How can we better promote student wellbeing in our schools, colleges and universities?
What is student wellbeing?
The World Health Organisation defines wellbeing as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” (1946, p.1) and in their 2013 – 2020 mental health action plan defined mental health in particular as an individual’s ability to “realize their potential, cope with the normal stresses of life, work productively, and contribute to their communities” (2013, p.5). By these definitions, a student who is ‘well’ is one who is flourishing within and across the three categories of physical, mental and social wellbeing. While this is perhaps the most common or well-used definition of wellbeing, it is worth noting that it is not without its challenges, a notable challenge being the absence of spirituality as a component of the human experience and human flourishing (Larson, 1996). Whether a student is at university or studying for their A- levels, mental health difficulties and emotional health problems can cause serious and lasting problems.
Article 27 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child recognises the right of every child to “a standard of living adequate for the child’s physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development” (1989, p.13) suggesting that appropriate flourishing must also include spiritual development. Nevertheless, while a settled definition may not yet be in place, it is reasonable for schools and education departments to conceptualise student wellbeing as student flourishing.
However, the question of what it means to flourish can quickly become complex and authors such as Mowat (2020) and Slee (2018) problematise the use of measurement devices such as attainment statistics and pupil performance in standardised tests, questioning the extent to which such practices may in fact perpetuate academic underachievement, harming student wellbeing in the process. In contrast, free from entanglement with attainment and global league tables Positive Psychology offers a valuable perspective for educators seeking to better understand, evaluate and improve student wellbeing. Within Positive Psychology, subjective wellbeing is defined as the degree to which an individual evaluates the overall quality of their life as a whole positively (Lyubomirsky et al., 2005; Myers, 1992; Veenhoven, 1993). In this regard, student wellbeing can be understood as a student’s overall satisfaction with their life and this is helpful as it disentangles wellbeing from external judgements regarding factors such as academic attainment, disability and poverty which may not fully reflect the individual’s lived experienced and may even limit or harm wellbeing through restrictive framing.
Digging deeper into student wellbeing
We can further understand wellbeing as conceptualized by an individual sense of flourishing by considering the following question: What is our quality of life? We might answer this question by describing income or other similar resources and achievements, however even a cursory view of the culture shows us that money, status, beauty, and success don’t equate to wellbeing or happiness. There are countless individuals who have suffered depression, destructive addiction and even suicide despite appearing to have it all.
Equally, it is not hard to find examples of individuals and communities who, despite extreme misfortune and the absence of many of the conventional markers of success (health, wealth, etc.) find a way to flourish and be happy. In its simplest terms, quality of life appears to be a product of the positive and negative emotions experienced each day, which are related to, but not solely a product of, external factors. Being rich and successful and healthy is not enough on its own to insulate an individual against negative emotional experiences.
The inner world of the individual and the resources, beliefs, values, and assumptions that reside there also play an important role in their subjective experience. When conceptualizing wellbeing in this way, as the balance between positive and negative experiences, mediated by both internal and external factors, an interesting question emerges, ‘Why is it that some people flourish despite the challenging situations that they face?’. This question signals a move away from approaches that solely focus on the identification and removal of external barriers to wellbeing, by also considering the strengths and previously unconsidered internal resources which enabled flourishing despite, and in some cases because, of challenge.
In summary, wellbeing has been defined as individual flourishing brought about by a combination of external and internal factors. Making use of Bronfenbrenner’s ecological model (1992) and the work of Victor Frankl (1985) the coming section will further explore the external and internal factors which can affect student wellbeing.
What can affect student wellbeing?
Bronfenbrenner’s ecological model (1992) is a helpful tool for considering the various factors which can affect student wellbeing. Within this model the individual is situated within concentric domains all of which influence and inform one another. Bronfenbrenner’s model calls the educator’s attention to environmental factors which may be affecting the pupil’s wellbeing, such as access to resources like food, shelter, transportation, the availability of supportive and loving social relationships and the beliefs and values of the communities in which they live. However, as suggested by Cefai (2008), when attention is only given to the deficit and disadvantage within the environment, we lose focus on the agency and resources that exist within the individual, a key mechanism by which individual wellbeing can be enhanced.
Victor Frankl, a survivor of Auschwitz, writes powerfully about the potential of individual agency despite even the harshest environments, reflecting on his experience he writes: “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance, to choose one’s own way” (1985 p. 74). Without a doubt, these are inspiring words, yet they are also profoundly wise. What Frankl is describing is a gap that exists between what happens to him (stimulus) and his response, and despite the environmental factors that sought to crush him, in this gap he found freedom and power. Frankl rightly identifies the gap between stimulus and response as the location where individual agency resides and it is within this gap that educators can help their students develop the skills, attributes, and resources to successfully contend with the various factors present within their environments.
Teaching pupils to identify the gap between stimulus and response as an adaptive coping strategy is a valuable way in which schools can promote the wellbeing of their pupils. However, before moving into the final section, in which specific strategies will be shared, a small word of caution is needed. This approach must be taught with wisdom and compassion as, while it is possible to choose our response despite deeply unpleasant circumstances, these strategies should never be presented in a way which would encourage or suggest that pupils tolerate that which should be changed (Schwartz, 2000). With this word of caution in place, how can schools support pupils in developing their agency by spotting the gap between stimulus and response?
What can schools do to promote student wellbeing?
Wellbeing Strategy 1: Looking ‘at’ versus looking ‘from’
Learning to look ‘at’ a thought rather than ‘from’ a thought is a powerful strategy in helping pupils identify the gap between stimulus and response. When we look ‘from’ a thought, we inhabit that thought and in so doing the thought frames our experience. In contrast, when we look ‘at’ a thought we stand to the side and consider the thought as a thought, evaluating its claims and considering other options. Take for example a pupil faced with a challenging assignment, the following thought may arise within the student, “This challenge is too great for me!”. If the student chooses to look ‘from’ this thought - stepping into it and experiencing the world through it – the student will most likely begin to experience a range of unwanted and unpleasant psychological and physiological sensations such as low energy, anxiety, stress, difficulty sleeping and loss of appetite.
In contrast, by looking ‘at’ the thought the student may engage in the following self-talk, “I notice that I am telling myself that this challenge is too great for me, and I’m curious about that. I know this will be hard, but I’ve done hard things before. I can make a plan, and I can get the help I need.” In learning to look ‘at’ their thoughts as well as from them, students are able to tap into their agency and choose to respond in less reactive and more deliberate ways to the situations that they encounter. Covey (1991) powerfully captures this idea in his alteration of the word responsibility, breaking it into two parts, response-ability, that is our ability to choose our response. Teaching students to look ‘at’ their thoughts as well as ‘from’ them develops their response-ability and is a powerful tool in promoting their individual flourishing.
Wellbeing Strategy 2: Check your Guess
Strategy 2 is taken from my ‘As a Man Thinketh: A practical workbook for improving mental health and wellbeing’ (Brown, 2022, p.54 - 55).
Consider the following scenario:
John and Sarah are ten years old and work at the same desk in their classroom. John comes back from sharpening his pencil and notices that his rubber is now on Sarah’s side of the desk. In a sudden rush of anger, he yells to the teacher, ‘Sarah just stole my rubber!’
On review, we see two things in this scenario; one is factual, the other fictional. John notices that his rubber is now on Sarah’s side of the desk; this is factual. He then guesses why it is on Sarah’s side of the desk; this is fictional. But which of the two causes John pain? The fact or the fiction? The notice or the guess? John’s pain didn’t come from the facts, his rubber now being on Sarah’s side of the desk, but from the meaning he gave to these facts, Sarah stole his rubber. Like John, our pain is often caused by the meaning we give to events; we create fictional stories to describe what has happened. We notice something (factual) and then guess what it means (fictional), with our guesses being drawn from the story we tell about ourselves and the world. The story that John tells is that everyone is out to get him, and as a result, he normally interprets events in this way. But John is only guessing, he is creating a fictional story to explain events and the story he is telling is hurting him. What is John to do? He should start by checking his guess as his guess is causing him pain; perhaps Sarah simply borrowed his rubber and forgot to put it back. With a new habit of checking his guesses, John can update his story; not everyone is out to get him.
The strategy of checking our guess doesn’t just relate to pupils in classrooms; we notice and guess in our relationships and in our professional lives, and the consequences of a ‘bad guess’ can be far-reaching. During my first week in a new promoted post, I walked to the kitchen to make my first coffee of the day. On my way, I was greeting my new colleagues with a friendly ‘good morning’ when I received – as I experienced it – a very cool response. By the time I had arrived at the office kitchen, my stomach was in knots as I guessed what this cool response meant – ‘She doesn’t rate me’, ‘She thinks I’m too young for this post’, ‘She thinks I’m underqualified’. Luckily, I noticed my guess and considered what else her response might have meant, a bad start to her day, car problems on the way to work or preoccupation with a pressing matter. However, notice this, had I not checked my guess, there would have been very real consequences on an organisational level. The negative feelings produced by my guess would have made me less likely to approach this colleague for advice or support, less likely to include them in meetings or teams and most likely would have made me less likely to share well in meetings where they were present. All of this from a guess!
Final thoughts on promoting student wellbeing
Students can become stressed for a wide range of reasons and this academic anxiety can have a profound negative effect on their educational outcomes. Anxiety disorders can be deep-rooted in a negative school experience. Before even getting to the point of offering counselling to students, we want to equip young people with the self-help resources they will need to cope with the complex circumstances life can throw at them.
Jonathan Brown is a former Depute Head Teacher who currently lectures in Education at The University of Dundee in Scotland. He has a particular research interest in happiness and wellbeing. His book ‘As a Man Thinketh: A practical workbook for improving mental health and wellbeing’ is available on Amazon.
Connect with Jonathan:
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- LinkedIn: com/in/jonathan-brown-a5255a111
- Twitter: @jonathan_B_82
- PURE: https://discovery.dundee.ac.uk/en/persons/jonathan-brown
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