Wellbeing in schools is getting a lot of attention right now. To be fair, the last two decades have seen a steady rise in chatter, research and application of wellbeing strategies in learning environments, but mainly as an added component- an additional thing to consider when designing learning plans and support structures.
What if wellbeing for children was the priority? Not a priority but the priority. Not just as a temporary response to the COVID19 pandemic, but enshrined in the culture, values and strategy of the learning environment?
Wellbeing for children is now well and truly on the map, but shackled most often to strategies of recovery from the isolation and upheaval of 2020-1. The UK government, for example, has talked about prioritising wellbeing for children in education for “up to 3 years”, but doesn't say how exactly, and there is only vague talk of what comes afterwards.
Time to get specific. It is a shame that it took a global pandemic to put wellbeing for children at the top of the agenda in so many countries, when we have known definitively for so long what our learners need from us to help them flourish.
It is also lamentable that action on this is more reaction than response, but there is clearly an opportunity for more enduring change. Why calling for wellbeing as the number one foundational priority in any learning environment should be considered in any way avant garde is beyond our understanding.
A broader understanding of wellbeing for children
Wellbeing for children is not just “feeling happy”, though happiness or satisfaction with your life is important. Happiness helps us learn better. Feeling happy in childhood and adolescence is the biggest predictor of satisfaction with our adult lives, and happiness fuels success more than anything else.
Wellbeing for children also means how in control you feel of your own emotions, responses, and reactions. Learning to accept, vocalise and reflect on our emotions -so called emotional competence - will help our learners with the lifelong skill of self acceptance and self regulation. When the next global challenge rolls around the corner, learners who can express their feelings and work through them are more likely to be resilient and adaptable in difficult times.
An aspect of wellbeing for children that is often sidelined in discussion, is the sense of purpose. If you know Learnlife, you will know that supporting our learners to find their Ikigai is at the core of our own purpose. While there’s plenty of research on how a clear sense of purpose in life promotes more positive health and wellbeing, it really is quite logical.
If you feel connected to something bigger than yourself, you feel less anxiety about what is going on around you. Life takes on more meaning, and there is more of a sense of control over where you are headed, rather than feeling that life is something that happens to you.
If we can agree that prioritising wellbeing for children will give them a better chance to become happier, healthier, more successful, less anxious and more resilient, why would we even be discussing where this sits on the to-do list?
Wellbeing for children and the window of opportunity
We’re not finished there. Wellbeing for children is so critical to get right because of how we function and interpret the world as children and young adults. A little stress here and there is a good thing, but toxic stress, when we simply do not have the tools to cope with or understand it, can affect us for the rest of our lives. As Harvard researchers put it “Toxic stress weakens the architecture of the developing brain, which can lead to lifelong problems in learning, behavior, and physical and mental health”.
As this very plainly written research paper discusses, the world for today’s teenagers is more complex than it was for their parents. The strong need for belonging and acceptance is fragmented by the type of interactions around social media that we see on a daily basis. The same paper reminds us that teenagers, while not children as such, still have more difficulty in regulating or understanding their own emotional responses than adults do.
Embedding wellbeing for children in the learning culture
Talking about mental and emotional health should be normalised. The responsibility of wellbeing for children goes beyond parents and learning environments, and needs to be a priority at community level. But good emotional wellbeing comes from recognising what we can and cannot control and starting with what is possible now.
Social change takes time, but within our learning environments we must do everything in our gift to support our learners to better understand what wellbeing is and how we can work towards improving it for ourselves and others around us. That does not mean a “session” on wellbeing here and there, but embedding it as a holistic approach.
A supportive environment where learners feel able to share, and know how and where to seek help. A modelled approach where the learning team embody positive practice in their own lives, and share vulnerabilities and insight with colleagues and learners alike. Opportunities to reflect, and to learn how to nourish oneself- heart, body & mind. Make unequivocal statements about the commitment to wellbeing for children, and bring in the parents and wider community to the discussion and activity around this wherever possible. Foster and create space for the development of strong and positive relationships among learners; belonging and mutual support through collaboration and empathetic communication, not competition and exclusion.
There is so much to say and do, and we can’t (and shouldn’t) try to fit this all in here. We will return to this topic and explore it further, but we wanted to stop for a moment and say this clearly: wellbeing for children is everybody’s business. It should be the fundamental priority of any learning environment; permanently, holistically and unequivocally.
Join the global Alliance that aims to improve the well-being of learners and their ability to thrive in the learning process at https://alliance.learnlife.com/.