DR PENELOPE WOOLF, DIRECTOR OF IMPACT AND LEARNING DESIGN, OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, UK
DR ARIEL LINDORFF, DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION, UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD, UK
JANE DIGBY, MARKETING AND COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER, OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, UK
Research indicates that low levels of wellbeing and associated mental health problems can have adverse consequences for the health and development of young peoples. Conversely, students who are happy and healthy are shown to have better concentration, motivation and energy levels, and tend to develop better coping skills for life (Barry et al., 2013).
Recent guidance from the The ministerial department responsible for children’s serv... More (Department for Education - a ministerial department responsi... More, 2022) emphasised that a whole-school approach to supporting students’ wellbeing can help with their learning. While this guidance highlights some of the support available to schools, it cannot go into detail about what a whole-school approach might look like, or how it might be effective in supporting students’ wellbeing and learning.
This article considers the available evidence on whole-school approaches to promoting wellbeing within the curriculum and their effects, building on the results from a systematic review that included 53 sources (Lindorff, 2020). The systematic review was commissioned by Oxford University Press (OUP) to help identify the ways in which a curriculum centred on the principles of wellbeing might lead to improved academic attainment, physical and emotional health, and other associated student outcomes. It sought to understand some of the implications for practice, particularly those aspects of implementation essential for positive results. OUP commissioned the systematic review as an evidence analysis impact study within a broader programme of studies to ensure that OUP’s educational products and services are informed by the broader evidence base.
In order to have the best chance of drawing any conclusions, the scope of the evidence considered included:
- phase of education: primary to lower secondary school phase (up to approximately age 15)
- language: literature published in the English language (international, single-or multi-country studies of any scale)
- date range: research from the last 10 years (published from 2010)
- nature of literature: academic journal articles, research reports, doctoral research and previous reviews of the evidence.
The literature was to specifically cover wellbeing and improved educational outcomes in relation to students’ levels of attainment, including cases where a whole-school approach to wellbeing had been effectively implemented, so that key success factors could be drawn out.
What do we mean by wellbeing?
One of the initial challenges in reviewing the evidence was unwrapping the term ‘wellbeing’, which can have many different meanings. Some authors use it as a term for general happiness, while others use it to encompass physical and mental health. For the purpose of the systematic review, we focused on a definition informed by Seligman’s (2018) PERMA model – Positive emotions, Engagement, Positive relationships, Meaning and Accomplishment – which is based on principles of positive psychology and focuses on the development of the whole person. This led to defining wellbeing in terms of four key domains:
- taking care of the body: learning how keeping active and eating healthily can directly impact on positive mental health
- taking care of the mind: promoting mindfulness to be more optimistic and manage stress
- taking care of relationships: how to build and maintain friendships and relationships and how to connect through acts of kindness
- finding meaning: encouraging students to have a focus and find purpose in the world around them, helping them to aspire to be better citizens.
The search strategy aimed to include studies that defined and measured wellbeing in similarly holistic and comprehensive ways, but the specific definitions necessarily varied somewhat across studies.
What did the evidence tell us?
The systematic review (Lindorff, 2020) found strong evidence that whole-school approaches to promoting wellbeing can positively affect academic attainment. These relationships held true across a number of different countries and for different groups of students, although there was some variation. Perhaps even more importantly, the study showed that whole-school approaches to promoting wellbeing can have positive effects on a wide range of other student outcomes, including:
- mental health
- self-esteem and self-efficacy
- motivation and behaviour
- success compared to parents at the same level of education.
The systematic review also indicated that whole-school support for wellbeing could contribute towards:
- decreased probability of dropout
- fewer negative experiences of the transition to secondary school
- lower test anxiety/worry.
However, more research is needed from studies over longer periods of time to understand these effects as, in some studies, no positive effects were found. Where this was the case, authors suggested some possible reasons for this, including problems with implementation (e.g. lack of structure/consistency), lack of monitoring and lack of resources/time.
The importance of implementation is hardly surprising. In school improvement initiatives in general, results are rarely instantaneous and effects often initially look small. Positive change in education takes time, sustained effort and commitment, and needs support from the school leadership (Harris et al., 2002). But what does this look like in practice, especially for whole-school approaches to fostering student wellbeing?
Successful approaches to the implementation of wellbeing within schools
The systematic review revealed some common approaches associated with schools’ success in fostering student wellbeing. These fall into six themes:
- Tailor any initiatives to your specific school. Assess your school’s policies and strategies and consider how these can be adjusted to support implementation. Identify any strengths and weaknesses (Stirling and Emery, 2016) and work out where you need to focus your efforts.
Take stock of what other interventions and initiatives are in place and consider any tensions that may arise as a result. Finally, ensure that you recognise good practice already in place.
- Take an integrated approach across the school and within classrooms (Fazel et al., 2014). Wellbeing impacts everything that happens in the school day, including all children’s learning (Stirling and Emery, 2016), so it needs to be integrated as much as possible into daily practice and school culture. Develop a supportive school and classroom ethos by building a sense of connectedness and ensuring that there is an acceptance of emotion and vulnerability, along with a celebration of difference.
- Engage actively with the school and wider community (Goldberg et al., 2019). Student wellbeing is everyone’s responsibility, including that of the students themselves, and can be affected by their home and community environment. Consult students, parents and carers as much as possible to get to the heart of what wellbeing means to them, so that they can support the work happening in school (Barry et al., 2017; Humphrey et al., 2010) and to ensure that wellbeing continues at home (Goldberg et al., 2019). Also, do not forget to collaborate with other schools – it can be illuminating and provide much-needed support.
- Focus on teacher professional development. If staff can identify signs and triggers of concern, this will help them to recognise when there is a need for early intervention. Also, support your staff to help students to cope with predictable life changes and transitions, grounded on evidence-based understandings of child and adolescent development (Weare, 2015). Have wellbeing champions across the school and make sure that they have the full support of school leadership to give any wellbeing initiative the best chance of success.
- Put monitoring systems in place to measure impact over time. Monitoring systems will help to inform any adjustments that you need to make (Conti and Heckman, 2012). Rather than taking on the mammoth task of trying to assess everything, consider which aspect(s) of wellbeing is or are especially important for your school to focus on and then consider which data will provide the most valuable insights. Don’t forget to share the results and celebrate your successes.
- Ensure that sufficient time and resources are in place (Humphrey et al., 2010). Don’t try to do everything at once. Pick one strategy and try it out on a small cohort before rolling it out more widely – review and improve as you go. Work out which resources will best support your goals and communicate with other schools to find out what has worked for them. If possible, show that wellbeing is a priority by allocating budget to it, however small.
It is worth bearing in mind that these recommendations are based on a combination of what has been shown to work well (i.e. what schools were doing when there were positive impacts on academic attainment and other student outcomes) and also what has been shown not to work (i.e. what schools were not doing when no positive impacts were detected).
What did we learn?
While the systematic review found that there is evidence of a link between wellbeing and attainment, particularly in relation to whole-school approaches, that relationship did depend greatly on implementation. Any wellbeing initiative needs focus and resources over a sustained period of time, as well as full support from school leadership and the wider community, in order to have a good chance of success.