How can I support mental wellbeing within my primary school?

A free step-by-step guide to supporting health and mental wellbeing in your classroom

When I speak to teachers around the country, I often hear about how supporting health and wellbeing is becoming such a huge issue for them personally, made worse by the recent challenges we've all had to face.  I recently saw a report from the UK-based children's charity, Barnardo's, saying that 81% of the children their frontline personnel are working with are experiencing increasing mental health issues.  

In such a challenging environment, it's never been so important to focus on children’s holistic health – on their physical, emotional, and social wellbeing.  But how should we support them in dealing with their feelings – from anxiety, anger, and sadness to frustration, confusion, and disconnect?

This is why I’ve created this dedicated step-by-step video and guide for teachers on supporting primary school pupil wellbeing.  Judging by comments from teachers, I'm sure you'll find it packed full of useful hints and tips for you to use with your children starting tomorrow.  

What do we mean by mental wellbeing?

So, if we are going to feel mentally well, we really need to feel totally well, and this is made up of:

Emotional wellbeing – to be happy and motivated despite the stresses and strains of everyday life

Social wellbeing – building and maintaining healthy relationships and being respectful of the environment

Physical wellbeing – physically fit, healthy, and strong with a zest for life!

In this blog, we will explore each of these themes in more depth which you can either read or watch each section, including some great ideas you can use in your classroom straight away!

And for more, download a really handy guide by clicking the button below so you have loads of great ideas and reminders on supporting the health and mental wellbeing of your pupils. 

>>Download your free guide on supporting mental wellbeing<<

Emotional Wellbeing

Being able to support our children’s emotional wellbeing and provide the tools and strategies to cope will prove valuable, not only now, but for the rest of their lives.  

Watch the video to explore 3 aspects of emotional wellbeing:

  • Mental strength and resilience
  • Developing mindfulness
  • Growth mindset

Scroll down to read more about supporting emotional wellbeing.

Then move onto social and physical wellbeing.

What is Emotional Wellbeing?

Emotional wellbeing is that feeling you get when you are happy and motivated despite the stresses and strains of everyday life.  This does not mean that you’re happy all the time, far from it.  But it does mean that you are motivated to tackle the challenges that life may throw at you.

If you are not feeling emotionally well, you may feel symptoms such as anxiety, depression and a lack of focus or motivation. This can affect any of us at any time, but our childhood is an excellent time to be able to learn and understand how we can be emotionally well and how to respond if we’re feeling emotionally unwell for any reason.

Being able to support our children’s emotional wellbeing and provide the tools and strategies to cope will prove valuable, not only now, but for the rest of their lives.

In this section we will explore emotional wellness including:

Mental Strength and Resilience

Coping with the anxieties of school life and then real life requires mental strength. Giving children tools to cope with their feelings can positively affect a child’s perception of a problem or a stressful situation.

Here’s a couple of free activities to try with your children.

The Grumpy Jar

What you may need: Transparent container | Tube of glitter | A little imagination

This is a great way for children to visually understand their feelings, and an effective method to show them useful techniques that they can use (at any age) to manage their emotions in a positive way.

Do this together as a class, or you can incorporate it into a lesson and ask each child to create their own personal ‘Grumpy Jar’.

Here’s how:

When children feel like this, it’s important to give them a tool to calm them down, like shape breathing.  Use the star breathing technique (below) until the glitter has settled in the water. 

Now explain to your children that the glitter represents their feelings of anxiety which can be managed using their breathing if they feel stressed or overwhelmed.

Shape Breathing Technique

Teach your children how to calm themselves using this simple star breathing technique. 

Start by holding up one hand with your fingers stretched out like a star

As you breathe in and out follow each finger with the index finger of your opposite hand

This technique can be used to manage emotions in a simple and effective way.

Worry Monster

The worry monster is a popular activity that’s often used by teachers to monitor worries, concerns and anxieties that children may be experiencing.

Here’s how it works:

You can then discuss the general matter as a group if it’s a recurring concern, like exams.  

Some children will need more additional support if they have raised issues like bullying, friendships, homelife or school work.  

Developing Mindfulness

Mindfulness is the ability to be fully present and aware of where we are and what we are doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by the world around us. 

Mindfulness doesn’t remove difficulties or challenges from children’s lives, but it helps them to deal with these situations and the negative emotions that come with them – whether that be anger, fear, or disappointment.

For children of all ages, being mindful helps them to acknowledge that they’re OK, that they’re safe and that they’re surrounded by people who care about them.

Here’s a couple of free activities to try with your children.

Chair Based Pilates

What you may need: Chair | A Quiet Place

Pilates is perfect for not only helping children to breathe healthily (from the diaphragm), maintain good posture, and improve core strength, but it also helps children become more mindful and more relaxed – supporting their learning capabilities. 

This simple exercise can be done with all your children no matter what age or activity level:

Ask your children to sit comfortably – back stretched, shoulders down, and hands on their knees. Then, guide them through this simple exercise...

Step 1 | Take slow breaths in and out (counting to five each time). Raise both of your arms as you breathe in, and lower them as you breathe out. Repeat four times

Step 2 | Curl your spine forwards until your chest is on your knees, then slowly curl back up to a sitting position. Repeat three times

Step 3 | Roll your shoulders backwards three times and then stretch up as tall as you can go, with your arms above your head. Again, repeat three times

Step 4 | Twist your body from the waist up right to left three times

Step 5 | Clench your fists into a ball and hold for five seconds, then stretch your fingers out as wide as they’ll go. Repeat three times

Guided Meditation

What you may need: Meditation Scripts | A Quiet Place

Meditation is designed to encourage a heightened state of awareness and concentration, and can be an amazing way for children to learn to be present in the moment, fully engaged, calm and restful. Just a few minutes of meditation can have powerful results.

For younger children:

Floating on a Cloud

Imagine a big fluffy cloud floating above you. See it come down gently beside you.  

Imagine what your cloud looks like. What colour is it? Does it have a shape?

This is your own special cloud. You are completely safe and happy when you’re on your cloud. Climb up onto your cloud and it will take you anywhere you want to go.  What things do you see as you float on your cloud? Where will it take you?

Let your cloud fly you to a special place where you can rest quietly and feel peaceful.

For older children:

Rainbows

Imagine a big, beautiful rainbow in front of you. See all of its colours. Feel the colours.

Imagine the colour red is glowing brighter than the rest, and there is red all around you. Breathe in the colour red. Think to yourself: I am safe.  Say to yourself: “I feel safe.”

Now, imagine the colour orange is glowing brighter, and orange is all around you. Breather in orange. Think to yourself: I feel my feelings stirring in my body.  Say to yourself: “I feel peaceful.”

Next, imagine the colour yellow is glowing all around you. Breathe in yellow. Think to yourself: I am powerful. Say to yourself: “I am confident.”

Now, imagine the colour green is glowing brighter, and there is green all around you. Breathe in the colour green. Think to yourself: My friends and family love me. Say to yourself: “I feel loved.”

Imagine the colour light blue is getting brighter, and light blue is all around you. Breathe in the glowing light blue. Think to yourself: People listen when I talk, and I am a good listener. Say to yourself: “I feel heard.”

Now imagine the colour indigo is getting brighter, and indigo is all around you. Breathe in indigo. Think to yourself: I have a great imagination. Say to yourself: “I see great things happening for me.”

Now imagine the colour purple is getting brighter, and the colour purple is all around you. Breathe in purple. Think to yourself: I am wise. Say to yourself: “I am smart.” 

Take one last look at your big, bright, beautiful rainbow, and notice if you see anything, feel anything or hear anything. Now take a deep breath and wiggle your toes. Take another deep breath and wiggle your fingers. 

Take one last deep breath, and open your eyes when you’re ready.

As you and your children become more familiar with guided meditation, you may want to write your own scripts, or have each child create their own.

Growth Mindset

Learning how to cope in stressful situations and then being mentally strong enough to find a way to solve a problem is a process that should be addressed as soon as a child can understand the concept “I can’t do it yet, but if I practice, I CAN”.

Here’s a couple of free activities to try with your children.

Create a Poem

What you may need: Paper | Pen | A touch of bravery

Create a simple poem around a growth mindset theme such as The POWER of PRACTICE.

Below is a short verse to inspire you:

In small groups, children can use body percussion or a backbeat to bring the poem to life.

You may want to adapt this for older children by asking them to write their own poem or rap, and then bring it to life with music and actions.

Another lovely idea is to collectively agree on a phrase that children can say to themselves or others, that reminds them to PERSEVERE even if a task appears too difficult.

You might also want to use the “Power of Yet” to help inspire your children to create poems that will motivate themselves and each other.

Growth Mindset Posters

Growth Mindset posters can be created and stuck on the walls of your classroom - children can design their own and you’ll find loads of free ones online to inspire them. 

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Social Wellbeing

Watch the video to look at social wellbeing and how we can help pupils build and maintain healthy relationships with friends and be respectful of the environment we all share. 

Explore 3 aspects of social wellbeing:

  • Healthy relationships
  • Healthy friendships
  • Healthy environment

Scroll down to read more about supporting social wellbeing before moving onto the final theme; physical wellbeing.

What is Social Wellbeing?

In this chapter we look at social wellness and how we can help your pupils build and maintain healthy relationships with friends and be respectful of the environment we all share.  We will explore emotional wellness including:

Healthy relationships and friendships

The restrictions during the pandemic have limited the opportunity to socialise with friends for an extended period and may naturally create feelings of nervousness and apprehension now children are starting to rebuild those relationships again. Now that our children are back within the school environment there are a whole host of ways in which we can facilitate and encourage that re-connection. 

Trust Balance

This is a brilliant and fun way to re-establish trust, connection and communication between children and their classmates - it also encourages a little healthy competition between friends!

In small groups (of say three or four) or in pairs, task your children with coming up with three individual counterbalance positions – where each child supports the other to balance.

For example, each child could stand on one leg with an arm raised above their heads and reach out with the other arm to hold hands with their partners

Or, two children could stand facing each other with their feet touching. They hold hands and lean backwards – using each other to stop themselves from falling backwards.

Depending on the year group you are teaching, you could encourage lots of creativity with the positions.

Friendship Rap

Use a short poem about friendship, and create a group discussion to uncover the meaning behind the words.

Split your class into small groups and ask them to create a short performance to express what the poem means to them, this could be a rap, a dance or a theatre style performance – anything goes!

This approach helps individuals to discuss and explore what friendship means to them.

 Thankfulness Paperchain

A great way to support children to strengthen their connections with others and help them to identify, and concentrate on, everything they’re thankful for is by using the thankfulness paperchain.  This group activity can be integrated into an art or PSHE lesson, and sees children create a colourful paper chain that can be displayed in the classroom as a reminder of all the positive things that your children collectively have in their lives.

Here is how it works:

1. Ask your children to cut out strips of paper.

2. Think of something they are thankful for

3. Write, draw or stick pictures on their strip of paper to show this

4. Ask the children to share with their classmates

5. Loop the strips of paper together and hang in a prominent place in the classroom

You could repeat this exercise throughout the school term to focus on other areas such as what the children are most proud of - try ideas like:

Hang your paper chains around your classroom, school corridor or hall.

Healthy environment

When children feel proud of their learning space and environment it will improve their mood, behaviour and even reduce stress. Declutter your classroom where possible and give children the responsibility for their own space and communal space. 

Here’s a couple of free activities to try with your children.

Recycling

What you may need: Paper | Coloured Pens | Initiative

Create your own recycling worksheet (using some or all of the recycling types on our illustration below). Set your children off on a hunt around their classroom and school grounds, looking for anything they can find that could be recycled.

They should write each item next to the correct recycling bin on their worksheet. As a group, they can discuss their findings and agree on ways to keep their environment clean, tidy, and sustainable.

Brain Breaks

A great way to get over memorable messages to children is through the use of videos the children can follow.  You can find lots of these on the internet such as the BBC's Supermovers and GoNoodle amongst others.  They are really simple to do in the classroom and are a powerful way to energise your class.  Just make sure you have enough space in the classroom, although many should be able to be done at the desk and around chairs, and just follow the video.  A burst of activity like this will get the endorphins going and you'll find the children are far more focused that they were before.   

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Physical Wellbeing

Watch the video to understand how we can help pupils build and maintain healthy attitudes to physical wellbeing. 

In it we explore 3 aspects of physical wellbeing:

  • Using activity to improve focus
  • The role of food to improve wellbeing
  • The role of sleep to improve wellbeing

Scroll down to read more about supporting physical wellbeing!

What is Physical Wellbeing?

You’ll have seen numerous times in your classroom the impact that being physically active has on a child.  Not only does it have the obvious benefits from a physical health perspective (strengthens muscles and bones, prevents excessive weight gain, and helps reduce the risk of conditions such as cancer and diabetes), but the mental effects of physical movement are huge. 

With exercise comes an increase in confidence, better concentration, and generally happier children.

A recent study within primary schools by the BBC and Premier League initiative, Super Movers, found exercise to increase brain speed, the ability to process information, and to apply it to tasks by almost 20%. The study also found that all the children who undertook some form of exercise showed a significantly improved mood straight afterwards.

In physical wellness, we will explore:

Using activity to improve focus

So, what can you introduce into your day if your children need a little more focus? 

There are lots of activities you can do together to get your children moving and motivated, and which can be incorporated into every lesson – no matter what the subject.

We’ve selected a handful of our own favourites which we hope you, and your children, get a lot of joy from.

Shake it out!

A short blast (even just two minutes) of physical exertion at any time of the day can do wonders for a child’s energy levels, focus and motivation. Why not start the day with a quick workout to get everyone in the mood for a morning of learning? 

Ask your children to choose their favourite piece of music (make sure it’s high energy!), and get them doing a couple of minutes of simple exercises they can do in front of their desks – star jumps, hops, or burpees.

Perhaps do the same pre-afternoon lessons to get everyone invigorated and ready to go after the post-lunch slump!

The ‘Choose Between’ Game

The next step is to start adding movement into sedentary lessons - an easy concept to start with is “choose between” which can be introduced in ANY lesson.

It involves your children giving an answer to a question through movement rather than speech. 

Firstly, think of two physical actions – for example ‘A Dab’ and ‘A Star Jump’ (these actions can be changed every time you play the game – perhaps ask each of your children to nominate their own favourite action and compile a collaborative list).

Then, ask the class a question that has two possible answers (such as higher or lower, true or false, hotter or colder) – and they have to answer by either ‘dabbing’ or ‘star jumping’.

For older children, you can increase the number of potential responses to a question and add in more movements.

The role of food to improve wellbeing

Good fuel is essential for growth, energy, and development; so inspiring good food choices as early as possible in a child’s life can only be a good thing.

Food group games

What you may need: Flashcards I sticky tape I Fun!

This simple activity uses flashcards featuring different foods and a healthy food plate worksheet for each child. 

For younger children (aged 5 - 7 years) you could use flashcards with hints and clues about the food group they belong to.

Stick the flashcards all over the classroom using various heights and hard to reach places. They should not be hidden, but instead make sure the children do plenty of bending, stretching and crawling to find them.

Make sure the flashcards are placed randomly. Children should work together in small groups searching for pictures of the different food groups and writing them in the correct section of your Eat Well Plate.

The role of sleep to improve wellness

A good sleep routine is key to having a happy, productive, fun day at school. 

Deeper sleep improves the ability to cope with stress, plus quality sleep can help to boost the immune system too.

Being more active throughout the day means that children are physically more tired enabling better-quality sleep.

Being more active also reduces stress enabling better quality sleep.

Encourage the same routine each night, omitting caffeine and technology devices at least 2 hours before they intend to sleep.

Embolden children to make better choices by setting up a sleep experiment for one week. Encourage children to make tweaks to their bedtime routine, recording the impact these changes have made in relation to their focus at school, energy levels and mood.

Use our group sleep experiment to help children understand their sleep pattern and how a few small changes could help them get better quality sleep.  This type of activity helps children to understand the benefits of better sleep first-hand, which in theory should help them to make better choices before bedtime.

A final thought from Imogen...

After reading this report, I hope you are thinking “I can do this!”

You may feel less worried about how to tackle the health and mental wellbeing of your children in a world where we are all having to adapt after Covid-19.

If you’re still reading, I know you’ll pull out all the stops to create a brighter, happier, healthier classroom to help your children overcome anxiety, manage their mood and negative feelings and achieve their amazing potential.

YOUR mental health is just as important, so make sure you take some time to think about YOU! And join your children on their healthy journey by getting stuck into some of the activities in the classroom yourself too!

Let me know if this report was useful, or if there are any other activities of your own that you would like me to share with my network of like-minded teachers – it’s always great to inspire each other!

You can find me at imogen@imoves.com.

Best wishes,

Imogen

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