George Lucas Educational Foundation

Schools That Work | Practice

School 21

Grades pre-K to 13 | London, U.K.

Wellbeing: Developing Empathy, Emotional Awareness, and Agency

Learn how School 21 explores topics like culture, diversity, and responsibility using drama techniques, grounding texts, and controversial statements. 
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Anna: The first talking point we're going to use is this one. Boys shouldn't wear pink or play with dolls. Off you go.

Student: I disagree. Boys can wear pink and boys can play with dollies. It's their choice, if they--

Lucy: The wellbeing curriculum has a big impact on their social skills and their behavior. It gives them a language to resolve problems or explain emotions that are very complex, and that then does facilitate learning in the classroom, which is really key.

Student: What's the difference? We're all human.

Peter: Wellbeing is incredibly important to this school, and I think the center of what we do. Students are exploring in a really sophisticated way their emotions, their qualities, what's getting in the way of their learning and getting on. So it's building up their confidence.

Lucy: Wellbeing is really a focus on the emotional, social, and behavior of children. We have a curriculum. It's around areas like identity, growth, confidence, kindness, and we have these big themes.

Aaishah: I think wellbeing is not judging people by the outside, but judging them from the inside instead. It teaches you loads of things, and it's about being respectful to others.

Lucy: We focus on how we can help children understand the things they feel, the things that happen around them, and give a voice to it.

Student: If I say that, "Oh, I don't like your skin color," you can't say that.

Anna: Does skin color tell you much about a person on the inside?

Students: No.

Student: If someone was rude to somebody, and that rude person judged that person, it won't be nice, so it has to be a fair world.

Lucy: We primarily deliver our wellbeing through our assembly structure.

Amy: Each week, we'll begin with a kind of larger assembly, and we'll introduce the wellbeing topic for the week. This term, we're thinking about diversity.

Teacher: We investigated how we were each unique, and how that wonderful mix of people made up this diversity in our society. And today, we're going to look at another piece of that, culture.

Alexia: So sometimes in assembly, we talk about our culture, like how we are from different countries, how we eat, and celebrations.

Student: You can see culture by the way people dress.

Student: Some Muslim people, they have to wear certain clothes for their culture.

Amy: In class that week, children continue discussing that theme to get a little bit deeper into that topic.

Lucy: We are very responsive and very fluid to the needs of our children. So for example, issues that come up in the playground, or in their lives that we want to tackle and give them a voice for.

Anna: I had some occasions in my class where there were some real misconceptions with race. And so we're talking about culture this week, but let's talk about the judgements that people make, and how that can be a positive thing, how that could be very damaging. We would start with a stimulus: pictures, or a short film, or a piece of music.

I'm going to show you a picture of a man, and I want you to think what word pops into your head when you look at that photo, ready?

Student: Bad.

Student: Bad.

Student: Tough.

Student: Robber.

Student: Rude.

Student: Cruel.

Anna: I'm going to show a picture of another man, and I want you to do the same thing. Off you go.

Student: Life saving.

Student: Gentle.

Student: Peaceful.

Student: Smart.

Student: Helpful.

Student: Kind.

Anna: They are the same person.

Student: I thought so.

Student: I knew it.

Anna: So this is our topic for today. You can't judge a book by its cover.

Lucy: So the teacher might start with an image or a poem, and then she will ask the children, what questions come out from this? And they have to be really big philosophical questions. It's like, is it okay to leave someone out? What would happen if everyone in the world was the same? We then write them down and then the children vote on which one they'd like to discuss.

Anna: We're going to vote with our feet. It looks like this one has the majority, so everybody could take their seat again, please.

Lucy: Sometimes there's a question that really grabs their imagination. They start to discuss it, build on each other's ideas.

Student: Sometimes when you judge someone, it could make them sad. For example, if I said to someone, "Look at that person. They have weird tattoos and all of that, so maybe I should run away," it could maybe hurt their feelings inside. You never know.

Anna: True, okay, yes, Kaden.

Student: If no one was judging people, no problems would happen, but I also think that everyone has a little bit of judge in them.

Anna: Interesting, mm.

Amy: Through the different wellbeing topics that we cover and having the opportunity to discuss those ideas, they're able to understand other people's viewpoints, and that's what helps you form your own ideas about the world.

Student: It doesn't mean because peoples have a skin color, it doesn't mean that you're not the same. Everybody's people, because--

Anna: It's developing their grit and their ability to persevere when something's challenging. The progress that the children I'm teaching now is phenomenal, but it's not just about that. It's about how best you can equip them to deal with the world.

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"You can't learn if you're not well," explains Amy Gaunt, a Year 3 teacher at School 21, a London-based public school. And while that's a good reason to teach wellbeing, it's not School 21's only reason. "It's an opportunity where children get to discuss their feelings, thoughts, and negotiate their attitudes and views on the world," adds Gaunt.

Wellbeing also increases students' confidence, voice, and problem-solving skills. "Through giving pupils an opportunity to discuss how they feel about different things, it makes them more capable of explaining the barriers to their learning," says Gaunt. "If they can identify, 'I'm not able to do X because Y is happening,' that means that they can access that learning."

If you want to develop a wellbeing program at your school -- or learn how to incorporate it into your classroom -- read about how School 21 developed their curriculum and created opportunities for discussion.

How It's Done

Start With a Wellbeing Framework

When creating a wellbeing curriculum, start with an existing framework, and customize it to your students' needs. School 21 uses a U.K.-based wellbeing framework called Personal, Social, Health, and Economic (PSHE) education. "It's a great basis to go to for ideas, but we take from that what this group of children needs," explains Gaunt. Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) is a similar, U.S.-based resource.

Throughout the year, School 21 covers six big topics -- one per a six- to eight-week term:

  1. School as a community
  2. What makes me special?
  3. How can I be a responsible citizen in the world?
  4. Diversity
  5. Healthy lifestyles
  6. Social skills

Throughout the term, teachers delve into a subtopic each week. For example, within the term on Diversity, they will spend a week exploring Why are we unique? Through discussion, students explore these subtopics further with questions like:

  • What makes us the same and what makes us different?
  • Is it OK to be different?
  • Should we all be treated the same?
  • What is prejudice?
  • How can we respect each other?

At the beginning of each week, teachers introduce the wellbeing topic at an assembly consisting of two year groups [grade levels]. Then, in their weekly wellbeing class, they use a grounding text to further explore the theme with students, and at the end of the week, they gather in a smaller, one-year group assembly to wrap up the topic. Throughout the year, they assess their students using the wellbeing progression chart.

Related Article: The Power of Redesigning the Traditional Assembly

Discuss the Needs of Your Students to Create Your Curriculum

At the beginning of each year, School 21 teachers gather and create a wellbeing curriculum specific to their students' needs. "Get together with other teachers and think about what the needs of the children are," advises Gaunt. "Start from there."

Last year, these educators noticed that their students were blaming their peers and parents frequently. In response, they spent a term focusing on responsibility. "We looked at how children can take responsibility for their actions and different tasks," remembers Gaunt, "and what their own, their teachers', and their families' responsibilities are."

Related Article: Social and Emotional Learning: A Schoolwide Approach

Create Opportunities for Discussion

A core element of the wellbeing curriculum is the idea that discussion and speaking lead to wellbeing. If students have the opportunity to discuss their feelings -- and hear how others feel -- it contributes to feeling seen and heard, and it develops their understanding and empathy of others' experiences. Discussion (or “oracy” as it’s called at School 21) is central to wellbeing curriculum.

School 21 schedules daily assembly periods to discuss wellbeing topics. If your school doesn't have daily assemblies or a weekly wellbeing course, the important factor is that you're giving your students opportunities to discuss their feelings and beliefs, emphasizes Gaunt. You may be able to do this in advisory or homeroom, or through incorporating intentional discussion throughout your classes -- such as picking a particular book to explore in English or an event in history.

Related Article: Building SEL Skills Through Formative Assessment

The following exercises can help you promote discussion:

Give your students concrete ways to discuss abstract ideas. "Culture is quite an abstract idea," acknowledges Gaunt. "It's something that's all around us, but if you say to a six- or seven-year-old, 'What is culture?' they're not going to have an idea. We wanted to give them concrete examples of how we might see culture. So we looked at clothes, music, food, and stories." In their assembly, they grouped in smaller circles and were given an artifact that represented a specific culture (like an article of clothing) to talk about. "They had to identify what it was, explain why it's important, and who it might be important to, and then as a larger group, they compared the different cultures being discussed."

Use controversial statements. If your topic is culture, have your students debate a statement like, some cultures are better than others. To develop empathetic responses, start by scaffolding with simpler questions to help build students’ ideas around the theme before getting into more controversial statements. "Have students pair up and take each side of the argument before they find common ground," recommends Oli de Botton, School 21's co-founder and head teacher.

In an assembly, Eysha, a Year 3 student, shared her opinion in response to the statement about culture: "If everyone from one country was for one culture, and another country was for another culture, we wouldn't know about any cultures except our own. There's lots of cultures in London, and if all these cultures weren't here, it wouldn't be a colorful place."

Incorporate drama techniques to engage students in discussion. School 21 invented a fictional character -- Colin Chaos, played by a teacher -- who appears during assemblies to act out different scenarios. "It's easier to communicate key school messages through character and humour," advises Peter Hyman, a co-founder and executive head teacher. Through forum theater, a drama technique "where the audience decides what the actors should do next," explains Hyman, they'll discuss topics like responsibility, and have the students take on roles (like Colin's mother) to act out and communicate how to work through and discuss different issues.

Initiate discussion with a stimulus, such as a grounding text. Provide your students with a video, image, or written text, and use that as a starting point for a student-led discussion. School 21 has weekly 40-minute Philosophy for Children (P4C) classes, a framework that helps students generate their own questions and circle discussions around a particular topic (like diversity or responsibility) using a grounding text.

Related Article: Oracy: The Literacy of the Spoken Word

"We want our children to have power and control over their lives, a sense of belonging, and to feel that they can grow here," adds de Botton. "We want to give them experiences and support to do all of those things."

Comments (7) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Jana Warner's picture

I love this! These topics are important to discuss and let students have a voice! School as a community
What makes me special?
How can I be a responsible citizen in the world?
Healthy lifestyles
Social skills

TGeorge1181's picture

This is great because so many classrooms lack spreading diversity. It is very important for students to understand others cultures so that they can respect them. I can imagine the comfort that the students feel; I can almost bet they also feel competent and confident in learning!

PalsSocks's picture
Pals Socks Creator, Changemaker

This is great!!!!! It is so important to be open to everyones experiences and opinions, empathy is the best way to understand each other <3

SallyWJ's picture

Very well organised and structured. Can you advise me on where I can get the photos of the man dressed up as 2 different people to use for a stimulus in my class? Thanks.

danilee511's picture

Wow... this is an amazing program. I love the topic on diversity and how it was implemented, and I love how they focus on a different subtopic each week. It is so important to not only prepare students for challenges in the academic world, but also in the real world. In my opinion, this program is doing a great job at both, from what it seems. Not only were they outperforming local schools in reading, writing, and math, but they were introducing these children to the wonder of diversity and culture, and providing open-discussion on abstract, real-world topics.

So awesome!

Kathryn Chobanian's picture
Kathryn Chobanian
Project Based Learning, Social Justice, Social/Emotional Learning, Accountable Conversations

This video is a reminder of how important it is to teach students how to empathize with others, tolerate and celebrate differences and to help them build their agency as human beings. As educators, it is essential to facilitate the social/emotional learning alongside the academic content in order to develop critical thinkers and productive members of society. Thank you for sharing this video and post!

Jaleesa M.'s picture

I absolutely loved this article. I am a firm believer that holistic teaching is key. I can't get my children to learn and retain information if they aren't aware of who they are, and how their world affects them. Social and emotional growth is almost mandatory when it comes to growth as a whole. It is also deeply important that students understand that this world is bigger than their immediate environment. Knowing that means being willing to accept others.

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