World Mental Health Day 2023: SPAN Symposium shines light on student wellbeing

SPAN hosted its third annual symposium on 7-8 October, launching ground-breaking new research into what healthy transitions look like, and practical insights into how to help every student in international schools thrive.

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This article is taken from the Winter 2023/24 issue of

Think Global People magazine

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The links between positive transitions, healthy attachments in school and a sense of belonging to academic success, long-term health and mental wellbeing are well documented in academic research. Leading schools around the world, particularly Safe Passage Across Networks (SPAN) members, are taking a highly intentional approach in this vital area. Understanding the importance of well-managed transitions in education is also an important lens for the wider global mobility supply chain and employers because assignment success depends on the all-round wellbeing of every family member relocating.Symposium sponsor and Relocate Award winner the International School of London, for example, has transitions-care at the core of their approach. It proactively engages with stakeholders to support families in their cross-border moves. A leader in this important arena, ISL is hosting the 'Positive Transitions-Care School Leadership Think Tank' on 3 November. This will further explore how positive transitions-care enhances educational experiences, addresses critical transitional periods, and creates pathways to lifelong learning and fulfilment.

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The importance of positive attachments for life

Opening 2023’s SPAN Symposium, Dr Doug Ota, SPAN founder, delivered fascinating results from his new academic research. The 'Safe Passage Attachment Study at International Schools' (SPASIS) ran from 2016-23 with practical support from Symposium sponsor, the Council of International Schools. This rigorous and highly relevant study examined healthy attachments and the role of international schools in supporting children deal with life events positively.From a mental wellbeing perspective, among the many conclusions and avenues for further research – which Relocate Global will cover in the upcoming International Education and Schools Fair and winter issue of Think Global People magazine – is that “students who feel more secure in their connection to people at school, and the school as an entity, feel more belonging, are better adjusted and are more secure in their attachment in general," said Dr Ota. “More attachment in school corresponds to long-term outcomes that are robustly associated with long-term health and wellbeing. Attachment in school matters.”

Supporting every child through change

Factors like the pandemic, the increase in cross-border moves and third-culture kids are prompting fundamental questions around how educators can support every child develop positive attachments in schools, including making cultural adjustments in international settings. The key is taking individual experiences of change and transition ‘out of the shadows’ into safe environments at school. Panellists including international students sharing their own experiences, educators, consultants and schools spoke to these points at the 2023 SPAN Symposium.Former international school headteacher and consultant Matthew Savage opened day two talking about why positive transitions-care is an essential element of wellbeing. Matthew Savage is a passionate advocate for helping students “remove the mask” sometimes needed to manage change to ensure that “every single child, without exception or condition, can be seen, be heard, be known and belong”. Data-driven approaches, such as the Transitions Passport developed by Dr Ota proven in the SPASIS research to measure indicators of attachment, can help schools hone their approach to transitions-care.Educational consultant April Remfrey and Roslyn Dotterweich, life-centred education instructor at the American International School of Jeddah, accented inclusion for all by highlighting practical ways to prepare neurodiverse students to transition within and between schools and to post-school life.

Improving transitions care in higher education

Supporting every student also includes the real need for better transitions support for students globally in higher education. Katie Rigg, director of higher education services and student wellbeing at the Council of International Schools, and Kristen Rosenfield, secondary counsellor at the Luanda International School in Angola, discussed this in the context of the greater awareness around and need for better mental wellbeing support in universities.They introduced a new model for supporting students make international and cultural transitions. This includes those returning to their passport country after being at school abroad. It is based on new data made possible by the pandemic that allows comparison between international students and the domestic university student population.The research highlights the need for greater action in this area. Of the 45,000 students surveyed in over 50 US universities for the study, international students were less likely to be diagnosed with anxiety or depression, but more likely to report they have ever attempted to take their own lives.“This finding shows that international students aren’t recognised as having mental health conditions but are engaging in behaviours that significantly indicate severe mental health struggles,” said Katie Rigg. “There’s other research too that suggests that if not managed well, transitions generally – we’re focusing here on from schools to university – can undermine protective relationships and can lead to problems in forming identity and issues of unresolved grief.”The findings speaks to CIS research among its community that shows more schools are reporting higher levels of eating disorders and anxiety. Schools are concerned about the impact of this on the next stages of students’ lives. This reflects the wider uptick in mental ill-health among students in the whole-school population since the pandemic.They also underpin the importance of supporting mental wellbeing year-round and at every life stage as a critical duty and obligation for educators, as well as employers. This is highlighted this World Mental Health Day, with its focus on “showing everyone that mental health matters and letting people know that it’s okay to ask for help, no matter what you’re going through.”

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