Inter-School Forum: Youth Wellbeing

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Part 1: Introduction

Foreword:

The contents of this article cover the findings from an Inter-school Forum held on 15 and 16 June focusing on youth wellbeing. Various schools throughout Johannesburg, both public and private, were brought together to discuss youth wellbeing. In the spirit of Youth Day, it also addressed wellbeing in the context of South Africa’s education system. 

St John’s College student organisers Lethokuhle Sikosana and Mlibo Mlonzi explained: “We wanted to formulate tangible and practical solutions that would promote emotional, physical and mental wellbeing in each of our schools. We also felt that there was a lack of student dialogue between schools and that, by bringing students from various backgrounds together, we could create the foundation for future student-led dialogue. This is by no means a complete roadmap to solving each of the issues identified but simply our reflections on the forum, and a departure point for our ideas on how to cultivate wellbeing. 

“Typically wellbeing is only looked at either from an individual or community/collective scale, but we chose to integrate the many aspects of wellbeing in this forum. We also felt it was important to publicly broadcast these findings in order to increase the impact beyond the forum.” 

Summary

The forum allowed students to explore the inequality in education that many students face in South Africa. The inequality starts with unequal access to basic safe amenities and resources, and this has had a direct and major impact on the quality of education at all stages of learning.

Additionally factors such as the impact of discrimination, strain from challenging household circumstances and lack of mental health support were explored. Some of the discussed impacts were low self-confidence, compromised learning and feelings of “otherness”. The students examined how all of the above affects their personal, relational and communal spaces of wellbeing and discussed how they relate to these spaces from their own departure points and environments. It was concluded that, to increase the performance of students in schools, general wellness needs to become a primary focus and safe spaces need to be created to ensure adequate support for all students. 

A group photo of the entire delegation, taken on June 16

Unpacking inequality

The highlighting and prevention of issues arising in schools because of inequality was examined. The discussion centered around how to prevent issues such as racism, religious discrimination and economic inequality from manifesting in schools. The question of how we  empower individuals to be aware of and advocate for their health and wellbeing was raised and solutions were discussed. These involved identifying and recognising the problems and then implementing strategies in order to reduce the occurrence of these issues. 

Questions such as “Why should POC students (specifically black students) move to previously and predominantly still white areas or schools to receive a quality education?” and “Why are there previously only black, and still predominantly black schools, in disadvantaged areas?” were raised. Despite the rhetoric of the desegregation of schools, many schools still remain segregated and unequal and continue to cater to the designated racial groups they had previously served during apartheid. Discussing an issue like inequality is extremely important, as it severely affects the wellbeing of the youth.

What are the different components of wellbeing

Before the forum could work on/address wellbeing in schools, the students needed to understand where these inequalities are experienced. Prilleltensky’s (2005) model of the four Ss of wellbeing, presented in his article Promoting wellbeing: Time for a paradigm shift in health and human services, was used as a method of identifying wellbeing or the lack thereof. The Ss are all divided into the categories of:

Sites:  Where is wellbeing located?

Signs: What are the signs of whether wellbeing is being experienced, or if it is not;

Sources:  What are the sources of wellbeing?

Strategies: How do you, step-by-step, create a strategy/plan to create solutions to the previous Ss identified? 

The three sites of wellbeing exist on the  following   levels: personal, relational and communal. Each of these levels deal with an element of how students experience wellbeing, or a lack of it.

Personal level, which deals with:

  • financial stability
  • spiritual wellbeing
  • mental health
  • emotional wellbeing.

Relational level, which deals with:

  • family
  • friends
  • peers
  • partners.

Community level, which deals with:

  • housing
  • education
  • healthcare.

Understanding and identifying the specific examples help in formulating strategies to approach the question better. These three sites help contextualise where wellbeing (or the lack thereof) is being experienced.

The exploration of the sites of wellbeing and their different components help contribute to the planning of strategies of a school centred around the wellbeing of its students. 

Another ice-breaker session held at the forum

Part 2: Different components of wellbeing and what we identified 

Personal:

1. Signs

  • Psychological or mental – Confidence/lack of confidence, being focused, disciplined.
  • Emotional – anxiety attacks, good self-esteem, sadness due to drop in performance, negative self-esteem.
  • Spiritual – A connection with something outside of oneself and whether that brings fulfilment.
  • Physical – Eating habits, hygiene, how one presents yourself, sleeping patterns.

2 Sources

Stress: 

  • Does a person have means to relieve stress (sport, friends, therapy, downtime)? If these means are missing or not working, why are they missing, and what can be done to fix this?

Financially:

  • Is the financial status of the person contributing to or detracting from their wellbeing? For example transport, food/lunch, school fees, “status”, opportunities and ability to do certain activities with friends and family.

Environment: 

  • Is the environment in which students are living and working (school/work and home) contributing to wellbeing?
  • Are students being recognised for their achievements and efforts? Are they  living in an environment that motivates them to want to achieve certain things?

Socially:

  • The need to be “followed and liked” on social platforms can be detrimental  to one’s wellbeing. Social media is polarising, shares opposing perceptions and can pressurise someone to conform to certain ideals in order to fulfil a need to be “liked” and fit in. Furthermore, the global nature of social media means that one’s actions and presence on social media have universal impacts, which can also have an impact on one’s wellbeing.
  • Students have a school life, a social life, a private life and many other spheres of life in which they partake. To manage this and the expectations in each of these spheres can also have a negative influence on wellbeing.

3. Strategies 

There are strategies that we can integrate into our daily lives that can make and impact and have a positive influence. These include things like having a platform for expression, means and safe spaces to relax, a loving support system, celebration and recognition of personal improvements or achievements, the ability to self-reflect and having some habits or routines that help relieve stress, maintain motivation and allow time for passions. Limiting and regulating social media use is another strategy that can positively impact wellbeing, although this is becoming increasingly trickier to do in our technologically-reliant society; how does one reduce the constant comparisons and unrealistic expectations? 

Relational

1. Signs

Relational wellbeing is based on whether or not our social wants and needs are being met. The quality of our relationships in our day-to-day lives affects how we act, feel and present ourselves to other people.

Signs that relationships are positively affecting our wellbeing: 

  • Self-acceptance in a relationship
  • Mutual respect 
  • Solid boundaries
  • Transparency and compassion within a relationship. 
  • Signs that relationships are negatively affecting our wellbeing:
  • Withdrawal from group activities
  • Taking part in dangerous activities such as crime and drugs
  • Isolating oneself from family and friends
  • Self-consciousness within a relationship
  • Change in behaviour (easily irritable, depressed and anxious).

2. Source

  • Family and friends – the pressure, competition or support received from a trusted circle
  • Environment – living circumstances, place of work/school and people one surrounds oneself with
  • Is a person receiving positive comments from their peers? Is the “ratio” of negative to supportive feedback from their peers a positive ratio? 

Academic environment – the way one interacts with teachers and peers.

3. Strategies

A key strategy to achieve relational wellbeing is restorative justice between students after an incident. In a mediation setup, students are able to express themselves in a safe, managed and supportive environment in which they are free to learn and grow. Creating environments in which students can develop relationships across the grades (such as a buddy system) can resolve issues such as hierarchical bullying in schools. Lastly, a strategy to address familial relationships is family therapy. Having the objective opinion of a third party can be beneficial and liberating for all members of the family. 

Community

1. Signs

Community wellbeing is a mixture of all aspects of our daily lives and how they impact our mental health. This includes social, economic, environmental, cultural or even political.

Signs of positive wellbeing in communities:

  • Positive emotions brought by one’s environment ( social, cultural or even economic)
  • A sense of belonging and general comfort within one’s community.
  • Signs of negative wellbeing in our communities
  • Negative emotions – feelings of stress, anxiety and insecurity 
  • Unpleasant relationships 
  • Basic rights being disregarded
  • Lack of service delivery. 

2. Sources

Sources within the community:

  • Media: It surrounds us and is easily accessible. The community we are surrounded by has a large impact on what we are exposed to (such as advertising and propaganda). By questioning what content we choose to seek out and what our communities expose us to on social media, we can better manage our wellbeing. 
  • Inequality: The impact of race, gender, ethnicity and economic status on opportunities (such as careers, salaries and promotions). There is this veneer of the “Rainbow Nation”, yet we are still in a fight for equality for all. 
  • High performance and achievement culture: We live in a society where there is only space to succeed. People feel defined by their marks and achievements and fear mistakes instead of learning from them. This pressurising culture affects one relationally and personally and often leads to unhealthy competition in which people bring one another down.
  • Religion: Within communities, these can have a positive or negative influence. The values that many religions hold can be incredible assets in building a safe and moral environment. However, in a recent workshop, it was interesting to hear how religion can also take a toll on those who feel rejected by that community.
  • Cancel culture within schools: This refers to a form of ostracism in which an individual is shunned from certain social and/or professional circles. This culture often leads to bitterness instead of growth, understanding and learning.  A reformative approach in finding solutions and accepting accountability is often more effective than cancelling an individual. 

3. Strategies

When investigating strategies for mental health and wellbeing, it is important to create spaces where mental health issues are de-stigmatised. We need to provide services that are accessible and affordable for all members of the community. It is generally more effective to achieve a state of wellbeing when working in a community that is open-minded and accepting of others. This creates a space for meaningful discussions around wellbeing, as well as opening a platform for debate and engagement from a wider range of people and an integration of thoughts. 

For the following proposed strategies, it is critical to ensure that there is consistency in the approaches, as they often fall through. 

Educating students about mental health, methods to manage stress, giving youth the tools and skills to manage their mental health and finding ways to distribute resources equitably (ensuring that underprivileged schools and communities have access to them as well). It would also be valuable to create platforms for members of the community to establish sustainable relationships, as well as various communication channels to provide citizens with a multi-layered support system that provides them with assistance should they seek it.

An ice-breaker session between students on June 16

Part 3: Initiatives that can be implemented in schools

Part A: Schools with resources

Workshops & training

We believe that mental health workshops for both students and teachers will benefit everyone as they can become spaces of awareness, acceptance, community and support. An indicator of students’ mental health and wellbeing is the way in which they engage with the people around them. It is because of this that we feel it is also necessary to implement a peer counselling programme in schools that do not already have one. Students often prefer talking to friends and peers about issues, as they feel that they can relate better than with a parent or teacher. Another possible way to resolve this issue is to address the assumption that teachers are higher in the school hierarchy and are therefore not relatable and cannot help. By making students more aware of mental health and giving them the tools to handle it can help break the culture of silence that inhibits issues from being dealt with. 

Time dedicated to wellness

We believe that spaces within schools dedicated to mindfulness and wellness are crucial in order to promote self-awareness and health. By committing time for students to both relax and catch up with work helps in reducing stress and ultimately with overall performance. Students spend a large amount of time at school, especially in higher grades, and it is often difficult to devote time to their mental wellbeing. Including wellness-based spaces and activities in the school curriculum (during assembly slots or a week dedicated to wellbeing each term) would be hugely beneficial to students. This could be a mental health workshop, physical activity time, or just a free period and free time to gather oneself together. 

Each student has a unique way of learning, processing and engaging with information, but all students are taught in the same way and the same things are expected of them. Having the freedom to learn in different ways and understanding what it is that we require as individuals to thrive, would transform the “factory” that is modern schooling into a place that encourages individuality. It would produce students who are able to understand themselves and put their best foot forward into the world.

Mental health services

Individual or group therapy with school psychologists, student-led support groups, Google forms or other survey-based mental health check-ins are some ideas of services that schools could provide to determine where students are struggling and make improvements accordingly. One of the most impactful things a school can put in place to better wellbeing is open channels for communication. This could take the form of a team, with members from all sectors in the school (senior students, junior students and teachers) dedicated to issues concerning mental health, inclusion and transformation. Some other ideas are: anonymous report apps and teacher training that educates staff on how to work with the students to find solutions and create a safe, accepting space for their students as well as fellow staff. 

Staff wellbeing

We believe that in schools it is necessary for teachers to also have channels in which they feel safe to voice when they struggle with mental health and can no longer create a constructive learning environment. Teachers also need access to resources where they can find support and help. The same strategies that would be applied to the youth can be applied to teachers to ensure their wellbeing and maintain a valuable and productive space for both the students and teachers. Connections between the teachers and students are important so that a culture of acceptance and support is fostered, and so students feel comfortable talking to teachers about challenges they face.

Part B: Schools with limited resources

Stable support structure

Students who have a strong support system that they can depend on have the emotional resources they need to venture out of their comfort zone and explore different concepts and ways of thinking. Having a dependable support system helps to create emotional wellbeing. A positive home situation can lead to increased productivity in the classroom.

Some strategies for implementing positive wellbeing in schools that lack resources would be to firstly remove the stigma around mental health and general wellbeing. This happens through educating members of the community, parents and students. Additionally, creating an environment safe enough for members to be able to feel comfortable voicing their struggles is also vital. 

One way that schools with less access to resources can help better student wellbeing is through developing reliable support systems in the school community. Establishing a consistent and dependable support system in schools can help reduce mental distress and a sense of loneliness. This support system would be composed of the educators of the school who students find approachable, and who encourage transparency and openness between teachers and learners. 

The aim of group and individual conversations are to spread an uplifting spirit of general empathy among peers to alleviate stress. It is also important to acknowledge that problems such as dysfunctional homes/families, domestic abuse and other community-based issues play a large role in affecting students’ wellbeing. Long-term management of these issues is also crucial in building strong communities, strong support systems and greater wellbeing in schools.

Students engaged in a seminar about the different components of wellbeing

Wellness Periods

A strategy could be to add social time into the curriculum, such as a wellness hour,  where students have an allocated time to focus on something other than the syllabus, be it a team activity or physical activity. Social connection improves cognitive and memory functions as well as one’s sense of happiness and wellbeing. Schools could also have “break days” for all the students who feel overwhelmed with school work; perhaps they could have three days of resting time to recollect themselves in the tough times they are going through. 

Staff and student interaction

This can be achieved by dedicating time in the school day for group discussions in class between these teachers and students about various topics, as well as teachers making an effort to initiate conversations with students individually to check in on how they are coping. Inclusion of this in the school day avoids adding to staff’s working hours. These discussions could take up to just 10-15 minutes a day. Through these facilitated conversations, staff can develop a better understanding of what the general state of the students’ wellbeing is and monitor their progress. This will also assist teachers in becoming more aware of individual learners’ circumstances and determine whether they require more support than others. This additional support could take the form of assistance with school work if necessary, and checking in on these students more frequently. 

Community Outreach

Schools with limited resources can approach privileged schools to help provide the resources they lack. Privileged schools could create programmes that upskill teachers from understaffed/underskilled schools to bridge the inequality gap. Scholarships and learnership programmes for students from underprivileged communities are also beneficial. This relationship can be extended to form a bond in which the more privileged schools share techniques on bettering the wellbeing of students. 

Reaching out to the community and various organisations to teach the students various coping and support skills is a low-cost way of increasing the number of opportunities for disadvantaged students. It is also the responsibility of schools with greater resources to reach out to less privileged schools so that students from all walks of life have more equal opportunities. This connection could also pave the way for resourced schools to team up with students from less-resourced schools and partner on community outreach programs that are in touch with the problems of that community.

Awareness of existing free mental health services

There are existing mental health services that are provided by the government and non-profit organisations. For example the South African Depression and Anxiety Group have many helplines that people can phone free of charge. Schools with limited resources can create awareness of these resources to supply students with mental health services that they are unable to provide.

Surveys & forums

Checking in on students is something that can be done, even at schools with limited resources. Creating a safe space where students feel recognised doesn’t have to be an expensive task. Schools should implement mandatory mental health forms that students are required to fill out at least once a term/semester. These forms will be able to assess the mental health of students without them feeling judged or ashamed, as only the person who reads them will know how they are feeling. Furthermore, these surveys would be able to determine which existing methods to address mental health are working or not and will prevent the school from wasting limited resources on unproductive methods. 

Another similar strategy schools can implement to help improve wellbeing is anonymous forums in which students and teachers can post concerns about their school environment. This does not have to be specifically about mental health, but can also be used to address issues of bullying, prejudice or unfair treatment within the school environment. This will help schools, as many students are not comfortable being known as a “snitch” and a code of silence is maintained. Once forms are filled in they can be given to a school psychologist/ therapist who can assess whether students are coping emotionally with life. Those who are deemed emotionally and mentally struggling should be given free and mandatory counselling sessions to help them further understand and cope with their issues. These private sessions will help students talk, as they will feel it is a safe space for them to do so. 

Addressing the psychological aspects of wellbeing

An additional strategy is the use of daily, verbal affirmations which can be led by teachers every morning. Affirmations will promote positive thinking and self-empowerment among learners and staff. Statements said by teachers then repeated by students, such as “I am intelligent and capable of that which I set my mind to” or “I am more than enough” may seem simplistic but have a proven effect of inspiring and motivating students while also enhancing their self-worth, confidence and potentially improving students’ performances.

Affirmations can also help learners manage and counteract pessimism and feelings of self-doubt, worry and anxiety. By encouraging a growth mindset through these affirmations, the school will produce more resilient individuals willing to take on challenging tasks, not just academically but beyond the classroom. This strategy is uncomplicated, taking only a minute a day but aids in developing long-lasting, positive thinking patterns for individuals and encouraging persistence in working towards long-term goals. This will also nourish optimism, hope and ambition amongst the greater school community. This strategy would be beneficial in all schools with learners of all ages, but it is most effective when started with young children. 

In addition to this, the strategy will increase an awareness of emotional distress and share teachings of how to develop an adaptability to stressful situations. Shared stress management techniques may include breathing exercises, three-minute quiet times for students to collect their thoughts and recentre their focus or perhaps pray, as well as learning to express any distress to trusted teachers or peers. This strategy will help students feel more seen and cared for in their school environment while simultaneously reinforcing relationships between educators, students and among peers. This strategy will work best in crechés and primary schools. It is also an inexpensive method to promote wellbeing within schools with limited resources.

Contributors

Lethokuhle Sikosana (St John’s College), Sidney Benard (St Stithians Girls College), Anza Masianoga (Roedean School), Lefa Tshabalala (Brescia House School), Enrique Du Plooy (St John’s College), Mpho Makwea (Parktown Boys High School), Troy Poto (Highlands North Boys High School), Andile Nkumane (St John’s College), Botlhale Bokaba (Roedean School), Bryce Driver (St John’s College), Sahara van den Bragt (St Stithians Girls College), Tawana Sibanda (Parktown Boys High School), Mlibo Mlonzi (St John’s College), Ruby Vos (Kingsmead College), Paris Rees (Parktown Girls High School), Anne-Marie Ohaga (Roedean School), Nyambe Imenda (Parktown Boys High School), Olé Lephuthing (Parktown Girls High School), Njabulo Sibiya (Brescia House School), Joshua Naidoo (Parktown Boys High School), Madison Maud (St John’s College Sixth Form), Liam Snyman (St John’s College), Kimberly De Sousa (Kingsmead College), Kali Selepe (St John’s College), Jerushan Moodley (Parktown Boys High School), Jack Hamlet (St John’s College), Nabeelah Ismail (Roedean School), Elsie Kioko (St John’s College), Anri van der Walt (St Stithians Girls College), Ndivhudzannyi Mphephu, Anné Du Plessis, Jacqueline Trickett.

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