Is wellbeing a passing trend or are we seeing a sustainable change in education?

Sustainable wellbeing image

Sitting at the back of the sixth form common room I watch one of my tutees deliver his speech in the competition to become Head Boy. He speaks eloquently about the importance of wellbeing; of supporting young people’s growth in more than just the academic field. As a doctor in the making and a student on my mindfulness course – it isn’t really a surprising pitch.

What was a revelation to me that day, almost 5 years ago, is that every young person’s speech had wellbeing at the forefront. As a teacher I had been pushing for a rebalancing of the school’s provision, with more of a focus on wellbeing, for a number of years. Whilst senior leaders had nodded their heads in agreement, nothing much had changed. Did these young people represent a genuine demand for change? Did it reflect a school system behind the times? Were we on the cusp of a passing trend or a sustainable shift in the education system?

Why wellbeing in schools?

Fast forward a few years and discussions around wellbeing in schools are widespread. Young people, parents and teachers feel wellbeing should be more of a focus for schools. The statistics around adolescent mental health are worrying – they account for 16% of global disease and injury in 10-19 year olds (about 4 in every classroom), with most mental health conditions starting at around 14 years of age. In England alone, the annual economic cost of mental health problems has been estimated at £105 billion. Could wellbeing education play a preventative role?

The evidence is supporting a connection between the two. Equipping young people with the skills and knowledge around emotional and behavioural regulation, positive relationships, and maintaining a healthy body and mind, can lead to better academic achievement, improved social and emotional skills, and an increased likelihood of undertaking physical exercise. The long-term effect on health outcomes are real.

Is wellbeing a passing trend?

Wellbeing has indeed become a growing trend. In 2018 the wellness economy was valued at more than $USD 4 trillion.  Everybody wants in on the action. And what about schools? Early adopters of a wellbeing approach will be quick to stress the need for a whole school approach. Teachers can forge ahead in their own classroom, making small but significant changes to improve outcomes for the young people they teach, but only with school-wide effort, driven by leaders of education, will we see sustained and long-term change. With this in mind, here are my top 5 tips for embedding wellbeing into schools:

  1. Teach wellbeing in discrete lessons – incorporate wellbeing lessons into the young people’s curriculum as if it were any other subject – give it equal importance. Teach young people the knowledge and skills that have the potential to improve their longer-term outcomes (emotional and behavioural regulation, positive psychology, attentional skills, the importance of nutrition, sleep and exercise).
  2. Adopt a whole school approach – weave wellbeing into the whole school ethos and approach to learning through assemblies, working with staff and the local community, language use and cross-curricular wellbeing in the classroom. 
  3. Increase the profile of wellbeing in schools – discrete lessons, senior management on board and a whole school approach will help with this, but it can take time to readdress the balance. Make wellbeing as important as the academic subjects. Prioritise trained staff when allocating teachers to wellbeing lessons (not just those with time left on their timetable), include wellbeing in the school improvement or development plan, allocate funding, celebrate successes at every opportunity.
  4. Invest in teacher training – include wellbeing in initial teacher training, staff continuous professional development, and meeting time. This will demonstrate its importance, reduce the reluctance of some teachers to teach wellbeing and may even help to improve teacher wellbeing and retention.
  5. Be patient but persistent – don’t expect changes overnight. Build a team of people who are willing to support the change and invest in the longer term goal of sustainable change.

Teachers and parents can find more wellbeing support here.

About the author

Louise Aukland is a researcher with the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry team at The University of Oxford and founder of Mindcraft Consulting (training and mindfulness teaching). Her research focuses on social and emotional learning and neuroscience curricular in schools. She has 15 years’ experience as a secondary science and PSHE (personal, social, health education) teacher.