Many schools are striving to deliver holistic education for young people.

As part of this work, they are increasingly focusing on the wellbeing of students and staff. This was reinforced by the 2022 Voice of Australian Educators survey conducted by Education Horizons, which identified student and staff wellbeing as the number one priority for Australian school leaders in 2022.

At a recent Education Horizons Advisory Board meeting, education leaders* explored how schools should think about approaching the challenge of wellbeing in schools – including defining and framing student wellbeing, and initial focus areas for developing each school’s wellbeing approach.

The pandemic effect

The global pandemic reinforced our natural instinct to break education into constituent parts – Academics, Wellbeing, Extra-curricular, Sport etc. and to rank these – with academics prioritised in the transition to remote-schooling. This was reinforced in part by parent expectations that students at home would be busy between 9am and 3pm each school day.

Positive NAPLAN results suggest, however, that academic performance was not massively impacted by pandemic disruption. This was the case in New Zealand following the Christchurch earthquake, where academic performance did not suffer substantially during school disruption.

Instead, the key challenge during the pandemic has been student wellbeing – and more importantly the product of student wellbeing: young people functioning effectively as part of their community. This was also reinforced by our recent survey which identified student engagement during remote learning and following the return to school as major challenges faced in 2021. Importantly the student wellbeing challenge can only be met through a holistic approach that impacts each part of the students’ school experiences – Academics, Behaviour, Extra-curricular, Sport and so on.

So what is school wellbeing?

Wellbeing is not a unitary concept. It is made up of different, interrelated elements including:

  • Individual wellbeing;
  • Social wellbeing; and
  • Academic wellbeing.

Mental, physical and emotional wellbeing are umbrella terms that work across these areas in complex ways.

Similarly, education is always more than the sum of its parts – based on complex and subtle interrelationships between the different elements. The unseen curriculum is as fundamental to learning as the explicit curriculum – and this includes the extent to which each student has a sense of being part of their community. This sense of belonging is enormously powerful in shaping each student’s identity, and through it, their wellbeing.Helping students learn to be part of a microcosm of society – and feel a part of their community – is critical. This is reinforced by John White’s work at the University of London regarding the interplay between wellbeing, education and culture.

In its broadest sense therefore, wellbeing in education can be understood in terms of helping develop students into effective contributors to society – in the place where they are now (school), and in the places they are going to next (school, higher education and the wider world).

At the same time schools can often be the safest place in the lives of some students. This means that many teachers are confronted with a range of complex mental health challenges every day. Teachers’ ability to respond to these challenges varies significantly – by training, personality, resources and approach. Having clarity about the reasonable role of educators in this space is important in helping provide the right support at the right time.

What is the role of the school in student wellbeing?

As each school considers its approach to these challenges, it is important to clarify some foundation questions around the role of schools and educators. In particular, each school community should consider:

  • Where does the school fence end?
  • What can and should schools do in this space?
  • What is within the control of schools and teachers, and what is not?
  • Where does technology fit in supporting educators, students and their community?

Building resilience and wellbeing in schools

As many schools know, an important focus in meeting the wider wellbeing challenge is helping students build resilience – as a central component of their identity and sense of place in their community. In practice this work should begin with defining strong wellbeing for young people and working with them to define resilience and wellbeing for themselves, in their own context.

Together with clarity around the framing questions above, this shared process is a powerful starting point in building an effective wellbeing culture within each school.

How schools can build on this foundation; build a strong sense of community; drive wellbeing cultures; and leverage technology, will all be considered in subsequent articles in this series.