Improving mental health and wellbeing has risen to the top of the agenda for all schools. One powerful way to do this is to strengthen the role of pupil voice within your setting.
Demonstrating to young people that their views and experiences matter improves their sense of belonging and helps them feel like valued members of the school community. It also means that wellbeing initiatives are more likely to become part of the fabric of school life.
In practice, achieving this requires more than handing out surveys designed by adults once a term. It also means going further than just asking the usual suspects for their opinions. Rather, there should be designated ways for all children’s voices to be heard when they feel they need to express something.
In this article, we highlight examples of how primary and secondary school pupils can take the lead in wellbeing initiatives, and some tips to make gathering pupil voice more inclusive.
Including Pupil Voice in Your Whole-school Approach to Mental Health and Wellbeing
Pupil voice is an essential part of a whole-school approach, below are some practical examples of how schools are approaching this.
Wellbeing ambassadors; groups of children trained to promote wellbeing throughout school as well as feeding back ideas and opinions. They can also offer a listening ear to younger children who may feel more nervous speaking to adults. Various training schemes exist, including those from Worth-it and Eikon.
In primary schools ambassadors might co-produce, lead or help to coordinate things such as:
- Kindness trees
- Motivational message displays
- Wellbeing assemblies
- Happiness walks
- Lunchtime music clubs
- WOW Wednesdays with lunchtime games
Take a look at what younger wellbeing ambassadors are doing in Rochdale for example;
In secondary schools there is even greater scope for the ambassadors to lead initiatives such as;
- Anti-racism campaigns (e.g. leading a ‘spotlight on identity’ session during house mornings)
- Exam anxiety drop-in sessions
- Lunchtime “walk and talk” mentoring sessions for pupils in transitioning years
- Wellbeing cafes and hubs
- Co-designing stress flashpoint surveys and creating management tips
- Co-creating guides to mental health and wellbeing
You might also want to consider trust-wide initiatives such as the one below at Belle Vue Girls’ Academy;
Student councils; are a great way of getting feedback on any issues in school that touch on mental health. The disadvantage is that they have a broad remit of issues to tackle and only a small number of pupils can get involved and they are usually voted in by peers. Some school councils – even in secondary schools, still have their agendas set entirely by adults, which limits their ability to really get to grips with issues young people want and need to explore.
Anti-bulling Ambassadors/Young Carer Groups/LGBTQ+ groups/ Young Sports Ambassadors; there are lots of programmes and groups that may already exist in your setting that have an important role to play when it comes to voicing opinion and actively shaping mental health and wellbeing initiatives.
Meet and greeters at school gates/peer mentors; can help listen to children who are feeling worried and act as a voice for quieter pupils. They also can provide feedback on how they think wellbeing initiatives are working. Just like the wellbeing ambassadors, however, they should not be the first point of call for children already requiring mental health intervention and they should know how to signpost children to adults should they happen to disclose anything significant.
Surveys; provide a quantifiable way of doing a temperature check on wellbeing across the school, as well as seeking feedback on initiatives. By planning ahead you can segment data and drill down into which groups are feeling distress more often, to bring focus to wellbeing initiatives. The limitation, of course, is that bias can enter question design, surveys rely on children being able to comprehend the question and they don’t allow for open-ended discussion. Certain types of wellbeing surveys might benefit from pupil input on which questions to ask – particularly for secondary schools.
In practice: Students from Boulevard Academy have become trained Young Evaluators. They were able to make suggestions which the school actioned including adding mindfulness sessions at the start of PSHE lessons, extending LGBTQ support beyond PRIDE week, improving signposting to wellbeing support and frequency of visits from external providers such as Barnardos, Lifeskills and Advotalk. They have also helped to launch a wellbeing app and accompanying resources.
In practice: Carwarden House Community School, a LAN special needs secondary school, has recently trained nine mental health ambassadors who meet regularly with their Senior Leadership Team and manage campaigns to improve wellbeing and stress management across the school. The school has recently introduced ‘Hub Clubs’ for each Key Stage which their ambassadors autonomously lead and organise wellbeing activities for. They also have a vibrant student council that regularly meets with the SLT.
In practice: Brighton Hill Community School used both focus groups and questionnaires to collect student voice on wellbeing. The results identified a need for more social, face-to-face support and signposting, leading to the creation of their wellbeing square. At lunchtime, pupils can visit zones that include, Freedom2b, where students can discuss how to embrace diversity, Q-space for personal reflection, the YC space, which is to recognise the role and existence of young carers, and the wellbeing space. Student ambassadors are actively involved in providing support.
6 Ways to Make Collating Pupil Voice More Inclusive
Many of the ways we listen to student voice can inadvertently favour children who are more confident or articulate than their peers. This can leave children with EAL, SEND or from poorer socio-economic backgrounds at a disadvantage – precisely the kind of children who may be more at risk of poor mental health. So how can we ensure their voices are heard? There are no easy answers, but a few things to consider;
1. Help student councils become more aware of the voices of vulnerable learners
Mandating the inclusion of representatives from minority backgrounds or with SEND on your council could be seen as tokenism and detracts from the democratic process. You could, however, evaluate the ways pupils can apply. Can pupils submit videos rather than written statements? Can they be anonymously transcribed and read out by adults rather than requiring pupils to stand in front of peers? Do all positions on your council require reps to speak in front of the whole school? You could also help school councils to meet regularly with pupils from minority groups, children with SEND, or adults who could convey feedback on behalf of the pupils they support.
2. Encourage a variety of children to become wellbeing ambassadors or council representatives
You might want to have one-on-one conversations with pupils who you feel might be a good fit for the role ahead of explaining the scheme to the whole class so they feel encouraged to put themselves forward. When opening up a vote, you could consider asking pupils questions like “Who do you feel would be a good listener” so it’s not just the loudest children that get picked. Confidence-building workshops can also help pupils prepare for the role.
3. Find less formal ways to make pupil voices heard
Asking for feedback on wellbeing initiatives in circle time (primary) or tutor time or PSHE lessons (secondary) is a good way to make it less intimidating for pupils to contribute. A hands-up approach might not always be best here, consider things like the Kagan Cooperative Learning approach.
In practice: Winton Community Academy runs Focus Fridays where they select a random group of students each week and bring them together to discuss wellbeing.
“The open discussions on Focus Fridays gave context rather than just questions on an audit, and we thought it to be better than the same students all the time, such as on a council.”
|Justine Sebon, Student Welfare Manager, Winton Community Academy
4. Make use of multimedia, suggestion boxes and alternative channels
Allowing pupils to record and upload messages to their teacher in a listening corner, or using free software like Flip to upload video messages offers alternative avenues for pupils to voice their feelings. If you aren’t already using them, consider suggestion slips or self-referral boxes or “things I want my teacher to know” boxes in primary schools. Many schools now actively avoid calling them worry boxes to reduce any potential stigma.
In practice: At Marwood Primary School in Devon mental health ambassadors are actively engaged in wellbeing initiatives. Children can write their worries down (independently or with the help of an adult) and post them into boxes and the ambassadors reply back with suggestions to help. They also wear rainbow lanyards and have their pictures displayed around school so that everyone, including students with SEN needs, can easily recognise them and seek them out for help.
“I think that this system has made it easier for our pupils to have a voice – sometimes they just feel more confident talking to an older child than they might do an adult.”
Sharon Sanders, SEND Practitioner, Marwood Primary School
5. Make sure surveys are accessible
Depending upon the severity of need, children with SEND will require different adaptations, ranging from stripping out complex or open-ended questions through to using symbols and pictures. Guided questionnaires with one-to-one support from adults can also help, as can compatibility with assistive technology.
6. Help children who struggle with vocabulary to express themselves
Pictures, symbols, visual clues and sign language can help a child with SEND express their enjoyment of a particular wellbeing initiative, for example, whether they enjoy a wellbeing walk with their friends. LSAs should also feed feedback on any well-being initiatives they think need to be adapted so that pupils with SEND can take part.
More generally, pupils should also be encouraged to express their feelings and wishes through a variety of means. Many educational psychologists use techniques like the three houses, genograms, and “all about me” profiles, while family support groups can also be a good way to listen to children’s views with the support of others.
In practice: Thornbury Primary School has a high number of pupils with speech and language difficulties. Children have individual ways of signalling that they are seeking a conversation, such as using traffic light cards, putting an item on the teacher’s keyboard, or sharing a journal. They also use colour-coded speech bubbles, worry boxes and ‘Animal Aces’ which are personas that bring the school’s values to life.
“Pupil voice is not something we find out about, as leaders, simply in termly monitoring activity. Pupil voice is implicit in every part of the school day, from a passing comment in the corridor to a debate in the classroom.”
Claire Hardisty, Headteacher, Thornbury Primary School writing in Teacher Times.
Ask, Listen, Act, Feedback
Pupil voice strategies will only be successful if schools can demonstrate they are acting on the information disclosed. Staff need to be ready to listen to mental health concerns, governors need to make space on agendas for listening to pupil viewpoints on wellbeing and school leaders need to explain to pupils why some ideas are implemented over others. If you don’t already have a wellbeing link governor you might consider appointing one and ensure that this person is looking closely at pupil voice.
“You said, we did” assemblies are also useful feedback mechanisms, as are form tutor sessions, newsletters and noticeboards. Finally – don’t forget to update your mental health policy, school action plans and child-friendly versions of these documents. Doing the above will help lay the groundwork to align staff, systems and processes with pupil voice so that it starts to become embedded into your school ethos.
- Confidence-building worksheets: (Free resources from ELSA) available here
- Five Ways to Wellbeing – activity ideas for wellbeing ambassadors (Eikon) available here
- Primary/Secondary Children’s Mental Health Week Resources (From Place2Be) available here
- Best practice for school councils: (A guide issued by Involver, a social enterprise) available here
- How to stay mentally healthy during exams: (Resource from YoungMinds charity) available here
- Creative film workshops for young people (HeyDey Films) more information available here
- Tips for helping autistic children develop a sense of identity: (Raising children Australian parenting site) available here
- Complete guide to the Senior Mental Health Lead role (Real Training) available here