior School to place a discussion of the 54 Rights in the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child at the heart of its curriculum.
Tanglin's RRSA coordinator, Cameron Davidson said:
"The RRSA initiative is an excellent framework for educating children on their rights. The award provides so many relevant learning opportunities, sparks interest in global issues and, most importantly, empowers children to enjoy and exercise their rights; lead happy, healthy lives; and be responsible, active citizens.
British schools in Singapore are addressing the limitations of the UK's PSHE education in different ways, while IB and American schools are building on their wellbeing programmes with various global practices.
Dulwich College (Singapore), for example, has partnered with MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) in Boston to introduce the Compassionate Systems Framework. This focuses on developing students’ wellbeing and understanding of complex global issues, such as the effect on migrant workers living under lockdown. Middleton International School has rolled out the US-based Contentment Curriculum, which focuses on Four Pillars of Wellbeing, including Mindfulness, Community, Self-Curiosity and Contentment.
As Principal Atima Joshi says, "Happiness and well-being are built into the very fabric of our school and culture."
Middleton and many other schools in Singapore are embedding student wellbeing into their whole school culture, making it a top priority and a long-term commitment. It is encouraging to see the variety of initiatives involving everyone within a school, from teachers to administrative team, students to parents. And, as we look ahead to the future, we need these schools to continue to invest in and grow the happiness of their students – and offer the support that students need to the 'good' times and the 'bad'.