The first 18 months of the BOOST project provided a solid basis for developing the BOOST approach and building knowledge of the context in the three target countries: Norway, Poland, and Spain. By mid-2019, the project had completed the ‘formative study’ (WP1) and worked on the ‘BOOST approach and design’ (WP2). In the continuation of the project, the protocols for the evaluation of the approach were also finalized (WP4 implementation study, WP5 effectiveness study, and WP6 economic evaluation), and project partners planned to start implementing BOOST in the selected schools in the autumn of 2019. However, the development of the approach was slightly delayed, and the consortium decided to start the implementation in early 2020. Unfortunately, this coincided with the outbreak of the pandemic, which further delayed the implementation in all three countries.
In November 2020, BOOST released its first policy brief called “The need for a more systematic approach to promoting mental wellbeing among children in schools”, written by Åse Marit Hovden (Viken County) on behalf of the BOOST Consortium. The policy brief summarises some of the findings of the formative study, and outlines 13 recommendations for the sustainable planning of SEL-based learning environments. The pandemic still impacted the implementation of the BOOST approach.
In April 2021, schools are still at the mercy of openings and closures in almost all European countries. Recently, the BOOST scientific coordinator, Dr Stine Hellum Braathen, and the BOOST project coordinator, Gloria Azalde, explained us more about the current state of the project implementation.
Due to schools’ closures, didactical methods are constantly changing across Europe: children are often divided into smaller groups and new hybrid teaching methods are tested. These aspects subject children and teachers to stress and fatigue, which makes it challenging to proceed actively with the project’s activities in the schools. Despite these limitations, the project partners are working actively to pursue BOOST’s goals. Among the current priorities, BOOST is carefully working on two aspects: the continuous collection of data and a second iteration (version) of the BOOST approach based on feedback and lessons learned so far.
BOOST maintains close contact with the schools and is still active in data collection. Data was collected before the pandemic (questionnaires had already been administered to children and parents as part of WP5), during the pandemic, and will also be collected after the pandemic. During the health emergency, it requires extra efforts to involve school staff, carry out questionnaires, and get consent, as highlighted by Dr Braathen. Data analysis and comparison is ongoing. In Dr Braathen’s opinion, it will be very interesting to compare the results of post-COVID data collection to data from before the pandemic. This may give us an indication of how the pandemic has affected school children.
As explained by Dr Braathen and Ms Azalde, the consortium is working on a second version of the BOOST approach, based on input received from the implementation schools. This is not without its challenges. Although the pandemic has modified teaching methods by speeding up digitalization and introducing new hybrid forms of teaching, according to Dr Braathen, it is unlikely that schools will be totally digitalized in the future. Therefore, the BOOST approach is being developed primarily for physical school environments. In its core, the BOOST approach is about changing the mindset of whole school environments, through everyday interactions among staff and children. In this manner, the school will promote an environment of daily social and emotional learning, and thus promote wellbeing and build resilience among children.
As stressed by Ms Azalde, BOOST is an innovation project, and time is needed to make innovations and change attitudes. It is important to emphasise that this school innovation is not about digitalization, but it concerns human factors and interactions, which has a key role in safeguarding, protecting, and enhancing children’s mental health. The objective remains to help schools adopt organizational changes to follow long-term strategies to improve children’s mental health and resilience. To achieve this, it is not only essential to innovate but also to communicate it clearly and smartly to schools. Indeed, according to Ms Azalde, intervention schools have begun to think differently about SEL programmes thanks to the work of BOOST.
Since the implementation of the BOOST approach has been interrupted twice, and engagement has slowed down considerably, the hope is that in the autumn of 2021, as the majority of the European population gets vaccinated, schools will be able to operate more normally, and to devote more time to the implementation and continuous development of the approach. To this aim, the BOOST consortium has requested the European Commission for an eighteen-month extension, which will correspond to the delay in implementation caused by the pandemic.