By Rami Madani
It goes without saying that the past year has been a time of unprecedented challenge and uncertainty for school communities around the world. If supporting the social and emotional health of a school community is a big task in a regular school year, what happens to nurturing wellbeing in the midst of a global pandemic? The winner of the International School Award Wellbeing Initiative 2021, The International School of Kuala Lumpur (ISKL), shares how it tackled the challenge.
Nurturing wellness is one of our school’s four strategic priorities, ensuring that we focus on providing opportunities, skills, and the knowledge to help achieve emotional balance. It is an essential component of our vision and mission at ISKL, just as community connection is a hallmark of the learning journey for all our constituents.
With the implementation of a highly restrictive and lengthy nationwide lockdown in Malaysia in March 2020, it became rapidly apparent that we needed to find a way to help our community to stay positive and connected, and at the same time to recognise the range of emotions being experienced across the school. Loneliness and grief associated with not being able to connect with friends and peers either at school or socially, coupled with uncertainty and apprehensiveness about the future, affected not only our students, but also parents, faculty, and staff.
Continuing to nurture wellness as our true north, we sought a creative way to help support our community, foster some much-needed positivity and connection, and keep everyone smiling regardless of the situation.
The oft-quoted saying ‘when life gives you lemons, make lemonade’ was the catalyst for the creation of the Department of PAWsitivity.
Optimising every online channel at our disposal, we seeded the idea of a department charged with sharing positive and inspiring news stories. Our school mascot – a Panther – was appointed as the Head of PAWsitivity to act as the conduit for celebrating ISKL’s community resilience and the positive stories taking place in the midst of the pandemic.
PAWsitivity in action
In reality, the ‘department’ was a virtual newsroom eliciting, receiving, processing, and broadcasting hundreds of learning stories, performances, community and outreach initiatives, all of which were 100% community-generated.
Tailoring our message according to the demographic, we used our social media and internal online channels as creative outlets. This included a takeover of the school’s weekly e-newsletter to host content, and the creation of a new school magazine The PAW to showcase community initiatives. This approach gave our students, faculty, and staff multiple avenues to share and be inspired, express themselves emotionally, and connect with friends and colleagues. I believe that one of the key success factors of the initiative was that every constituent had the opportunity to participate, learn new skills and connect.
Sharing inspiring examples of community members reaching out to others was a key element of the initiative. Examples included parent-led workshops, High School students implementing fun virtual activities for younger students, the introduction of virtual playdates to help English as an Additional Language students practise their conversational skills, and the creation of a virtual playground for Elementary students to foster friendships in a safe space.
We also intentionally created content categories to target specific areas of wellbeing and acknowledge the very real emotions associated with the challenges students were experiencing. For example, the categories, ‘As if We Were in School’ and ‘Things We Don’t Normally Get to Do at School’ were designed to both mirror normal school activity and recognise the differences to help students process their everyday experiences.
Under the PAWsitivity umbrella, we also fostered connections through art, music, sport challenges, and service learning initiatives including food and clothing drives to support the disadvantaged. A Virtual Virtuosos initiative, designed to share the joy of music during lockdown, became so popular it flourished across all divisions and stakeholders. PAWsitivity spread around the world with ISKL’s alumni overseas contributing stories of their experiences and our High School virtual choir participating on the global stage in the ‘Call to Unite’, a 24-hour live stream broadcast with luminaries such as Oprah Winfrey and Deepak Chopra.
Sustaining the initiative
Fast forward to 2021 and PAWsitivity has become an integral part of our community, keeping us connected during the fluctuating periods of campus openings and closures. As the situation has changed, the initiative has adapted to meeting the changing needs of our stakeholders.
A community wellbeing calendar featuring free activities and workshops for parents, students, staff, and faculty members was introduced in response to ongoing restrictions. Our counsellors have adapted their workshops for students and parents to reflect topical issues, and our regular monthly optional online conversations and information sessions with school leaders continue to be instrumental in taking our parents with us on the journey as we navigate the myriad of challenges associated with COVID-19. I have found the regular virtual information sessions that I have shared with our parents, faculty and staff throughout the pandemic have been invaluable in helping us to maintain our strong partnerships, to listen to each other’s perspective, and to remain agile during uncertain times.
Embracing wellness and positivity in the face of this unprecedented situation are lifelong skills that we have the unique opportunity to teach, model and practise. Implementing an intentional initiative to nurture wellness in this way has been an important component in our school-wide approach to wellbeing that includes programmes run by our school counsellors, educational psychologists, medical professionals, and learning support specialists. This creative wellbeing initiative has helped us find more ways to support our community and maintain our focus on this important strategic priority.
Top tips for sharing PAWsitivity
- Recognise that emotional stress is experienced by all members of the community – parents and teachers as well as students – and explore ways of involving everyone in your initiative.
- Look for the positive and find ways to connect your community that encourage participation and learning, and offer a broader view of the situation. Not only will it help nurture wellbeing, it will also help constituents develop a positive mindset that will last a lifetime.
- Target your message according to the platform so that you extend reach across the different demographic of your community members.
- Look for creative ways to tie the campaign back to your school’s culture and use these as a springboard to incorporate all the regular wellbeing initiatives that take place.
- Continue to monitor your community and adapt your programme to their needs as the situation evolves.
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