RSE and a Whole School Approach to Emotional Health
Most relationships don't involve sex!
As educators and as parents, we can become lost in the anxiety to protect our young from every possible eventuality. With the advent of ready access to everything via the internet and social media, this list of worries can threaten to overwhelm us all.
All children are surrounded by a model, or indeed various models, of social relations, both in families and in schools. Patterns of interactions emerge through a shared cultural model, either deliberately or organically, for good or for ill. Relational qualities are what matter in attempts to create an emotionally healthy environment for our young.
We know that we become proficient at the things we practice; this is how our brains work. If we are explicitly practicing healthy relationships from the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) through to leaving school, then we are likely to be more proficient at creating and maintaining healthy relationships in our lives. The reverse is also true.
The importance of a whole-school approach is advocated within both government policy (NICE, 2015; Public Health England, 2015) and empirical research, which demonstrates that a whole-school approach can lead to improvements in the school culture, staff well-being, pupil behaviour, school attendance and academic attainment (Weare, 2015; Banerjee et al., 2014).
I would like to suggest that perhaps PSHE, with Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) as a component part, is becoming an unhelpful title. Perhaps, instead of adding more and more to a curriculum which remains at risk of:
· being hived off as separate from other learning
· creating pressures and anxieties around crowding out other subjects
· being something which a teacher can choose not to be involved in at all
we might begin to see this whole area as simply the bedrock for all learning. A whole school approach can explicitly build social and emotional competencies and incorporate them into the learning environment for adults and children alike (Taylor et al 2017).
It takes a village to raise a child...
We instinctively understand the African proverb 'it takes a village to raise a child', and yet we may need to be reminded that this will involve working closely together, looking out for each other and each other’s children, and having difficult conversations from time to time.
Nothing is more important than raising the next generation; it will define the future. Working in genuine partnership with parents in this, the most rewarding of tasks, has the potential to raise us all above the minutiae of our lives and to support us all with checking in on the health of our own important relationships.
Children should have a clear programme of relationships education, which must of course include age-appropriate introductions to sexual reproduction, sexual behaviours, and sexual health. It seems unfortunate however that we have arrived at a title which focuses on the sexual side of relationships (RSE), helpful though it is that the word 'relationship' is now being put first (RSE having now replaced SRE).
Friendship difficulties are a daily occurrence in schools and we can view these as practice for healthy relationships. Guiding without criticizing around managing difficult feelings can help to:
· create emotional resilience
· foster respect for your own and others’ bodies
· develop abilities to notice what is happening in your body and your mind
· develop awareness of the feelings of others (leading to empathy)
· develop strategies for managing when a strong or uncomfortable feeling threatens to derail your ability to make a healthy choice
Children soak up the models around them from the very beginning, and these relational behaviours are therefore what we see in the classrooms and the playgrounds of our schools. When two children fall out, it is an opportunity for us to explore the feelings which are around, and to guide without criticizing whilst children learn to develop a wider range of strategies for developing a healthy relationship with themselves, their bodies, their minds, other children, the adults in their lives.
Matters around consent can begin when a child is very small. (There are lovely programmes which can support with this eg the Massage in Schools Programme www.massageinschools.com). Sharing a language and understanding with parents around looking after our bodies, respecting other people’s bodies, choices, opinions and so on in everyday life, can allow for time to practice these crucial skills as young children. These skills can be learned as part of relationships and what it means to have a healthy relationship. For example, when a child tells another child in the playground “if you play with x instead of me today, then you can’t be my friend any more”, we can recognize this as a form of controlling behaviour. Discussions can be had around feelings and how they drive our behaviours, guidance around developing other strategies for managing a difficult feeling which doesn’t impact on our relationships and so on.
Before puberty arrives and hormonal surges flood the body and the brain, a firm basis of what a healthy relationship feels like can be hard-wired through years of guidance, practice and understanding. If school and home are working in partnership to provide this, then the experiences will be well integrated and can be a strong protective factor for young people as they begin the long journey to adulthood.
We know now that the prefrontal cortex, responsible for helping us to assess risk and make healthy choices for ourselves, is not fully developed in our brains until we are in our mid- 20s. A “village” is truly needed to raise a child. A school community can be that village.
We need to recognize that these are difficult skills for us all, adult and child. In addition to this, we need to be alert to how our social relationships are collectively organized within our shared cultural model. Our mission statements might be clear on our attitudes around equality, however unless we check out regularly what the lived experience is for different personalities, genders, races, ages, we will miss the clues which might tell us it is time for some realignment.
Discussing issues around equality, gender, race, sexuality, culture with children and young people will always be important. More important still however will be the lived experience of being a part of a shared culture. This is where we need to focus our primary attention.
The Family Links Nurturing Programme is based on a cognitive relational model and has been developed delivered and evaluated in the UK over the last 20 years. The whole school approach offered by Emotional Health at School is based on this Programme and offers training for all staff, including training for facilitating Parent Groups. (www.familylinks.org.uk) (www.emotionalhealthatschool.org.uk)
As a school, we work closely with Family Links, who provide every member of staff in our school with training and resources. Our parents in the school community are also able to access parenting courses, which mirror the work we do in school, further strengthening the relationships our children experience in everyday life.
All members of our school community now communicate with each other respectfully and are clear about the choices and consequences of our actions. Since using the Emotional Health at School approach, we have noted a considerable improvement in the behaviour of our children, which has impacted positively on their attitudes towards learning and outcomes.
“…Significant improvements in pupils’ behaviour. Most notably pupils reported to inspectors that the school provides them with an environment where their talents are nurtured, where they feel safer, and where they know more clearly what they have to do to succeed” (HMI inspection, February 2016)
As a teacher and senior leader at Windale Primary School, I feel Family Links has been a huge contributor in our improvement journey. It is the basis of all of our work, nurturing each other as well as ourselves, which is vital in such a pressurised profession.
Katie Whiteley Assistant Head Teacher