Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Wellbeing: Fostering Self-Awareness and Empathy With Grounding Texts

Learn how School 21 uses literature as a gateway to explore sensitive themes, like race, bullying, and personal values.

September 15, 2016


At the heart of School 21 is the practice of wellbeing. Students at this London-based public school develop an understanding of self, others, and relationships, according to Rachael Futo, a lead maths teacher and a Year 7 wellbeing coach.

At the secondary level, wellbeing is taught to groups of 12 students in four 50-minute coaching sessions each week. They meet three times as a group, and on Fridays, that time is used for one-on-one coaching sessions. They explore topics like bullying, identity, and race through grounding texts such as Wonder by R.J. Palacio, Refugee Boy by Benjamin Zephaniah, and even picture books, like Sailing Boats in the Sky by Quentin Blake.

"Wellbeing goes into every bit of curriculum and every area of the school," says Futo. "It even bleeds into my maths lessons." A student who isn't well (which includes being stressed, sad, or angry) won't be able to focus on his or her learning. "As a maths teacher, I'm not doing maths interventions with some students. Instead, I'm doing wellbeing interventions, because that's where we need to be working."

If you want to integrate wellbeing throughout your school or in your classroom, learn how School 21 develops their curriculum, leverages teacher-coaches, and uses grounding texts to help their students explore and unpack difficult topics.

How It's Done

Foster Meaningful Relationships Through Coaching

There are two main elements to School 21's wellbeing program. The first is building intentional relationships through their coaching structure. Every year group (grade level) has six coaches, enabling School 21 to have 12 students per coaching group.

"Every teacher here is a coach," says Oli de Botton, a co-founder and head teacher. For the most part, coaches stay with their students year after year, which helps deepen student-staff relationships and build students' trust.

"If we're teaching students to have meaningful relationships, then we've got to have meaningful relationships with them," stresses Futo. That means seeing the whole child -- understanding his or her background, home life, needs, and life goals. "You are their biggest cheerleader," continues Futo. "You've got to be there to cheer them on, and you've got to be there to support them when they've fallen down."

Develop Your Wellbeing Curriculum

The second key element of School 21's wellbeing program is creating an opportunity for students to explore issues and themes -- from bullying to resilience -- to inform their views of themselves, their peers, and the larger world. They achieve this through their wellbeing curriculum, which the coaches plan together by year group. Every other week, they meet to deal with any curriculum and behavioral issues that arise, and every half-term, they rotate chairing the meetings.

Here is a sample curriculum map for Years 7 through 10:

1. STRENGTHS: What are my strengths and aspirations?

  • What am I good at? What can I become great at?
  • Who inspires me? Whose example should I follow?
  • Where am I heading? How do I get there?
  • What is a growth mindset? Why does effort count for more than talent?
  • How do I find my voice and build my confidence and self-esteem?
  • What does it take to succeed?

2. KINDNESS: Am I kinder than is necessary?

  • What makes a good relationship/friendship? What are good examples of good friends?
  • What does kindness look and feel like? What does unkindness look and feel like?
  • What is oppression? What is it like to be a bystander? An oppressor?
  • What is empathy? How can I learn to empathise?

3. SELF-CONTROL: How do I play the right card?

  • What is appropriate behaviour in different settings?
  • How do I stop myself from overreacting to situations?
  • How do I deal with my emotions?
  • What archetypes have I played throughout my life?

4. OPTIMISM: How do I remain optimistic and bounce back from setbacks?

  • What story do I tell myself? How do I cope better with setbacks?
  • How do I develop resilience?

5. LEARNING: How do I get "in the zone"?

  • What does good learning look like? What are good learning habits?
  • How do I develop the right attitude to learning? How do I become an independent learner?
  • How do I get rid of distractions? How do I give 100 percent in every lesson?
  • How do I build my learning power?
  • What is flow? How do I immerse myself in activities?

6. PURPOSE: What are my values? What gives me my drive?

  • What do I care about? What do I value?
  • How do I lead a fulfilled and happy life?
  • How do I bring meaning and purpose to everything I do?
  • What motivates me?

7. HUMOUR: How do I learn to enjoy life?

  • What is humour? What is comedy?
  • How do I see the funny side of situations?
  • What is sarcasm? Irony?
  • What makes me laugh?
  • What humour helps people? What humour hurts?

8. MINDFULNESS: What is physical wellbeing?

  • How do I feel good in my body?
  • What makes me healthy?
  • Why does exercise improve wellbeing?
  • What is mindfulness, and how can meditation be used to keep calm?
  • How can I control anxiety and anger?

9. GIVING: Why does giving make me happy?

  • How can I become an agent for change?
  • How can I put something back into my community?
  • Who should I give my time and money to?
  • What legacy can I create in my community?
  • Which charities are most deserving of support?

Use a Grounding Text to Discuss Difficult Topics

Each coaching group uses grounding texts as a starting point to teach the wellbeing curriculum. A grounding text allows students to explore and discuss their feelings around difficult scenarios (like bullying) without it being about their personal experiences. It creates distance between them and the subject, giving them a safe space to openly explore it.

Year 7 teachers use the book Wonder by R.J. Palacio. "It's about a boy with facial disfigurement who goes to school for the first time," explains de Botton. "It's a great text to pick for children who themselves are going to school for the first time. It explores all the things that they're worried about: bullying, not making friends, and people being unkind. Through that, it's your not-so-subtle way of getting them to explore those issues for themselves."

Give Your Coaches Autonomy in What Grounding Text They Teach

Every year group has the freedom to choose which grounding text they'll read, which they often use across all coaching groups. This is an intentional decision to give coaches freedom in how they teach the curriculum. "One of my views on time and stress is that burnout happens when you don't have control over your own destiny or you aren't able to solve problems," reflects de Botton. "We've devolved a lot of the responsibility to those six teachers collaborating, and I think that revives them. They can use their curriculum skills as teachers to work through the issues that their children -- who they know really well -- are experiencing."

Year 8 reads Refugee Boy by Benjamin Zephaniah. "It's about welcoming outsiders, which is an issue in London, with our transit population," explains de Botton. It also explores identity, race, and school culture.

In Year 9, teachers chose two plays this past year -- Chewing Gum Dreams by Michaela Coel and Billy Elliot by Lee Hall -- exploring topics like sex, relationships, and substance misuse.

For Year 10, they're considering The Exam by Andy Hamilton. "It's a comedy about exams, which gets you into stress and anxiety, the main thing by then," says de Botton. "We try and match where we think the children are with a text that will help them explore those issues."

Although School 21's staff decides which text to use as a group, they also let coaches choose their own text outside of what the group is using. "When I went into the Year 8 coaching team," remembers Futo, "I explored picture books. We looked at Sailing Boats in the Sky by Quentin Blake and Voices in the Park by Anthony Browne. The kids sat around like primary school again doing storytime, and they explored some really key themes about community, bullying, and discrimination within those books."

Leverage Lessons to Pinpoint How to Support Your Students One-on-One

By listening to your students' responses to the text, you'll discover clues about how they view themselves, where they are in the wellbeing progression chart, what they're struggling with, and what you can help them explore one-on-one.

In the last chapter of Wonder, a character named Mr. Tushman gives an impressive speech. Futo uses that chapter to explore greatness by asking her students, "What is greatness?" She noticed that the students who speak to her one-on-one about dealing with anxiety and stress weren't able to define greatness. "It was interesting to unpack who could and couldn't define greatness and how that connects to how they feel about him- or herself," reflects Futo. "You pick up on a lot. That allows me to have more meaningful and powerful one-to-one conversations outside of the lesson."

Integrating Wellbeing at Your School Is a Process

Whether you're implementing a schoolwide wellbeing program or exploring ways to integrate it into your classroom, it's a process of trying, reiterating, and fine tuning -- as with adopting anything new. "We're exploring wellbeing and one-to-one coaching, and we're fine tuning our problem-solving processes with the students," says Futo. "We haven't got it perfect because it is still in its infancy. We are a centimeter on a marathon-long journey."

School Snapshot

School 21

Grades pre-K to 13 | London
750 | Public, Urban
Per Pupil Expenditures
$8072 School
Free / Reduced Lunch
36% Black
36% White
28% Asian
Data is from the 2015-2016 academic year.

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Filed Under

  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • Communication Skills
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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