Learning To Listen

Wiltshire Life

Anne Jackson, deputy head of pastoral care at Dauntsey's, discusses how important it is to listen when pupils need a friendly ear. 

Now, more than ever young people need to know there is someone to talk to.

This past year has presented challenges to us all. Covid-19 has had a significant impact on children and young adults in particular and it has never been so important for them to be able to access the support they need.

Good mental health and wellbeing must be embedded into the culture of all our schools; the emotional wellbeing of children is equally important as their physical health. Good mental health allows children and young people to develop the resilience to cope with whatever life throws at them and grow into well-rounded, healthy adults.

Pupils at Dauntsey's know that they can turn to their housemaster or housemistress, their tutor, their teachers, a school counsellor or, alongside these, our peer listening service.

The listening service started 15 years ago. The concept was developed by a group of upper school pupils, who wanted to receive training in order to be the first point of contact for other pupils to talk through any problems or worries. It is well known that young people often turn to each other as their first line of support. There can be many reasons that young people may not feel that they want to approach an adult initially and that talking to a fellow pupil can some times be easier, and therefore it is vital that we equip our pupils with the tools to do this.

Today, we have 28 volunteer listeners ranging from those in the fourth form to upper sixth pupils. Each volunteer receives three one-hour training sessions, plus a one-to-one interview led by one of our counsellors. The training sessions focus on issues surrounding safeguarding and confidentiality, they give guidance on how to provide support and when to refer pupils to a counsellor or a member of the pastoral team. Each listener is assigned a buddy within the group so that there is someone with whom they can discuss individual cases and agree the best course of action. Nobody is left to deal with anything on their own.

Listeners wear a silver badge on their jacket or blazer to help identify them. Posters are displayed around the school with contact details for all the listeners, along with the school safeguarding leads and counsellors. Pupils can chat to listeners anywhere in the school and there is also a small meeting room dedicated to the service where they are able to meet.

Topics vary widely but often relate to stress and anxiety, homesickness and friendship issues. These can often be dealt with by the listener but staff will step in if necessary. The listeners are helpful in feeding back to us on common threads that might emerge.

As well as the initial listener training, we hold regular meetings, dinners and work shops with outside speakers. A recent speaker was Fred Coombs who publishes a regular podcast called "Dead Dad" which tries to dispel some of the taboos around talking about death. Some of our listeners recently attended a pupil-led mental health conference that provided useful insights. We hope that the skills char they learn with us will also be put to good use once they leave school.

It is very encouraging that the conversation around mental health is growing nationally and it is reassuring for pupils and parents to see that talking about worries and emotions is part of the culture at Dauntsey's.

Carole Coupe is one of the qualified school counsellors who oversees and trains the listeners. She has been at the school for some 23 years. Her cavapoo, Hollie, who is a trained therapy dog, is much loved by all.

"The students who volunteer for the listening service are often already very good listeners and used to being there to support their friends and fellow students. By nature they are people you would want to talk to and therefore pupils find them very approachable. I like to think of them as a first aid team - often they can help resolve worries that pupils might have. If not, they can refer them to any member of the pastoral support team that we have - either a tutor, housemaster, housemistress or me and my colleague.

"It's important for the listeners to realise they are not there to provide solutions but to help their peers find the answers for themselves. Often it is a case of just talking things through and being helped to see a different perspective."