Conversations on Empathy - three inspiring stories


As the new academic year lies just around the corner, we thought we’d take a quick look back on the three highlights of our year working in schools across the world. We work with a wide range of educators and schools, from state schools to boarding schools, local comprehensives to international overseas schools, home-educators to some of the biggest academies in the country.

In our 2018-19 year, there were three schools which really stood out in their approach to supporting the emotional health and wellbeing of their students, each of them working in very different ways within their communities, but all offering inspirational ideas and practices to create transformative school communities.

Here’s a quick summary:

Denefield School | Newbury, UK


Denefield is a large academy school for 11-18 year olds in Newbury, with over 1000 students on their roll. It is so refreshing when you encounter a school whose vision and ethos place values at the very heart of learning So it is at Denefield. The leadership of Denefield understand the importance of having teachers who are compassionate and connected to students’ emotional wellbeing, and know that this compassion lies at the heart of what makes a good teacher – in many ways the academic element is secondary. For if a teacher can truly connect with their students, can empathise and engage with them on many emotional levels, then the learning is given free reign to flourish and to bloom. You can be the best physicist, mathematician, chemist, linguist etc. in the world, but if you don’t know how to connect with your students, you will not make a good teacher.

Denefield dedicates half-days of learning every term to focus on one of their core values – allowing both staff and students to engage in a range of activities and discussion-based learning to practice these values. Their vertical tutor-group format (with 11-16 year olds all within the same tutor group) means that students gain pastoral learning in a more “family-like” setting, with the ability to learn from each other and support each other in different stages of adolescent transition.

These are just a few of the inspiring elements happening at Denefield, allowing the school to support a well-rounded and nurturing approach to education. You can read more here.

UWC East Africa | Arusha, Tanzania


UWC East Africa is one of our very favourite schools. With two campuses in Arusha and Moshi in Tanzania, this is an international school with a strong focus on global thinking and whole-child development, with students from over 40 different nationalities within the school. ThoughtBox started working them in 2016 when Director Rachel was living in Tanzania and we were immediately struck by just how open, inclusive and welcoming the school was.

Phil Bowen the Headteacher offers a fresh and vibrant approach to leadership within the school. For a start, his door is always open – literally – and he takes the time to really listen to anyone wanting to talk to him. He knows the staff and the students incredibly well and clearly cares about their whole wellbeing – to the point of even taking home and washing a student’s muddy PE kit when they were struggling to stay on top of things!

Whole child learning and empathy are firmly embedded in the ethos of this school, with the open and inclusive policy meaning that children know they can talk openly to their teachers about any issue they feel is important. There are teachers across the school talk who are happy to talk openly to their students and listen without judgement or embarrassment when exploring issues that may be troubling or puzzling them, as they know how important it is to create spaces for young people to talk about what’s on their mind, especially in these current times where mental health and wellbeing amongst young people is so fragile.
The school has just transitioned into a UWC (United World College), part of a global conglomerate of schools. Central to the ethos of UWC is the belief that education can bring together young people from all backgrounds on the basis of their shared humanity, to engage with the possibility of social change through courageous action, personal example and selfless leadership. Read more about UWC East Africa here.

Whitley Park Primary | Reading, UK

It is clear from the school’s values just what sort of nurturing environment they are creating for their pupils:

It is clear from the school’s values just what sort of nurturing environment they are creating for their pupils:

Whitley Park is a large Primary school on the outskirts of Reading with over 650 children on their roll. We first met some of the teachers at a Mental Health and Wellbeing Conference in London and started working with them in February. We were struck by just how devoted the school and the teachers were to the whole-child development of their students. Emotional wellbeing and positive mental health are seen as just as important as academic achievement and this is a clear focus on the school’s work and development, as they are all too aware that one cannot be attained without the other being nurtured.

The school runs an in-house therapeutic service to support and nurture the emotional health of their students, offering group or 1:1 support to suit individual children’s emotional needs, ranging from friendship problems to bereavement to more serious challenges that could affect their mental health moving into adolescence. Within this framework, and across the wider pedagogy of the school, they aim to give children the tools to follow their own moral compass, to find and nurture the resilience within when facing life challenges; and to strive for and believe in a future for themselves that is filled with purpose and joy.

When we ran our ThoughtBox CPD with the whole-staff, we were struck by the open heartedness of the teachers and the determination to support their children moving forward into the world, So many of the conversations that we shared with colleagues during that afternoon focused on the different needs that children are showing for more emotional support, and their work to embed positive practice within the whole-school to work on prevention as well as supporting those in need. We are delighted that they have embedded our ThoughtBox curriculum across the school to support this long-term wellbeing.
Read more about Whitley Park Primary here.

Rachel MussonComment