Dr Sue Roffey

Relationships and Resilience

IN THIS INTERVIEW: Dr Sue Roffey talks about the dangers of toxic school environments on student and staff well-being, how to know if a school environment is toxic, and what schools can do to create healthier happier working and learning environments for all, so that relationships improve and so that students become more resilient to the challenges of life.

Play Video



ELENI VARDAKI: You’ve recently published 2 books on the importance of environment in schools. So would you like to talk a little bit about that, about the importance of the quality of the environment for learning?

DR SUE ROFFEY: Well, the books themselves are called The Primary Behaviour Cookbook and The Secondary Behaviour Cookbook.


And what I’ve done in the first chapter is talk about the fact that, whatever strategy you might have for behaviour, it’s unlikely to work if it doesn’t take place in a warm and caring environment. And you if do it for long enough.


It’s like putting cakes in a cold oven for 5 minutes, and hoping that they will cook, but it just doesn’t work.


The quality of a school environment is absolutely critical to well-being.


And it’s the well-being of students, certainly, but it’s also for the well-being of teachers, and everybody who is connected with the school.


ELENI VARDAKI: What problems do you see in your work in schools, with regard to the quality of environment, which connects to well-being for students and well-being for teachers?


DR SUE ROFFEY: Schools are very different, and you can often just pick up the quality of an environment just by walking through a school and sitting and listening to people. It’s there on their faces. It’s there on what’s on the wall. And it’s there in their conversations.

There are some schools (I’m sorry to say), which can be called toxic environments, where nobody pays attention to the culture of the school.


And when that happens, people might just thrash about a bit, but nobody actually flourishes or thrives. It’s like having an aquarium, and not cleaning it out, from time to time.


The quality of the environment is very much demonstrated in what I call the micro-moments. The little things, the little interactions, that happen between people.


Jane Dutton call these High Quality Connections, and sometimes I just call them Magic Micro-Moments.


They are in the way that people greet each other, and the interest that people have in each other. The way people are willing to accept us, to accept mistakes that people make.


Being able to trust people to do the things that they say they will do.


There’s a whole load of things within a high-quality relationship that revolve around quite a lot of Emotional Literacy.


Sometimes, people say that emotions and relationships are a bit like the icing on the cake in educational environments, but they’re not. They are the cake. They are the things that everything else spreads from.


It’s important to acknowledge and to deliver the curriculum, but how you do that and how you run the school, and the vision and the values of the school, matters enormously for everybody’s well-being.



ELENI VARDAKI: Are there any other problems that you see in International Schools, specifically?


DR SUE ROFFEY: I think it’s true in a number of schools that they want to be seen as a hub of excellence. Each school wants to produce really good academic outcomes – and there’s nothing wrong with that.


Some people see a focus on well-being as an opposite to academic excellence. My argument is, if you focus on well-being as the central core of your school, then you will get better academic outcomes from everybody, because students will be more engage.


One of the big issues for a number of schools, where parents pay for their children to go to those schools, is that they expect their children to be better than everybody else. But you can’t have everybody in the school better than everybody else in this school. It just doesn’t work like that. So schools need to be looking at how they develop the maximum potential for each person. That they focus on the strengths that they have, and they help them to develop those, rather than always being in competition with somebody else; you can’t have a competition where everybody is the winner.


If you get students who constantly feel like they’re a loser in high academic schools, then that impacts very much on their well-being.


The other thing that impacts on well-being is that when students are so hot-housed, they don’t have time to develop other aspects of themselves. And sometimes their mental health is really at risk when that happens.


We know that there are some students who go on to university, and without that massive amount of support and backing, they are unable to stand independently on their own feet.



One of the things that I use in the work that I do, across a number of different scenarios, are the ASPIRE Principles.


A is for Agency.

Agency which means that you don’t always tell young people what to do. It’s not didactic. You ask them good questions and you enable them, in some ways, to take responsibilities for their learning and themselves.


S is for Safety.

Everybody needs to feel safe in the school, and that’s physically psychologically and emotionally. In the school where one can’t admit to mistakes or when it’s important to be perfect, that’s leads to all sorts of problems for some kids. And we know that there’s quite a lot of students around at the moment whose aim is perfection. They need to be seen to be the best at everything. And it’s unachievable, and therefore it can lead to some really bad feelings and guilt and huge pressure.


P is for Positivity.

Positivity is having a solution-focused way of approaching all issues. So rather than talk about what’s going wrong all of the time, thinking: “Well, where do I need to go, and what’s the next step for me?” And the other part of that is because of emotions.

Barbera Fredrickson talks about the fact that if you have negative emotions that are overwhelming for you, it’s quite hard to focus on learning.


You can imagine that if you were going to school, and you saw a car crash on your way to school, and you get to school and people ignore the fact that you’re in a bit of a state and say, “Finish that Maths paper”, your ability to concentrate is going to be pretty weak, really.


So what we do under P for Positivity is promote as many of the positive emotions as we can.


Not necessarily shallow emotions, but a sort of deep emotion, so that you’re conscious of the fact that these things have meaning for you, in some way.

Because we know that having meaning in life is connected very much to authentic well-being. And the fact teachers are in a good place, because what they do every day is a meaningful occupation. And especially if they’re allowed to be a bit creative and flexible within it. And laughter.


Play and laughter is quite often not seen as something that should necessarily be a part of everyday life in schools, when in fact the research that has been done with children says that school is so much of a better learning environment for them when teachers can have a bit of joke and everything is not super serious all of the time.


So those things are important.


I is for Inclusion

We know that a sense of belonging is critical to resilience and well-being. Feeling that you belong there. And belonging isn’t necessarily in a uniform, you know, or in cheering the football team. It’s actually about how you feel about being at school, whether you feel that you’re making progress, and people don’t care about you and your life. And not only your life in school, but maybe the things that you will bring in from outside of school.


R is for Respect.

A little bit of an old fashioned words I guess, these days, but I think being respectful to people means taking account of their circumstances.


Listening to them without judging, and not making those judgments until you know a little bit about people’s stories.


And I have seen, unfortunately, some quite disrespectful behaviour in school, both to students and to parents sometimes, as well.


Like a simple idea, as when you have a meeting with the parent. You check with them that the timing of that meeting fits in with what’s possible for them.


So you don’t say, “I want to see you at 11”, and they have to take half a day off work, maybe.


And that the meeting starts on time, and people don’t answer the phone during the meetings.


I’ve seen people paying attention to other devices when they’re supposed to be listening to somebody, and it’s deeply disrespectful.


Get the students to talk about what that means for them.


E stand for Equity

Equity – I changed Equality to Equity, because Equality is about having everybody the same. And Equity means everybody having an equal chance. It’s about fairness, and it’s about being flexible when you need to be flexible.

I think those are a really good set of principles to promote well-being in a school. They are the principles that also underpinned the Social Emotional Learning that I do, which is called Circle of Solutions. I think it’s something that should be a part of school all the ways through – right from little children all the way through to adults, in fact.


Sometimes, the only time we give attention to relationships is when they go pear-shaped. And so people take themselves off to counselling, rather than actually learning:

·        What’s involved in good communication?

·        What’s involved in a trusting, healthy, safe, and warm relationship?

·        How do you do that?

·        What’s the difference for teachers between role and relationship, and how do they manage that?


I think those sorts of things are important to discuss.


Circle Solutions is a tool for well-being.


It can be something that happens for 20 minutes, once or twice a week, where students do things together and talk together about issues – not about incidents, but about issues – that are important for them, in a depersonalized way. So it’s safe. And then during the school day, there are times when the things that they have learned in Circle can apply. And if teachers are doing Circles with the students, which is the model that I use, then they’ll also learn more about their students and be able to respond to them more effectively and appropriately, when needed.



 ELENI VARDAKI: I’m thinking of, you know, some objections that someone might say when they’re thinking as a school leader, IB Coordinator or a teacher: “We’ve already got so much content that we have to cover for the IB Diploma, we don’t have time to add anymore.” What would you say to that?


DR SUE ROFFEY: It’s an argument that I have heard many, many times.


Teachers will often say to me, you know, “We need more time.“ Time is finite. There is no such thing as more time, right? So what’s important is how you prioritize your time, and sometimes the things that you’ll do in that 20 minutes will save time.


It’s about looking at the Urgent and the Important.

What happens, a lot of the time, is that we constantly pay attention to the Urgent, and then the Important gets left out. And then it comes back to bite you on the bum, because you don’t pay attention to the Important – and it has a way of becoming very urgent.


I think that it’s about looking at where you can fit things in that I think are going to be important, across the board.


You can discuss things in Circles, like students talking together about how they organized their time, or what they do about the dreaded procrastination. And a whole range of other things, like what do they do when they get very anxious.


We know that we have students who are super-duper anxious about how they are seen by other people, how they achieve, and the marks that they get.


It’s important that students, for their well-being, feel positive about themselves, who they are becoming, and the world that they are in. And if we don’t do that, then we are undermining mental health for people. And that seems to me to be a big mistake.


ELENI VARDAKI: Is there anything that you would like to add, before we wrap up?


DR SUE ROFFEY: Although it’s getting high scores that opens doors for people, there are a lot of people who have done really well in life without getting high schools.


We need to rethink our definition about what success means, and what success means, in life.


We need to enable our young people to live a life to which they can contribute, relate well and actually get some of the benefits of the big picture of being alive, rather than just focus on status, success, and stuff.


ELENI VARDAKI: Dr Roffey thank you so much for your insights and the principles that you shared.