The Knowledge

Can compassion remedy poor wellbeing in schools?

Evaluation of two programmes show they have the potential to improve staff and pupils’s sense of self-efficacy and reduce anxiety, explains Frances Maratos

Evaluation of two programmes show they have the potential to improve staff and pupils’s sense of self-efficacy and reduce anxiety, explains Frances Maratos

17 Jun 2024, 5:00

Improving pupil and teacher wellbeing is a mounting challenge for many schools. The long shadow of Covid, exam pressures and exposure to harmful material on social media is increasing mental health problems and suicide rates among younger generations and burnout for teachers. Identifying low-cost, accessible interventions is a must.

That is why we at the University of Derby have developed and now rigorously evaluated our provision of ‘Compassion in Education’ programmes.

Our approach is built on the science of compassion. Originally a form of psychological therapy, helping patients with a range of mental health problems to cultivate a caring, supportive and skilled response to their own and other people’s sufferings, the approach has now matured and expanded as a proactive approach to promoting wellbeing in general.

Researchers worldwide are using the science of compassion to promote the idea of compassionate workplaces and institutions, as well as compassionate approaches to global, existential crises.

We have pooled much of this work into our own Compassionate Mind Training for Teachers and Pupils. These two courses – tailored of course for different ages and contexts – help participants learn about the workings of their brains, how to manage their emotions, and, crucially for the wider communities in which they exist, how to identify and respond to the suffering and experiences of others as well as their own.

The standard length of a course is six modules or lessons, with homework helping to embed the practices shared. So far, we have been able to train over 600 teachers and over 300 pupils.

Results of the teacher CPD are now widely published, showing many beneficial effects on psychological health, physiological health and work-life balance.

The first academic study of the pupil intervention with a Year 7 cohort was published earlier this year in Mindfulness. The research showed that the course was effective in combating pupils’ anxiety and stress.

CPD showed many beneficial effects on health

The young people we worked with and interviewed afterwards frequently commented on how useful the practices we introduced were in helping them to manage difficult emotions as they arose.

Similar results have been found in an ongoing trial of the lessons in Wales. For example, one primary pupil remarked: “It’s changed me as a person. I used to be angry but now I can calm myself.”

Equally powerful is the response from class teachers. They noted that the lessons not only helped their pupils to feel more relaxed and confident, it also improved class culture and environment.

This is exemplified by one participant in the original trial reflecting that: “I have felt more welcomed in class. I have been more accepted by the students in my class.”

This, to me, is one of the real ‘value adds’ of a compassion-focused approach to mind training. It not only helps individuals to cultivate their own mental wellbeing, it also shifts how they perceive and interact with others, allowing all to flourish.

This is essential for raising well-rounded future generations who are also proactively prosocial and emotionally literate to the needs of others.

Our challenge now is to grow and scale this effort. School timetables are packed out and teachers struggle to set the time aside they need to focus on their own wellbeing, let alone on emotional skills training for their pupils like Compassionate Mind Training. But at what health detriment to all?

Change requires strong leadership at school, local authority and national government level. It requires there to be a cultural emphasis on the holistic growth of young people and their wellbeing – and that of their teachers.

More schools and associations are beginning to recognise the immense value that Compassionate Mind Training can bring and I will continue to argue the need for this.

Our staff CPD and pupil lesson results clearly show the power of compassion in action.

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