Student Wellbeing: Helping Students Help Themselves
By Julian Fagan and Ian Fagan
The Coronavirus pandemic and ensuing challenges from school and society closures have heightened awareness about the growing dangers to the safety and wellbeing of our students.
Our natural response in this situation is to leap in and protect these students from danger. However, before leaping to protect students, it is important to remember there is much we can do to help students help themselves. Developing resilient individuals does not come by protecting them from danger but rather letting them navigate their way through it. The question for schools is, how do we motivate students to take their wellbeing seriously?
Before answering this question, let’s examine why schools should do this in the first place. Below are key numbers from a survey conducted by Young Minds in the UK to 2,011 young people with a history of mental health:
- 40 percent of respondents said that there was no school counsellor available to support students in their school
- Only 27 percent had had a one-to-one conversation with a teacher or another member of staff in which they were asked about their wellbeing, by the time they completed the survey.
- Almost a quarter of respondents (23 percent) said that there was less mental health support in their school than before the pandemic, while only 9 percent agreed that there was more mental health support.
A further study by Canva conducted in the Fall of 2020 revealed:
- 41 percent of students are telling their teachers that they are feeling overwhelmed
- 39 percent shared they are feeling disconnected from their peers and school network
- 37 percent are experiencing heightened levels of anxiety
- 37 percent are feeling isolated
- 30 percent are worried about their friends and family
- 27 percent are feeling stressed about their home environment
- 26 percent are feeling depressed
A gap exists between mental health support available and students in need of those resources. The way to close this gap is to either increase the support available or reduce the number of students in need of the support. If we consider wellbeing as the gatekeeper to our mental health, then by focusing on improving our wellbeing we can reduce the likelihood of developing a serious mental illness. A focus on wellbeing is really about understanding who you are and what makes you tick so that you have more control over your emotional response to events that take place in your life. The challenge with this is that it requires time and effort to get to know yourself, which means students will not commit to it unless they are sufficiently motivated. There are three ways schools can do this:
- Start with the why
- Find the who
- Stay the course
Start with the why
This is tricky; each individual is unique so what motivates them is also unique. For example, telling a student to do their homework so they can get good grades might work for some students, while it will have zero impact on other students. Schools need to master their messaging here in order to get students emotionally invested in looking after themselves and the initiatives they put forward. One example of this comes from a third grade teacher in Denver, Kyle Schwartz, who became known for her worldwide viral phenomenon ‘I wish my teacher knew: How one question can change everything for kids.’
Kyle asked her students to fill in the blank to the question ‘I wish my teacher knew____.” This is a great initiative, but in speaking with Kyle, students still had to be given a reason to fill in the blank. To do this, Kyle told her students that she will be giving them a piece of paper to answer one question and that “it’s not compulsory, but by filling it out you will give me the best chance to support you.” Anytime schools undertake a wellbeing initiative with students, start by giving them a valid reason as to why they should take it seriously.
Find the who
Sometimes it’s not so much what is said, but rather who is saying it. There are, for whatever reason, people within school communities that students will listen to, and schools need to identify these individuals (keep in mind, it may be students themselves). Once the deliberation on the why is complete, it is advisable that the person delivering the message is the individual or individuals at the school who the students will listen to. How do you find the who?
One of Australasia’s leading psychologists, Andrew Fuller, whose programs have been used by over 3,000 schools, can provide insight into this question. Andrew recently partnered with Skodel and has worked extensively with schools on sociometric mapping techniques to give schools visibility on relationships within the school. This includes relationships within student groups, relationships between teachers and students, and the role of individuals within these relationships. Andrew has formed a series of key questions to ask students to assist schools in understanding the social dynamics within their school community, for example, asking students who they would lean on for support during a tough time. Schools should dedicate time to identifying who should be the carrier of the message and who needs to receive the message.
Stay the course
If successful with giving students the why, they will be motivated enough to overcome any how. However, along the way there will be circumstances that threaten student motivation and schools should be able to detect these. For example, the death of a loved one can trigger thoughts of despair and meaninglessness. It’s estimated that 5 percent of children in the USA have lost one or both parents by the age of 15, nearly 700,000 will be abused and over 20 percent will be bullied or discriminated against. Complicating matters is that, in times of crisis, threats such as domestic violence are amplified, with police reporting in the Portland area alone a 22 percent increase in arrests related to domestic violence during March 2020. Schools can’t catch all of these, but they need systems in place to identify at scale and at the earliest possible moment students that are experiencing traumatic events of this nature. These systems should connect students with the right clinical support if necessary, as not all matters can be addressed by schools.
As 2020 enters its final month, the new year will bring a much-needed psychological reset for many. This year has reminded us that life is tough, but we have a range of emotions at our disposal to respond to what life throws our way, whether it is stress, worry, gratitude, anger, sadness or more. It is important that students commit to better understanding the unique emotional wirings of their brain and body so that they can take control of these. There are a wealth of resources schools can leverage to support students through this process. The role of senior leaders and teachers is to find the ones that work best for their school and motivate students to independently embark on that journey of self-discovery.
About the authors
Julian Fagan learned through personal reflection that academic success meant very little if students were unable to overcome the battle with themselves. In response to this, Julian, together with his twin brother Ian, founded wellbeing software company Skodel, which is driven by a mission to give every student a voice that is heard and acted on. It is now being used by schools across the globe to check in with students every week.
Ian Fagan is a proven entrepreneur in the education industry. He founded his first business, HSC Study Buddy, straight out of high school in 2010. Ian then turned his attention to student mental health, given the increasing prevalence of youth wellbeing challenges as well as his own personal experience of mental illness. Together with his twin brother Julian, he launched youth wellbeing software company, Skodel, which provides teachers and school professionals with up to date information on student wellbeing that can inform action for at-risk students.
This article was originally published by The Learning Counsel, a research institute and news media hub focused on providing context for the shift in education to digital curriculum.