Wellbeing and Emotional Resilience for Learning

Morley College

The aim of this project was to develop a bank of teaching and learning resources aimed at Entry Level 3 to Level 2 Functional Skills English for adult students that would embed core English skills, such as reading for meaning and speaking to communicate, with themed lessons on Wellbeing and Emotional Resilience.

You can download a PDF of this report on the Excellence Gateway [LINK TBC].

Summary

The project leader and four hourly paid English tutors were involved in the project. We envisaged creating 10 hour-long stand-alone sessions that could be delivered at the beginning of a course potentially during a tutorial slot or within the planned teaching hours.

The genesis of this project came out of discussions with colleagues about how we could improve attendance and retention by thinking ‘outside the box’. We wanted to see if non-standard approaches to improving attendance would have an impact on levels of engagement, attendance and retention.

We also felt that our cohort of students who are adults with daily challenges would benefit from ‘opening up’ about the problematics involved in staying in education, and exploring ways to overcome some of their difficulties with childcare, ill health and constrained financial circumstances.

Rationale

Some students who access English courses at the college find it difficult to complete their courses or make significant progress, especially when faced with detrimental changes to their circumstances or are suffering from long-term health conditions. These include, for example, job losses, denial of benefits, poor health, the death of a relative, episodic and re-occurring bouts of poor mental health or significant difficulties while caring for dependants with disabilities or ill health.

The impact of these circumstances is that they will enrol on courses but then begin to find it difficult to attend and eventually drop out, or are withdrawn for poor attendance before they can complete the course.

Many students who suffer from long term physical and mental health issues find it difficult to engage with and sustain learning, but continue to access courses, or are referred by outside agencies. Apart from the effect this has on students’ ability to raise their level of English and gain meaningful qualifications, their level of resilience also has an impact on attendance and retention and the achievement rates for the English department. Raising the achievement rates at Level 2 and the overall attendance rate is an ongoing priority for the English Department.

Approach

We were clear from the start about what it was we wanted to achieve, and this enabled us to get going with the project. After identifying the tutors and groups to be involved, we were able to achieve the following:

• the production of a bank of ‘wellbeing’ resources at English Functional Skills Entry Level 2-3 and Level 1-2 – now available to tutors across the department.
• piloting of a selection of the resources across four English groups – taking students through a structured programme to identify key challenges in their lives, consider factors which could impact their wellbeing, and develop strategies for developing wellbeing and resilience.
• embedding and developing literacy skills throughout the course – students were presented with a wide range of reading, writing and speaking and listening activities, as well as IT tasks when completing weekly activities on google classroom.
• the introduction of a culture of wellbeing and emotional resilience – where students were encouraged regularly to consider the state and importance of their own wellbeing.
• development of a positive mindset in students – to help manage feelings and experiences and identify where they could employ a more positive outlook.
• increased confidence to share and discuss issues with others.
• collection of students’ work, as well as mid-term and end-of-term evaluation feedback.

The materials have been well received by students and staff in equal measure; however, we need to review the continuing impact of the materials on our cohort. As such, we intend to take this work forward to the next academic year using feedback from tutors to direct our future development.

Professional Learning: Evidence of changes in teaching, learning and assessment practices

The project gave hourly paid teachers CPD opportunities, and all the staff involved in the project attended the ETF English Resilience: developing students’ self-belief and perseverance training on 25 October 2019. This provided a helpful springboard for tutors involved in the project to meet and start a meaningful dialogue about the challenges our students face and how we can begin to support them.

As the project progressed, the tutors involved met with each other to discuss the impact of the materials on the students, their teaching and themselves. Some valuable conversations were held and tutors started to challenge their own fears around the difficulty of some of the topics, potentially opening up emotional wounds for students in their care.

As project leader, I met with tutors and we talked about how students were learning and if it was felt that real change was taking place in the classroom in terms of facing those affective barriers to learning, such as poor mental health, after engaging in this programme of study. It became clear after a few weeks of the programme that students started to see that, despite the difficulties they had faced in their lives or will still face, they could contribute equally and that they have something of value to offer, regardless of their starting points and the challenges to those starting points.

The tutors involved in the project have been able to see the impact of engaging with the students in ways that they have not been comfortable with in the past. Their confidence in tackling some of the more sensitive subjects of the 10-week programme has grown and this is evident from learning walks. The tutors involved appear more likely to take risks with their teaching as they can see the positive impact the materials and subjects are having on the students.

Students have become more open about the difficulties they face in their lives and this has meant that they have sought support and feedback. Feedback from discussions with tutors has shown that students seem better able to concentrate during class and, where necessary, tutors have been able to signpost them to sources of support within the college.

Evidence of improved collaboration and changes in organisation practices

The staff at the college are hourly paid and tend to work independently of one another. There is a culture of ‘ships passing at the photocopier’, but this project has given tutors a focus and reason to get together and work collaboratively and have valuable conversations about teaching. It has opened up opportunities for informal peer mentoring and helped tutors reflect on how these materials and lessons can effect cultural change in the classroom.

The tutors involved have started to see the benefits of sharing ideas, materials and reflections on teaching and learning. The project leader has had the opportunity to carry out learning walks that are not based upon college wide priorities and engage with the students and see the impact of the lessons on their engagement and enjoyment.

We have created better links with Student Services and are better able to signpost students to sources of support within and without the college.

Evidence of improvement in learners’ achievements, retention and progression

The students involved in this project have fully engaged with the learning materials. In the Entry level group, who have been immersed in the project, attendance is currently at 90% which is 9% up from the same cohort last academic year, and all the students in the group have been retained so far. A learning walk and student case study carried out within the group showed that students were able to talk openly about the challenges they face and that they were able to take risks and share with one another the painful stories of their past.

The experience in the level 1 group has not been as immersive yet: attendance for the cohort for the term has remained steady at 84% over 18/19 and 19/20. This is still below the college target of 90% but a step in the right direction. Evidence from learning walks shows that students have found the lessons stimulating and have expressed to me that the content of the lessons has been motivating and powerful. The tutor for this group has grown in confidence and has decided to use more of the materials with the group.

Attendance for term 2 continues to be high, which may be indicative of the increased focus on wellbeing. All the students from term 1 have progressed on to term 2. This is particularly notable as the level 1 group is a non-accredited group and students often lose motivation at this stage of the academic year as there is no external qualification attached to the course and it can feel that there is a ‘long way to go’.

The data is replicated in the level 2 group with attendance for term one at 82% for the past two academic years and has increased to 89% for term two. Some of the comments from the student evaluations also bear witness to the impact of the course on the students:

I really enjoyed the activities used in class for the past few weeks and I really understand what wellbeing means to me.

Talking about this topic made me think about my wellbeing and solutions for me to improve it.

Honestly this course is amazing and I’m very happy that I’m taking it.

It really does increase our resilience and teach us how to take care of our minds and bodies.

Learning from this project

Students were engaged, motivated and inspired throughout their learning of this topic. Many demonstrated a high level of commitment to attending class when they were experiencing illness, stress or other conflicting events in their lives. They participated fully in class activities and there was a high completion rate of homework tasks.

They have been able to reflect on the English skills they were developing along the way and enjoyed the range of activities used throughout the term. In one end-of-term evaluation, students expressed how this course had given them time and space to consider their wellbeing. There has been general consensus from students and tutors that making time to reflect on wellbeing and life challenges can enhance wellbeing and emotional resilience.
The impact of the course could have been greater if all tutors had been as fully involved as others, but some needed time to reflect and grow in confidence to tackle sensitive subjects and topics with students. Others felt that the materials need to be reviewed and revised in alignment with the recent Functional Skills Reforms. This will bring in greater opportunities for staff to contribute to and collaborate on these revisions.

We have witnessed as a team that enabling students to talk about some of the issues they face in a safe space has improved student engagement and focus, and general wellbeing. We have discovered that our students can benefit from lesson topics that resonate with painful experiences and that they can move forward from them with a more positive mindset.