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International And Independent School Well Being: Dig Deep And Plan Big- Does Maslow Have The Answer?

Wellbeing - it's quite possibly the most talked about topic in international schools at the moment, and a flurry of promotion of new taught programs and "cure all" products and training are appearing daily, from mindfulness and yoga through to special weeks, special days and after school clubs- but are we missing a trick, and should we simply be revisiting the basics of psychology, and Maslow's Hierarchy of Human Needs, to find the long term solutions, and ways to improve our schools?

Maslow's Hierarchy of Human Needs

Why Use Maslow?

Look carefully at the diagram above. Maslow believed it represented the different human needs, from the very basic at the bottom to the pinnacle of well being at the top. Deliver on all of these needs and, Maslow was certain, we would be fulfilled and well being would flow. Looking at the different descriptors in his pyramid - it seems highly likely he was right, but how could we use these to support whole school improvement and well being in our international and independent schools?

  • Basic Needs - Physiological

Take a look at your school building and the facilities. Is the food designed to maintain a healthy body, and does it cater for everyone's needs? Is there enough natural light and space in the classrooms? Is the temperature perfect for being comfortable, and is there enough water available for everyone? Remember to check communal spaces too, and very importantly the staffroom - does it reflect how important your staff are and does it meet their needs? Especially in fee paying independent and international schools is there enough "down time" for everyone, so rest can prevent burnout.

  • Basic Needs - Safety

Students, teachers, parents and all stakeholders need to feel safe, and robust policies and safeguarding training do tick this box, but is the safety culture embedded in your school? What checks and balances are in place to ensure bullying doesn't thrive and Is the emotional climate safe for everyone? Is it safe for teachers and students and parents to ask questions and make mistakes? Does everyone know what is in place for their safety and are there safe spaces for students to go when they feel unsafe? How robust are risk assessments and what is in place during break times for students to seek help?

  • Psychological Needs - Belongingness and Love

A big one!

How can a school make students and teachers feel they are welcomed, appreciated and they belong? International schools have students joining and leaving throughout the whole year, and this can lead to newcomers not feeling part of the class, left behind friends feeling abandoned and alone, and if careful plans aren't in place relationships and friendships suffer.

International school students may have been to many schools and many countries over the years, and these third culture kids often have difficulty with their own identities, so what do you do to make them feel special, and help them feel they belong and find friends? Some schools have buddy systems, which are very dependent on the buddy, others have houses to add another layer of belonging - these communities of classes, houses, buddies and clubs are an essential element of belonging. Perhaps student councils should have a membership committee - rather like golf clubs and other social clubs to make sure newcomers are supported in their "joining journey"?

Feeling like you belong and are valued is arguably the most important key to unlocking the door to well being. A sense of belonging can be harder to achieve in an international school with so many languages, cultures, experiences and norms, and it's hard to find the commonality - an international school needs to be very clear on it's own identity to enable its students and teachers to know what they belong to. Knowing your "why" as an international or independent school will help you attract teachers and students and families who share the same "why" as you. In the words of Simon Sinek "people don't buy what you do they buy why you do it".

A common sense of purpose and understanding binds communities together and gives a shared sense of purpose and understanding, which makes communication easier and helps develop the sense of belonging. Let's not forget that love also comes into this level of the hierarchy of needs - having teachers who love working with children and students could be all you need!

  • Psychological Needs - Esteem

The feelings of prestige and feelings of accomplishment make us feel good! Think about how you celebrate everyone's successes no matter how small, both students and teachers. Do you share great work on your social media, do you look to catch everyone being good? This is an easy one to get right - it just takes time and the passion to do it.

  • Self Fulfillment Needs - Achieving One's Full Potential

Whatever that may be.... not everyone is a Mathematician or Linguist or good at Sport and is there enough time in your timetable for students to explore their own passions and own interests? Many schools are now introducing Genius Hours, Passion Projects and Learner Directed Learning and allowing older students to run their own clubs. Do you provide opportunities for the less academic students such as BTECs or the IB CP (Careers Program). Do you also provide opportunities for staff to follow their passions through PD, action research or new and innovative initiatives?

Well Being is much much much more than a taught program, and digging deep into Maslow's hierarchy could provide the backbone of an amazing new SEF for schools - how about using the descriptors in the pyramid to audit how needs are being met, and develop meaningful and sustainable plans, for a real change in well being in our international and independent schools?

Here's hoping....

Angela Fairs


Full Circle Educational Consultancy

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