An increased focus on well-being in schools enables their staff members and students to build the capacity to manage their feelings and behaviors, strengthen school-based relationships, and improve classroom and school climate and culture.

Four Tenets to Foster a Sense of Wellbeing Among Staff and Students

The Missouri Leadership Development System (MLDS) is a statewide principal-development program that has trained half of the state’s 1,600 leaders from more than 400 school districts as well as from charter and parochial schools. MLDS has developed strategies to guide school leaders and teachers in supporting productive relationships and personal well-being for all.

To support and train principals in wellness, MLDS established two main goals: to provide school leaders with the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to guide their teachers in addressing barriers to learning, and to support the development of productive relationships and personal well-being in both teachers and students. MLDS has identified four key tenets—and strategies for addressing them—that are essential to achieving the second goal.

Tenet #1: Strong relationships protect students. Research indicates that having positive relationships with trusted adults in school can protect students against mental health risks and improve their engagement and academic outcomes. These positive relationships also have been tied to aspects of higher-quality teaching, including teacher motivation, effort, and confidence; and, not surprisingly, mitigation of teacher stress.

Principals can develop these positive effects in several ways. They can learn to model strong relationships and build them through positive feedback. They also can implement school-wide structures to help teachers ensure that every student has a relationship with at least one school adult. Also, because educators focus so much attention on others and so little on themselves, fostering staff self-care is crucial for maintaining good mental health among the adults in a school. Encouraging nurturing relationships with and between staff and principals can help teachers feel connected to the school community and better access professional support.

Tenet #2: Knowing and managing self is essential. Factors related to success in life that are nurtured through well-being include skills such as self-management, self-awareness, relationships and engagement with others, and self-regulation. Principals can foster growth in these areas by helping staff understand where complex feelings come from, how they develop, and how to help students manage them by explicitly teaching skills that help students learn to calm themselves and stay focused.

To support student self-management, principals can encourage teachers’ awareness of the following strategies:

  • Learning how to express complex feelings: Younger children do this by pointing to picture books that depict different feelings or facial expressions, while older students use a broad vocabulary for expressing these feelings. Teachers can help students learn how to process their feelings by explaining how the brain works to process emotional and behavioral responses and the role of executive function.
  • Practicing expressing feelings: Teachers conduct check-ins and encourage students to choose what they want to share or, for older students, to talk about someone or something that inspires them.
  • Experiencing mindfulness: Teachers help students take deep breaths and tune in to how they are feeling as they get ready to learn.

It’s important for teachers to know and manage their own feelings, and particularly to recognize and deal with stress. Research shows that only nurses experience as high a stress rate in their careers as teachers. There are many reasons for this, including being isolated from other practitioners, needing to address student behavioral issues, and feeling pressure to help students succeed. Principals can implement structural changes that help mitigate stress. According to the Annenberg Institute, evidence-based strategies for reducing teacher stress and burnout include protecting teacher time, involving teachers in the design of learning opportunities, and providing mindfulness support for teachers.

Tenet #3: A school’s culture and climate must be nurtured. Principals who build a school climate in which teachers and students feel supported provide a bedrock on which academic improvement efforts can rest. The following strategies nurture successful school culture:

  • Shared, cooperatively developed, school-wide norms provide agreed-upon expectations of how everyone will behave, interact, and contribute to a positive school climate
  • Consistent classroom and school routines that allow students to be well known and well supported
  • Opportunities for collaboration that are emphasized over competition
  • Inclusive learning experiences that help all students feel valued
  • Restorative routines and settings that support reflection and build life skills (e.g., community circles, places where students can defuse and reflect, and processes for explicit conflict resolution)
  • Heterogeneous classrooms and socially supportive extracurriculars that are culturally affirming and communicate common expectations and where the focus is on community building as a foundation for shared social and academic work

Tenet #4: Educators need to be trauma-sensitive. Children exposed to adverse experience, such as those resulting from the pandemic, often exhibit challenges with skills critical for success in school such as executive functioning, social skills, and self-regulation. Educators therefore must be equipped with the skills to recognize and respond appropriately to trauma to ensure student well-being and academic success. To build trauma-sensitive teaching, staff and faculty need training to pay attention to signs of trauma, using a range of tools and resources to uncover and understand what children are experiencing, as well as healing-oriented practices, including mindfulness, counseling, and access to additional resources.

These four tenets provide administrators with a framework under which to consider their school’s overall well-being. With a people-first focus and the proper support in place to validate and address emotional concerns, school leaders can foster a positive environment for students and staff that create the foundation for a high-quality education.

William Slotnik
William Slotnik is CEO of the Community Training and Assistance Center (CTAC), which provides technical assistance, evaluation services, and policy support to more than 90 organizations, school districts, and state departments of education annually.