In their new book, Leading Improvement in School Community Wellbeing, Dr Donna Cross and Dr Leanne Lester provide a framework for a set of high-impact strategies that can work to improve wellbeing across a school. The book provides school leaders with key research-based school improvement practices, case studies from principals, and pointers on how to successfully implement these strategies. In this exclusive extract for Teacher readers, the authors are discussing the role of ‘wellbeing champions’ in a school setting, and 4 key elements school leaders need to prioritise when it comes to staff wellbeing.
Schools need more than one wellbeing champion working alone. Many schools recruit an academic care or wellbeing team led by a deputy principal or equivalent level staff member to ensure wellbeing is systematically, equitably and sustainably delivered across the school.
This team is best purposefully recruited to increase variability (e.g. more and less experienced staff, mixed gender and mixed learning areas) and should include interested staff and ideally, some students and parents. A committed multiskilled team, with time dedicated to this role, well informed by their own school-level data and genuinely engaged with the school community, is critical to drive wellbeing-related decision-making and action.
While historically, the deputy head/wellbeing leader role is organisationally distinct from the deputy head/curriculum leader, school leaders are recognising the value of combining this expertise or ensuring these 2 deputy roles work closely together so that students’ wellbeing and academic outcomes are inextricably linked.
No matter how the leadership for wellbeing and academic care is combined, the wellbeing responsibilities must be formalised to acknowledge this complex and demanding role. The role needs to focus on driving a school culture that encourages positive relationships to optimise student learning. To successfully achieve these twin goals, school leaders need to prioritise 4 key elements:
- Quality induction and sufficient professional learning
- Clearly defined roles
- Role status equivalence
- A proactive focus on wellbeing
1. Quality induction and sufficient professional learning
This is essential to build staff capacity (especially wellbeing leadership) and prevent burnout, as these staff respond to the increasing demands and complexities associated with student wellbeing (Ingvarson et al., 2005).
Wellbeing leaders are typically appointed because they have exceptional interpersonal skills and relationships with students and other staff, with many expected to learn on the job without adequate training, time or support. While few pre-service or post-graduate education programs provide formal training in wellbeing delivery, leaders of wellbeing need specialist training to care for their own wellbeing in this role.
They also need training in ways to systematically implement universal whole-school approaches to promote student wellbeing. For example, some teachers may not recognise when the appropriate time is to refer students with difficulties to others who are more qualified.
Quality professional development for staff is available at the system level and also as part of programs like Be You (2023), Friendly Schools (2023) or the Australian Student Wellbeing Framework (ESA, 2018).
2. Clearly defined roles
These will help wellbeing leaders and the school community understand what is and isn’t their responsibility. The multiplicity of demands on the leaders of wellbeing means they often deal with all school matters that aren’t curriculum related, especially if their role (unlike other roles) is poorly defined and therefore poorly understood by other staff, parents and students.
Some school leaders have divided this burgeoning role into specialist areas, for example, ‘head of wellbeing promotion and protection’ for general wellbeing initiatives across the school and ‘head of wellbeing support’ for students at higher risk or students experiencing difficulties.
This role separation can help, for example, to address student wellbeing confidentiality difficulties if the head of wellbeing support is also part of the school psychology or counselling team. Similarly, if all school staff have clearly defined wellbeing responsibilities, everyone has a greater appreciation for who is responsible for which actions and there is less diffusion of responsibility.
3. Role status equivalence
There exists a perception among some school staff that opportunities for further promotion are limited if they choose a wellbeing career path, compared to a career path in curriculum, and that leaders of curriculum have more positional authority than leaders of wellbeing (even when both leaders have similar experience and qualifications).
The less tangible nature and impact of wellbeing leadership, compared to curriculum leadership, may be a factor related to this perception. This may mean quality staff are less likely to choose or remain on a wellbeing-related career path. School leaders need to ensure leadership roles are equitable in terms of status, resourcing, promotion and pay, to encourage quality staff to take on and remain in these important roles.
4. A proactive focus on wellbeing
The dynamic and intense nature of the wellbeing leader role means their day often involves ‘putting out fires’ or is derailed when new demands arise, such as a student experiencing difficulties, or behavioural concerns. They often also manage situations well outside the boundaries of their job descriptions as a key facilitator in students’ multiple relationships; for example, between the students, their teachers, their families and service providers.
Wellbeing leaders are often involved in liaising with police, social workers and other family and community services when students require support or help. This work can be invisible to other staff (unless things go wrong).
This intensity means leaders of wellbeing may have limited time to be proactive, relative to providing support. By ensuring the role is adequately recognised and resourced, school leaders can facilitate equitable wellbeing policies and practices to optimise every student’s wellbeing, including those with high needs, and they can ensure wellbeing efforts are both proactive (wellbeing protection, promotion and prevention of problems) and reactive.
Be You (2023) Professional Learning, BeYou website, accessed 30 January 2023. https://beyou.edu.au/learn
ESA (Education Services Australia) (2018) Australian Student Wellbeing Framework, Education Council, Carlton South, VIC, accessed 17 January 2023. https://studentwellbeinghub.edu.au/educators/framework
Friendly Schools (2023) Friendly Schools [website], accessed 26 January. https://friendlyschools.com.au/
Ingvarson L, Meiers M, Beavis A (2005) ‘Factors affecting the impact of professional development programs on teachers’ knowledge, practice, student outcomes & efficacy’, Education Policy Analysis Archives, 13(10).
Leading Improvement In School Community Wellbeing by Dr Donna Cross and Dr Leanne Lester is published by ACER Press and is available to purchase via this link.
As a school leader, think about the wellbeing roles in your own school:
Are they adequately recognised and resourced?
Are these staff members offered specialist training to care for their own wellbeing?
Are they trained in ways to systematically implement universal whole-school approaches to promote student wellbeing?