In 2008, Iain Taylor took charge of ‘New Zealand’s Worst School’ with attendance rates below 80% and one of the country’s highest vandalism rates. Now, that same school boasts an attendance rate of 92% and in 2017 earned itself the Prime Minister’s Education Excellence Award for Excellence in Engaging. The story of Manurewa intermediate school is no overnight success though and perhaps the biggest lesson from the “transformation” is exactly that. It takes time, and probably longer than we hope to make a change.
Many schools now find themselves wrestling with this as they look to improve wellbeing. Gratitude journals, breathing exercises, emotional check-ins, meditation, yoga, goal setting and a wide range of initiatives are being introduced. The aim is to develop the skills of students and staff so they can weave their way through life’s ups and downs. These efforts are being met with varying degrees of engagement.
Navigating through this can be challenging. Here are a few things to consider to help you do this.
Prepare for a gradual journey
You should prepare for a gradual journey. Some students and staff will adopt and love what you introduce immediately, others will take time, some will drop off and some will simply never come round. The quick fire successes and efforts are often short lived, it is the slow and gradual journeys that create sustainable change.
Consider how you start and pace yourself through this. So much energy can be drained by sprinting out of the gates with high expectations. Sometimes, less is more. Low touch and high impact. We may want to have detailed curriculums and many programs but it is easy to let enthusiasm lead to over servicing. It’s a journey.
Big changes happen one step at a time
There is a push for ‘whole school wellbeing programs’, but getting there happens one step at a time. Start with a small group (a classroom or year group) and ask that group if they would be willing to trial something new. Year 7 is a good group to start with in high school because they are learning about the new environment and you can drive change up through this year group. If you can, get a few teachers that are strong advocates for wellbeing to join you. This small group will be the seed that grows throughout the whole school.
Case study: I’ve seen one person introduce an emotional check-in to year 6 students on their own, extend it to years 2-6 the following term, report on the success of this to the board and now all four campuses across the whole school have adopted it. The adoption process occurred naturally as others wanted to follow the lead of the first group to do it.
Lower your expectations and your aims
You won’t get everyone on board. A good aim for the first term of something new is to get valuable feedback from staff and students. What worked well, what could be improved and if engagement was low, what stopped people from engaging with it… Don’t worry about getting everyone on board to start with. That will become easier to solve when you have more specific data to share. Aiming for immediate wide scale adoption means anything less than that is deemed “unsuccessful”, and that is not fair on you nor is it true.
Note: to provide perspective here… Calm, the meditation app with millions of subscribers and over 200 million in investment, expects about a 20% take up when it is introduced into organisations.
Make participation optional
People appreciate feeling empowered to make their own decisions around what’s best for them. Give students and staff the option to participate in your new initiative. When introducing it you could say, “I would like to try a new wellbeing initiative in order to get your personal feedback on what you think of it. It’s up to you if you wish to participate but for those that do, your feedback will be valuable.”
It’s unlikely that you’ll get things right on the first go so be prepared to make changes. This should be an iterative and dynamic process. Try not to focus on outcomes such as adoption rates but rather focus on learning each step of the way.
You could be on the right track but you don’t see it that way
It’s easy to think things aren’t working because they’re moving slower than you wanted. Pushback and lack of engagement can be deflating. This isn’t a sign of something not working, but rather the reality of introducing something new. All successful changes go through this process. It takes time.