As I sit in the departures area at Heathrow, on my way back from the annual meeting of head’s of the school’s in COBIS (the council of British international schools), I inevitably find myself reflecting on some of the speakers and themes and their importance and influence on educational leadership at St Paul’s. We are lucky to be members of a number of groups of quality international and UK independent schools and each of them has their own annual conference, at which many important themes are explored. Over the last two months, I have attended three such conferences, COBIS, the Latin American Heads’ Conference and our own St. Paul’s educational conference. I have learned much!
A common and extremely important theme across all three of these professional opportunities was wellbeing and providing the right kind of support and guidance to help our children develop excellent mental health and be able to cope when life is challenging for them. With the recent tragic deaths of pupils in schools in São Paulo this is perhaps more pertinent and prominent in our thoughts than ever before.
We heard this week from two contrasting speakers on the issue of mental health for young people: Dick Moore is a former independent school headmaster whose son, Barney, took his own life in his early twenties. The impact was crushing to the family, as you can perhaps imagine, and we were inspired by Dick’s incredible humour and positivity in the face of such challenge. He now raises awareness of mental health issues in young people, particularly in boys and young men, and advocates for better support, open communication and practical strategies to help to create spaces where these young people can share their thoughts and feelings, be themselves and open up to accepting help. These, he says, are key.
Natasha Devon is an impressive woman and she too had us all thinking about how best to approach mental health issues in school. Natasha reminded us about the neuroscience of the teenage brain (a fascinating topic in its own right) and shared with us some startling statistics about mental health issues in the UK. It is interesting to note that approximately similar proportions of young men and young women have mental health issues, but that girls and women are far more likely to seek help and respond positively to it. Natasha supposed that boys in general are less likely to seek help because our methods of counselling and clinical support are intrinsically feminine and that this does not sit well with boys and men. She described to us a counsellor’s office, in muted, ‘feminine’ colours, with chairs facing each other, soft music and flowers on the table. Boys, it seems, do not want to look into an adult’s eyes, and they are generally not impressed by sweet smelling flowers either! Society also teaches our boys to ‘man up’ and be strong. It does not, in general, encourage men to be sensitive and reflective. Even the language that we use around courage and being able to cope is often ‘masculine’ in its nature. This made me think about how our new school counsellor, due to join us in August, might arrange their space… and why parents should really make the most of car journeys to talk to their teenagers, boys and girls, both sets of eyes fixed firmly ahead! These are opportunities to talk without judgement, and when you might really get to the heart of any worries that your children have. Read more about Natasha’s work here.
One speaker who was common to both our own conference and the COBIS one was a wonderfully charismatic positive psychologist, Christian van Nieuwerburgh. A Belgian, born in Lebanon to a Japanese mother, he is a linguist par excellence and, in my view, offers a fantastic insight into coaching and positive psychology. He is acutely culturally aware (he has even devised a new form of coaching for people of the Islamic faith) and utterly pragmatic in his approach. His witty and engaging workshops and keynotes in São Paulo encouraged us to develop a coaching approach in our work and our teaching, helping to identify what drives us and identifying ways to help young people set goals, based on knowing themselves and particularly their strengths, better. Reminding us that the people around us are generally committed to doing good things as well as they can was a key message, which hopefully will make it easier for us all to establish and maintain the highest quality and most productive relationships in all parts of our lives, even when we don’t always agree!
As parents and educators the most important thing for us all must be the mental health and happiness of our young people. Being attuned to the challenges that our boys and girls face, and helping them to navigate through the process of growing up is not easy. Professionals like psychologists and counsellors are key, of course, but it seems that what is more important are family relationships and openness between our children and those who care about them and can intervene when they need help. Creating space and time to share worries and problems are of prime importance if we are all to support our children to be happy, healthy and productive in school.