Wellbeing – it’s a state of physical, mental, emotional, social and spiritual wholeness that every parent wants for their children.
Desiring wellbeing is only natural. The Bible tells us that God delights in our wellbeing (Ps 35: 27). This article will explore what student wellbeing looks like, why it’s important, and how schools and families can work together to achieve it.
According to a definition by the New South Wales Department of Education, broadly-speaking wellbeing is the quality of a person’s life. “Wellbeing needs to be considered in relation to how we feel and function across several areas, including our cognitive, emotional, social, physical and spiritual wellbeing,” they write.
They point out that wellbeing and school excellence are closely linked, so schools should be seeking the wellbeing of their students in parallel with providing good teaching and learning opportunities.
Some of the factors that enhance student wellbeing include:
- being involved in supportive relationships
- having a sense of meaning and purpose in life
- feeling connected to people in your community
- being respected, valued and encouraged to succeed
- having a sense of control over your emotions
- doing things that are meaningful and important to you.
As Christians, it’s no surprise that these factors contribute to wellbeing. After all, God designed us for relationships with himself and others (Matt 22:37-39), to work diligently (Col 3: 23), and to encourage one another (Heb 10:24-25).
Parents entrust their children into the care of schools for a significant portion of their childhood, and the Australian Government has acknowledged the important role they play in student wellbeing.
As such, in October 2018 they launched what is called the Australian Student Wellbeing Framework – a document that outlines a vision and guiding principles to help school communities build positive learning environments.
It offers best-practice advice about helping students from their first year of school to year 12. The five key elements are:
- Leadership – acknowledging that school Principals and other leaders have a crucial role in “building positive learning environment where the whole school community feels included, connected, safe and respected”.
- Inclusion – every member of a school community has a place in building a positive school culture that fosters respectful relationships.
- Student Voice – recognising students as active participants in their learning and wellbeing and using their social and emotional skills to be respectful, resilient and safe.
- Partnerships – acknowledging families and communities as collaborative partners in supporting student learning, safety and wellbeing.
- Support – recognising the shared role of school staff, students and families for cultivating an understanding of wellbeing and encouraging positive behaviours that in turn support effective teaching and learning.
The Wellbeing Framework requires schools to have a planned approach to fostering student wellbeing, that includes school planning, professional practice, and behaviour, discipline and character education. Every ACC school has adopted this approach to student wellbeing.
The Wellbeing Framework wasn’t just invented by education bureaucrats. Rather, it is based on strong evidence linking student safety, wellbeing and learning outcomes.
Schools are more than a place for learning. As Andreas Schleicher, the Director for Education and Skills at the OECD, points out, they are “the first place where children experience society in all its facets and their experiences can have a profound influence on their attitudes and behaviour in life”.
In this article, he describes several factors that influence student wellbeing, based on the findings of a massive international study called the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). They include:
PISA found that having a perceived negative relationship with teachers was a serious threat to students’ sense of belonging at school. On average, students reporting that their teacher is interested in their learning and willing to provide help are about 1.3 times more likely to feel they belong at school.
In contrast, students reporting unfair treatment by teachers were 1.7 times more likely to report feeling isolated at school. Schleicher notes that this finding is particularly important in Australia, where students’ sense of belonging is lower than that of many countries. He explains that because teenagers need strong social ties and value the acceptance of others, those with a strong sense of belonging to their school community are more likely to be motivated and perform better academically.
Additionally, negative teacher-student relationships may lead to anxiety and undermine students’ confidence. On average, students who perceived that their teacher believes they are less smart than they really are were about 62 percent more likely to get very tense when they study, and about 31 percent more likely to feel anxious before a test.
Schleicher adds that while most teachers want positive relationships with their students, some may be inadequately prepared to deal with difficult students and classroom environments. He explains that effective classroom management creates an optimal environment for active engagement in learning and co-operation.
He recommends that teachers be supported to share information about students’ difficulties and strengths with colleagues, to enable them to find the best approach to foster students’ sense of belonging to the school community.
With its potential for serious short- and long-term consequences for the victim, the bully and bystanders, bullying is a huge challenge to student wellbeing.
Schleicher notes that about 15 percent of Australian students report being made fun of at least a few times per month; almost 13 percent report frequently being left out and 8 percent report frequently being the object of nasty rumours at school. About 4 percent report that they are hit or pushed at least a few times per month.
Bullying has been linked with poor school adjustment and student anxiety, depression and suicidality. Schleicher points out that students who are frequently bullied can feel insecure, unaccepted and isolated, leading to withdrawal.
He recommends that schools foster an environment of safety, tolerance and respect which includes a whole-school approach involving teacher training and parental involvement in school planning and responses to bullying.
Moreover, Schleicher notes that parents can make a huge difference. Spending time just talking with their children was the parental activity associated most strongly with students’ life satisfaction and better school performance. Other positive factors included eating meals together and discussing how your child is doing at school. Schleicher notes that “the strength of this relationship is well beyond the impact of most school resources and school factors measured by PISA.”
Parents can help by showing interest in their child’s learning and encouraging them to trust their abilities, with PISA results showing that, on average, students who are the most motivated score more than a school year higher than their least motivated peers.
This creates a positive spiral with life satisfaction, as stronger motivation to achieve – combined with realised achievements – may give students a sense of life purpose.
That’s all good, you might be saying, but what if my child is struggling? Perhaps your child has a difficult home environment or finds it difficult to make friends? Some signs that your child might need help with their social wellbeing include:
- Student behaviour – behaviours such as insomnia, poor appetite, fatigue, withdrawal or detachment could all indicate a problem with their social health or sense of safety. Some students may also act out, displaying behaviours such as anger or aggression towards teachers or peers.
- Bullying – there are many reasons why bullying occurs, but Bullying. No Way! points out that it may arise from distrust, fear, misunderstanding, lack of knowledge or jealousy.
- School attendance – reluctance to go to school or ‘wagging’ can also indicate social wellbeing problems. Parenting website Raisingchildren.net.au note that school avoidance often happens around the time of major changes, such as moving schools or starting secondary school. Friendship problems, feeling like they don’t fit in or worry about family circumstances can cause students to feel disconnected from school or anxious about leaving the house.
- Suspension and expulsion – these are strategies schools use within the context of student discipline and wellbeing policies. It’s important to note that suspension isn’t meant as a punishment. Rather, it allows time for staff to plan and/or review ways to help a student engage positively and safely with school and learning.
For students experiencing wellbeing issues, there are several things than can help to build resilience and improve their social health. These include:
- Student counselling – at ACC, our students can receive support from qualified professionals such as educational psychologists, who can help to identify, support and monitor students experiencing emotional, behaviour, learning and social difficulties. Psychologists may also be involved in helping teachers and parents work together to support them. Students can also receive counselling outside of school. Mental health care plans, for example, allow you to access up to 10 Medicare-funded sessions per year with an eligible mental health professional such as a psychologist or social worker.
- Wellbeing services – ACC’s mission is to develop students who are equipped spiritually, academically, socially and physically to be a positive influence on the world. To help achieve this, we have Student Wellbeing teams. In addition to psychologists, students may receive support from chaplains and learning support staff.
- Wellbeing at home – as the Australian Government’s Student Wellbeing Hub explains, parents’ have a crucial role in the health, safety and wellbeing of children. Parenting skills associated with higher levels of wellbeing and success at school include: showing warmth to your child with expressions of love and support; setting limits and boundaries to encourage your child’s self-control; encouraging your children to talk about their concerns; and sensitively sharing your own concerns with your children.
As mentioned earlier, teachers play a powerful part in student wellbeing. Educators may use various tactics within and outside the classroom to maintain safety and build the social health of their students.
This may include strategies based on cognitive-behaviour therapy, such as helping students to identify unhelpful thought patterns like over-generalisation, catastrophising, blaming and jumping to conclusions.
Teachers using cognitive-behavioural interventions are training students to use their inner speech (sometimes called self-talk) to change their underlying thinking, which in turn affects their behaviour.
This helps students control their own behaviour, and research is bearing out its effectiveness in the classroom.
Of course, student wellbeing is most likely to be optimal when schools, teachers, parents and students work together to create an environment that is positive, respectful and inclusive. If you have any concerns or suggestions, consider booking a time to have a chat with your child’s teacher/s or the school principal.