Understanding and teaching how we can improve human happiness and flourishing is an absorbing and amazing way to earn a living. Of course, every job has its downsides, and for a little while now one of mine has been reading about and witnessing first-hand the alarming deterioration in children’s mental health.
While the numbers are clearly worrying they have at lead led to a greater sense of urgency in addressing the issue. More schools than ever before are interested in mental health, resilience and wellbeing. This groundswell of concern has culminated in this recent announcement that schools are to be asked to monitor pupils’ wellbeing and mental health.
It is wonderful that pupil wellbeing is being put on the centre stage and schools will be supported in looking at this issue alongside their academic attainment. Such a focus is long overdue.
And yet while this is good news in many ways, I am also a little concerned. Pupils are not the only ones experiencing issues. Teachers too are buckling under the pressure. They already carry a huge amount of responsibility, and I wonder how they feel about this latest move, and if it can even be done effectively.
There are not many details available on what monitoring will mean in practice, or how teachers are to cope with this if faced by large class sizes where interactions with individual students may be limited. Classrooms are already busy places, teachers are already stretched. Putting more focus on pupils’ mental wellbeing by increasing the burden on teachers could cause more problems than it solves.
Furthermore, if we overcome that hurdle, what happens if teachers suspect a pupil’s mental wellbeing is deteriorating or compromised in some way? What are they going to be able to do about it. They themselves are not necessarily going to be in a position to help, and the statutory reporting root of contacting GPs who can make a referral to CAMHS frequently entails long waits to be assessed, and then a sizable proportion of young people are rejected. Funding shortages have taken a serious toll on this service which can now only allocate resources to those in most dire need.
There is also the issue of subjectivity. Regardless of the training given, personal observations can be highly subjective, and that could lead to differences on monitoring both between schools and even within the same school. Finally, of course there is the issue of delivering the training. Who will be undertaking this mammoth task, and how are schools going to be able to release staff to take part. Cover may be available in larger schools, but in rural and smaller schools the absence of a member of staff is often keenly felt.
So, while the idea is an excellent one, the method falls short of what is needed. Is there a way to achieve the same result, while avoiding as many of the obstacles as possible? I believe there is.
A number of robust and well researched tools to monitor aspects of children’s wellbeing (including positive emotions, pessimism, optimism, grit, and resilience), already exist. These measures, (which usually take the form of brief questionnaires) have been carefully constructed and well tested to provide consistent and meaningful results.
For younger pupils these questionnaires need to be completed by teachers or teaching assistants. While this does require some additional input from staff, many of the items such as whether a child has good friendships, or whether they seem able to concentrate or follow simple instructions, are things that happen during the course of a normal school day, and so can be recorded easily.
For older pupils, the measures tend to be self-reporting, easily competed online by the children themselves, complete with social desirability scales that indicate results where children may have been answering what they think they are supposed to say, nit what they actually believe.
Data gathering and computation could then be automated to provide school staff with results that can be examined by child, age, gender, year group or a host of other variables. This information can then supplement the knowledge of school staff from their own observations of pupils during their dally interactions.
The information obtained can help in a number of ways. By observing trends in the figures, it is possible to track a child’s wellbeing over time, making any gradual decline easy to spot. It can highlight those times pupils can need extra support such as transition points from junior to senior school or in the run up to examinations, when whole-class support may be beneficial, and perhaps most importantly such information can pinpoint sudden falls in levels of wellbeing very quickly, giving staff time to examine the situation and see what further action may be needed.
Having worked with schools on establishing such systems I can speak from experience when I say they are invaluable. Not only can they indicate problems, but they also show where staff are already making a positive difference to pupil wellbeing, allowing schools to spread best practice and celebrate the things they get right.
This will deal with the issue of monitoring wellbeing, but not the problems of the lack of support for those found to need urgent help. That require a different level of commitment, founded on the idea of preventing issues rather than trying to fix them after the fact. It is an issue Positive Psychology is uniquely positioned to address. Supporting schools to adopt Positive Education (the application of Positive Psychology in the classroom), would have a massive impact on the wellbeing of pupils and staff alike. It helps prevent many of the minor to moderate wellbeing issues pupils can encounter, thus freeing up resources for those who need a higher level of support.
It is a way of underpinning the everyday activities of a school that is equally as popular with pupils and staff alike. It’s impact on resilience and wellbeing cannot be denied. Here is a film of Prof Martin Seligman, the founding father of Positive Psychology explaining why it is so important.
Ultimately supporting schools to access a robust measurement system and promoting the widespread use of Positive Education will do more to help everyone in the school community, relieving rather than adding to the burden of teachers, and creating resilient, and flourishing pupils.