Teaching wellbeing at school

Schools will always be focused on academic learning, but research suggests it is time to make wellbeing a regular part of teaching

By Professor Lea Waters, Melbourne Graduate School of Education, University of Melbourne

Think back to your school days. Did your teachers run lessons that taught you to understand your emotions, build your resilience and develop life skills? If you graduated before the mid-90s, odds are your answer will be no.

Yet, over the past two decades, student wellbeing has become a key part of the global education agenda. In a recent analysis of national curriculum frameworks across 37 Organisation for Economic Development (OECD) countries, 72 per cent of countries now explicitly include student wellbeing as a learning priority.

Australia’s National Curriculum includes reference to wellbeing under “personal and social capability”, which involves teaching students in ways that develop empathy, build positive relationships, enhance responsible decision-making, help students learn how to handle challenging situations and develop leadership skills.

The inclusion of wellbeing in our National Curriculum is much needed given that the Programme of International Student Assessment (PISA) – a test of more than 500,000 15-year-olds across 76 countries – shows Australian students have had a decline in both academic performance and school wellbeing (school belonging and engagement) in the past decade.

Currently, around 25 per cent of young Australians report experiencing symptoms of mental illness. Suicide is a leading cause of death in Australian youth, and 50 per cent of all youth illness is mental illness.

Now more than ever, schools need to play a role in building the wellbeing of students in their care. The challenge is how to do this when the core business of a school has always been, and needs to remain, academic learning. How do we find a way to infuse wellbeing into the essence of the learning process itself so that all students in all classrooms have positive and productive experiences at school?

I recently had the good fortune to work on this very challenge with Kambrya College, a state school in Melbourne’s south-east growth corridor, which has gone from being in the bottom 10 per cent of Victorian VCE results in 2008 to being in the top 25 per cent.

As you can see in the third episode of the four-part ABC documentary Revolution School, I worked with the school to put in place my new educational initiative: Visible Wellbeing.

Visible Wellbeing is a flexible approach for integrating student wellbeing into the learning process across any subject matter. It is not a set curriculum about wellbeing; rather it is an evidence-based way of teaching that builds wellbeing while also delivering the academic curriculum.

Teachers can be trained in the Visible Wellbeing approach so that it aligns to all teaching styles and can be applied by teachers in all contexts – across early learning, primary and secondary education.

Visible Wellbeing works to shift wellbeing from a subjective, internal experience within each student, to a tangible, observable phenomenon that is visible in class to teachers and students.

As teachers discover what aspects of the learning process boost student wellbeing and which aspects of learning can be used to build resilience, a clear link in the classroom between learning and wellbeing is developed. This allows teachers to teach their academic curriculum (eg., maths or history) in ways that also boost student wellbeing.

The Centre of Positive Psychology’s new assessment tool, the Wellbeing Profiler, was used to evaluate the Visible Wellbeing pilot at Kambrya College. Students at Kambrya who were taught using the Visible Wellbeing approach were assessed via the Wellbeing Profiler before and after the pilot.

A total of 81 per cent of students reported feeling more confident in taking care of their wellbeing as a result of the Visible Wellbeing approach. Students reported increases in happiness, life satisfaction, self-esteem, optimism and resilience. They also reported decreases in stress and emotional suppression (ie., they were less likely to bottle up their emotions).

While the Visible Wellbeing pilot at Kambrya College involved a small sample size and further research is needed, the approach clearly holds great promise and the next challenge is to spread this approach across all schools to bring these positive results to all young Australians. I’m up for the challenge. How about you?

*The fourth episode of Revolution School screens on the ABC at 21 June 2016 at 8.30 AET.