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How we developed the BrainWaves Wellbeing Curriculum

The BrainWaves Wellbeing Curriculum – available free to all secondary schools and sixth form colleges across the UK – was first introduced in 2023. The development of the curriculum represents a concerted effort to integrate scientific research, pedagogical principles, and practical strategies to create an impactful mental health education programme. In this blog, Tracey Riseborough from BrainWaves explains how we went about it…

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The vision: Evidence-based, engaging and empowering

From the outset, our objectives for the BrainWaves curriculum were clear. We wanted to develop a programme that was firmly grounded in evidence-based practices, ensuring that every component, particularly the strategies we recommend, is supported by robust research.

Equally important was our goal to make the curriculum engaging, ensuring that pupils find the material interesting and relevant. Active learning is consequently at the heart of our approach. Guided by the ASPIRE principles (Agency, Safety, Positivity, Inclusion, Respect, and Equity), each BrainWaves lesson aims to engage pupils through interactive discussions, case studies, quizzes and videos.

Lastly, our aspiration was to create an empowering experience for pupils, providing them with a toolkit of evidence-based strategies, opportunities to practise them and the confidence to use them when needed to protect and support their wellbeing and mental health.

Overall, the curriculum is intended to give young people a greater sense of agency in managing their mental health and instil optimism about their potential to change. This stems from the development of pupils’ mental health knowledge, as well as their emotional, communication and critical literacy skills. Above all, we want them to feel that they have a part to play in their own wellbeing.

The inspiration: Positive psychology powerhouses

The BrainWaves curriculum is deeply rooted in the principles of positive psychology, drawing inspiration from the works of renowned scholars such as Martin Seligman, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Barbara Fredrickson, and Ilona Boniwell. Their research on flourishing, flow, and positive emotions has significantly influenced our approach.

One of our guiding lights for the curriculum was Seligman’s concept that positive emotions, resilience, and optimism can be nurtured and developed – and that we constantly need to top up our ‘wellbeing bucket’ to help protect our mental health when life gets difficult. With mental health, a lot of work is needed when things start to go wrong – so our curriculum is all about nurturing the positives before that point. We believe that by giving young people the tools to make choices that influence their wellbeing, we can increase their sense of agency and reduce feelings of helplessness.

PERMA: Our North Star

Our curriculum strongly aligns with Seligman’s PERMA model of wellbeing, which stands for:

These five strands form the backbone of our lesson topics, encouraging young people to incorporate the key principles of positive psychology into their lives in order to protect and promote their mental health and wellbeing.

Beyond PERMA

In addition to the PERMA strands of the curriculum, we’ve added two extra themes to deepen pupils’ understanding of themselves and the world around them:

  • Brain and body: Understanding teenage brain development, hormones, sleep patterns etc and how these can impact our mental health.
  • Thinking about mental health: How to evaluate the vast quantity of mental health information available online, and handling the pressures of social media.

The image below shows the lessons within the BrainWaves curriculum and their relevant PERMA strand by age range.

As you can see, the lessons follow a spiral curriculum approach – often revisiting the same topic several times so that pupils can build on their knowledge as they progress through secondary school, revisiting mental health strategies that might work better for them at different stages in their lives and picking up new ideas to try out as they get older.

Please note: we have currently 17 lessons available from the entire curriculum and are planning to release more in due course. Please check back on our website for new releases or follow us on social media to be kept up-to-date with new lesson announcements.

Building skills, literacies and attitudes

In designing this curriculum, we have drawn on Claxton’s (2018) metaphor of a river of learning, encompassing three levels:

  1. Content and information: Providing solid, research-backed knowledge about mental health.
  2. Skills and literacies: Developing critical thinking, emotional regulation, scientific literacy, and more.
  3. Attitudes and dispositions: Emphasising growth mindset, resilience, and positive psychology principles.

For Level 1, the content of the lessons is described above. This content has been selected through careful consultation with teachers and educational experts.

Level 2 refers to the skills, strategies and literacies we hope to support through these lessons. This includes but is not limited to, scientific literacy, information literacy, personal reflection, active listening, emotional regulation, healthy sleep habits as well as others outlined in more detail in the lesson plans and teacher guidance. These will be supported mainly through the activities carried out in the lessons.

Level 3 speaks to the broader ideals that guide our approach as a whole, as well as the attitudes and dispositions we seek both to model and to encourage in pupils. These include ideas such as Seligman’s positive psychology and Dweck’s growth mindset. Whilst we do not claim to be able to develop these over the course of a series of lessons, it is hoped that in modelling them and in highlighting their importance, we can emphasise their value to learners.

Evaluation and improvement

Through the Department of Education at the University of Oxford, we are working to constantly evaluate and review the BrainWaves lessons with a view to modifying and improving the content. Each lesson plan comes with links to a short feedback form at the end, which can be completed by both pupils and teachers. We are very keen to receive feedback so would urge teachers to take part in this important evaluation process.

Our first evaluation of the 16-18 lessons/curriculum was completed by nearly 12,000 pupils and over 50 teachers, and revealed the following:

  • 73% of pupils enjoyed the lessons.
  • 74% of pupils said they learned something.
  • 64% said they would try out a new strategy to support their mental health following the lesson

We’ll release more information about our evaluation findings as it becomes available so please watch this space!

Final thoughts: Support for teachers

One of the hardest things about creating a curriculum of wellbeing lessons is ensuring that they can be taught easily and with minimal support by busy, non-specialist teachers. To help with this, we have provided a succinct toolkit to help teachers faced with the challenges of teaching about mental health and wellbeing:

  • Teacher guides: Each lesson is supported by a concise teacher guide, outlining the main activities within the lesson and how to deliver them, as well as downloadable handouts. You can find an example here.
  • Scientific guides: Each lesson also includes links to a scientific guide highlighting the evidence and research behind the specific mental health strategy suggested in that lesson. You can find an example here.
  • Webinars: We have an ever-increasing library of webinars exploring the key concepts presented in the BrainWaves curriculum, such as PERMA, sleep, stress and the teenage brain. All new and previous webinars are listed here for you to book onto or watch again.
  • Blogs: Our blogs cover lots of advice and support for promoting a classroom environment in which sensitive issues such as mental health can be discussed. You can read them here.

So, there you have it! Grounded in research and brought to life with the aim of making a real difference, the BrainWaves curriculum offers the chance to foster a real culture of wellbeing and resilience in your school. We do hope that you enjoy teaching these lessons, but that most importantly, they have a positive impact on your pupils in helping them proactively manage their mental health and wellbeing.

Thanks for reading!

About the author

Tracey Riseborough is the Content Manager and School Programmes Manager at BrainWaves. She has worked in educational publishing for over 25 years, developing resources for schools in the areas of mental health, special educational needs, assessment and the early years.