Under pressure? Student wellbeing moves to the top of the agenda

The current generation of students face pressures as never seen before. With reports of one in four children showing signs of anxiety and depression, governments and schools are seeking to address a growing problem.

Under pressure? Student wellbeing moves to the top of the agenda
Relocate Magazine Autumn Issue 2018
This article is taken from the latest issue of Relocate magazine, sponsored by AKA.
– the must read for HR, global managers and relocation professionals.

Mental health has lost its stigma recently. With celebrities and politicians revealing their struggles with depression and anxiety we are now able to talk about the issue and with it begin to tackle a growing problem. Globally, the impact of poor mental health on productivity in the workplace is estimated to be nearly US$2.5 trillion a year (expected to rise to US$6 trillion by 2030) and governments are sitting up and taking notice. The UK government will host the first Global Ministerial Mental Health Summit in October 2018, bringing together leading academics and ministers from more than 30 countries. Health and social care secretary, Jeremy Hunt, said, “When you look at the extraordinary prevalence and impact on people’s lives, it is clear that mental illness is fast becoming one of the defining global health challenges of the 21st century. Until recently, this hasn’t had the profile it deserves on a global stage.”And the problem is not just one in adulthood – the UK government has already pledged £1.7 billion to help improve children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing. £300 million of this is earmarked to provide better support in tackling the problem in UK schools.
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At the 37th annual COBIS conference in London, ex-headteacher and expert in adolescent emotional wellbeing, Dick Moore, shared his advice on helping students to maintain a sense of wellbeing through life’s ups and downs and explained what to look for in a ‘mentally healthy’ school.“The pressures on children to achieve are astronomical compared to the past,” said Mr Moore. “Children are going into a world of pressure. We have to prepare them for it – education is so much more than just getting top grades.”

Assessing student wellbeing

Schools spend hours on academic assessment and staff appraisals but Mr Moore said that when schools allocate time to assessing student mental health it makes a huge difference to student wellbeing and achievement. His beliefs are backed up by a recent economic evaluation of the UK charity Place2Be’s one-on-one counselling service in primary schools. For every £1 spent, the return (in terms of better student job prospects, lower rates of illness and crime) was equated to £6.20 ­– a six fold return.Concordia International School Shanghai has been quick to recognise the correlation between wellbeing and achievement. “We already use academic achievement data to inform on teaching and learning practices,” explains Patrick Love, HS academic, college and guidance counsellor at the school. “However, current research by Gallup-Purdue (and others) has shown that non-academic factors are also strong predictors of college success and lifetime happiness.“Each week we survey our high school students about their happiness, relationships, sleep, energy, motivation and stress. We also ask if they have any specific issues they would like to address with their counsellor.“Understanding how students experience high school helps us to better optimise the learning environment. For example, we used to have a deadline for college applications that put a lot of pressure on our seniors. The first year we started collecting data we noticed just how bad it was. We’ve since changed that policy and for the past two years college application deadlines are more spread out and result in less overall stress and better performance for students.” 

Coping with emotions

Mr Moore described the sliding scale of emotional wellbeing and counselled that it is of paramount importance to teach students how to deal with those emotions.“Students have to cope with their own expectations, those of teachers and parents and the pressures of social media. Some young people can cope with this. They may feel stressed but they can deal with it. For others there comes a time when anxiety and stress becomes extremely destructive. Schools need to be able to identify these pupils and have strategies to help them, knowing when to call in the cavalry.”
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Teaching children how to deal with their emotions – to develop coping strategies for when they are angry or stressed – should be a central part of any curriculum said Mr Moore. “What do we tell our children to do with emotional pain?” he said. “Can they unwind by walking in the hills? Playing the piano? Painting? It’s vital to teach them coping strategies. We can’t just focus on calculus and oxbow lakes!“Children below the midpoint on the wellbeing scale can face a cognitive reduction of up to 30 per cent,” said Mr Moore. Conversely, wellbeing programmes can result in an improvement in results. In fact a report by Public Health England – The link between pupil health and wellbeing and attainment – said that ‘an 11 per cent boost in results in standardised achievement tests has been linked to school programmes that directly improve pupils’ social and emotional learning’.Helping students to handle their emotions and behaviour skilfully is something that has been placed at the heart of the curriculum at UWC Thailand. “Perhaps most unique within our holistic education programme is our commitment to social-emotional learning and mindfulness (SEL&M),” explains head of school, Jason McBride. “SEL&M supports the IB curriculum. It guides students in how to engage in relationships with care and concern for others and approach their work effectively and ethically. To do this, we focus on skill development in emotional literacy, self-regulation, peer relations and problem solving. Hand-in-hand with SEL is our focus on mindfulness.”

Listen and learn

Mr Moore counselled that teachers and parents should avoid jumping into ‘fixing’ mode if a child is struggling. “Listening is vital. It is about empathy – connecting with someone. If students are in an environment where they feel understood, then that is good for their self-esteem, which in turn gives them self-confidence.”

Pushing back the ‘man-up’ culture

He also spoke of the tendency for young men to fear being seen as weak if they show their emotions. “Men need to be able to talk and share their emotions,” he said. “Three times more women are diagnosed with depression than men. That’s not because men aren’t depressed, but because they don’t talk about it – they don’t go to the doctors. It’s about changing the ‘man-up’ culture. It’s healthy to be able to talk about your emotions.”

Traits to look for in a mentally healthy school

  • Is promoting student wellbeing included within the school’s aims and is the link between wellbeing and academic performance understood by the school community?
  • Do teachers focus on building resilience in children – the ability to bounce back from failure, disappointment and setbacks?
  • Does the safeguarding/ child protection policy recognise mental health in children and include appropriate response measures?
  • Does the school have a network of professionals to support children’s emotional and mental health needs?
  • Is Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) education valued within the school or just seen as a bolt on?
  • Is there a dynamic programme of parent education?
  • Do teachers have the time to build good relationships with students – earning trust, building connections?

Factors to consider when relocating

For families on a relocation move, Mr Moore has a word of advice. “Moving around has all the benefits but it also has disadvantages insofar as you make your good friends and then you’re uprooted and go somewhere completely different,” he said. “Does that build resilience or cause uncertainty and drainage of confidence? I don’t know. I suspect a bit of both.”

Read more about the impact of mobility on children here.


Whilst parents can be reassured of a school’s quality and academic standards through widely published performance statistics and accreditations from organisations such as the CIS, NAIS and COBIS, there are no Kitemarks to show that a school gives student wellbeing its due consideration. It is something that Mr Moore believes will have to change in the future.“There aren’t any standards to adhere to and there should be. It’s something that the charity that I work with sometimes – The Charlie Waller Memorial Trust – has been thinking about. Something like a Kitemark to show a school that nurtures student emotional wellbeing.”

Wellbeing Kitemarks

The Wellbeing Award for Schools (developed by the National Children’s Bureau in the UK) goes some way along the road. The framework ‘recognises outstanding work being done to promote mental health and wellbeing within school communities across England’ and it is something that Tanglin Trust School in Singapore is working towards.Explains John Ridley, the school’s director of learning, “Many of the challenges facing our students, and indeed all of us, in the future will be emotional in nature rather than physical or intellectual. This has led us to examine how we react to mental health issues and how we work proactively to prevent challenges developing into crisis.” In addition to professional support, the school teaches a range of strategies from the field of Positive Psychology and has committed to working towards the Wellbeing Award for Schools. The advice for now is to ask any prospective school about its wellbeing strategies – at the very least they should be mindful of stressful pinch points such as during exam season. But watch this space for the development of universal standards – the UK government announced a University Mental Health Charter in June, which seeks to address the issue at university. As part of the charter universities will be rewarded if they demonstrate making student and staff mental health a university-wide priority and deliver improved student mental health and wellbeing outcomes.“We want mental health support for students to be a top priority for the leadership of all our universities,” said Sam Gyimah, universities minister. “Progress can only be achieved with their support – I expect them to get behind this important agenda as we otherwise risk failing an entire generation of students.”We are only at the beginning of tackling a growing problem but it is reassuring to see schools being proactive. It is likely that student wellbeing is likely to shape school practice and curricula for the foreseeable future, which can only be a good thing.
Relocate Magazine Autumn Issue 2018
This article first appeared in the autumn 2018 issue of Relocate magazine.

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