Aldar Education launch wellness initiative-1619443564503
Many schools are holding activities and events themed after well-being or mental health. Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: Schools in the UAE are boosting their mental health and well-being programmes for students, not least because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In recent years, educators have been introducing such programmes, which are also considered in their official school ratings. More recently, as a result of pandemic-related disruption, there has been a stronger focus on well-being. Many schools are holding activities and events themed after well-being or mental health. Others are also conducting internal surveys on the subject. There is, additionally, an annual Dubai-wide official student well-being census, whose latest edition’s results are expected soon.

Ambika Gulati, Principal, The Millennium School — Dubai, said promoting student well-being has always been one of its focus areas as part of the underlying philosophy of the school. However, she added, existing practices were “tweaked” as the pandemic unfolded.

Student-led channels

Ambika Gulati

“Our strategic focus on well-being commenced in 2018. The framework adopted by the school has five pillars — cognitive, spiritual, physical, emotional, and social well-being. The school’s existing practices were observed through this lens. New elements have been added over time to ensure ‘student voice’ is heard. Hence, the school’s existing practices had to be tweaked due to COVID-19. Specifically, during the pandemic we have added online channels for students to spend time socially under ‘Let’s Unwind’, ‘Morning Tweets’ and ‘Cheers to Peers’. These programmes were designed and implemented as per the advice and requests from students,” Gulati said.

Last year, the school introduced a ‘Mental Toughness Programme’ aimed at addressing some of the trends the school observed from its data in the Dubai Student Wellbeing Census. “We have found that even after a short implementation of six months, it has already led to an improved classroom and whole-school atmosphere,” she added.

‘Don’t take well-being for granted’

Speaking about the onset of the pandemic and the greater push for well-being, Gulati said: “In the last 14 months, since the pandemic started, we feel there has been a lot more focus, worldwide, on the importance of well-being. It has come to the fore, as people are understanding that it is not to be taken for granted and needs to be worked upon actively and strategically. People are understanding that well-being is a prerequisite to enhanced productivity, irrespective of profession and age group. In the coming 12 months, we feel that more schools will embed well-being as part of their curriculum.”

Lakshmanan, parent of Varunagha, a Grade 7 student at the school, said they were “very worried about the kids and their mental health” when the pandemic forced a nationwide school closure and stay-at-home order in 2020. “We were worried about how Varun was going to tackle the situation, and this was a persistent question for us. The Mental Toughness Programme has helped Varunagha deal with stress and challenges in a better manner,” Lakshmanan added.

Identifying concerns

Justine Saxton

Justine Saxton, Head of Onyx House (Pastoral Leader), GEMS Wellington Academy — Silicon Oasis, said the school has been — well before the pandemic — developing students’ emotional and social well-being and related skills. The school has weekly well-being sessions embedded in the regular timetable across the Academy. Any well-being concerns identified in the data, whether in the official census or the school’s internal student survey, shape the focus of the sessions. Teachers are also encouraged to discuss any potential well-being concerns that have arisen throughout the week within that particular year group, to also inform what the session should be about. “We’re making sure that the purpose of the session is current, personalised and relevant to our students to address any patterns of well-being needs,” Saxton added.

“Through the development of these transferable skills, our students can manage multiple stressors that may be triggered now, or possibly in the future. But as a result of COVID, there have been adaptations to the programme to equip our students with the necessary tools to manage the additional challenges and possible implications of COVID on themselves and their family. And therefore, the programmes that we deliver are not only relevant to COVID, but to life in general. Our aim here at the Academy is to be proactive rather than reactive.” Saxton said that all of the school’s leadership have been trained in “mental first aid, which is an accredited and recognised certification”.

Beyond the pandemic

Brighton College Dubai, in response to the global conversation about pandemic-induced mental health issues, will introduce mental health and well-being studies in the curriculum when it launches its sixth form (final two A-Level or AS Level years) in September. All sixth form pupils will study the ‘Brighton Charter’.

Brighton College Dubai’s Sixth Form curriculum will introduce mental health and wellbeing studies when it launches in September. Image Credit: Courtesy: Brighton College

Joe Hall, founding head of sixth form, who is leading the implementation of the mental wellness curriculum, said: “As part of the Brighton Charter, we will develop mental health awareness, mental health first aid and a positive psychology among pupils. A huge part of my role will be supporting Brighton College sixth form pupils beyond the curriculum and academic studies, and supporting them with character development and how to adapt and be prepared for a post-COVID world. We need to prepare our pupils, now more than ever, to be able to stand out in a world where more and more of us will in essence become freelancers as employment patterns change due to the pandemic. Transferable skills, communication skills and confidence have never been more important to learn alongside a core curriculum.”

26 million ‘wellness minutes’

In Abu Dhabi, students and staff throughout Aldar Education are being inspired to focus on their well-being, with the education provider committing to dedicate 26,298,000 minutes to wellness in celebration of the UAE’s 50th anniversary year. The ‘#GOTAMINUTE’ campaign sees over 27,000 students and staff throughout Aldar Education encouraged to take time out to focus on activities and exercises which will be dedicated to mental and physical health.

Leading the campaign, which will culminate on the 50th National Day in December, 50 student ambassadors will receive specialist mentorship to encourage their peers to take time and focus on themselves, in what has been a year of changes for students and their education due to the pandemic. Incentivising everybody to take part in the campaign, all Abu Dhabi-based campuses of Aldar Education will collectively register their minutes, with the campaign aiming to record a collective 26,298,000 minutes of wellness before December — the same number of minutes in the history of 50 years of the UAE.

‘Make well-being a priority’

Speaking about the ‘Time for Well-being’ #GOTAMINUTE campaign, Aldar Education CEO Sahar Cooper said: “It has been a challenging time for students and staff throughout COVID, but the resilience shown throughout our campuses have been absolutely incredible. Well-being is at the forefront of everything that we are doing in schools, ensuring that we stay connected and supportive to students, parents and all employees.”

Students in Aldar Education 1-1619443568761
Students in Aldar Education will spend time on wellness activities. Image Credit: Courtesy: Aldar Education

She added: “By launching the #GOTAMINUTE campaign, we are committed to working closely with students to help them learn about wellness and mental health and encourage people to communicate when they feel they need support. We want to make a positive impact on all our staff and students which is why we are aiming to register 26,298,000 collective minutes of wellness.

“Throughout the last year we have adapted to the needs of our teachers and staff to ensure well-being is a priority; we have listened to feedback and made positive changes. Our staff have been brilliant in helping us to launch new initiatives across Aldar Education and the fact that we have been recognised as a Great Place to Work, reinforces the commitment we have to everybody at Aldar Education.”