Are your students happy? What can you do about it?
3rd May 2016
Our guest blogger Liz Ponsford from Careers Unlimited has been thinking about what we can be doing to make sure our young people are happy.
Are your students happy? If not, what can you do to help them?
English children were 14th out of 15 countries surveyed for happiness in the 2015 Good Childhood Report, with numbers reporting low levels of life satisfaction highest around exam age: 16-17. Children’s happiness is an area where the UK has consistently been a low achiever in recent decades: statistics show rates of depression and anxiety among teenagers have increased by 70% in a trend that can be traced back to the mid eighties.
Meanwhile, underfunding of support services mean that practitioners have to turn away nearly a quarter of children referred to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) for treatment, often because their conditions are not considered serious enough. The government is addressing these issues by pledging a £1.25 billion investment into young people’s mental health, but making improvements felt will take time.
Unhappiness can make a student more vulnerable to the negative impact of stress and anxiety. And at times of increased pressure such as during exams and during transitions, the knock on effects can have a long term negative impact on a young person’s progression and future success, affecting all aspects of their lives including education, career prospects, relationships, and health.
So what can teachers do to support their students to be happier?
The DofE’s mental health and behaviour in schools advice, most recently updated in March, makes recommendations on improving children’s wellbeing. They point out that there are already several tools at schools’ disposal which are designed to serve students holistically:
PSHE - Although PSHE remains non-statutory, the PSHE Association produce guidance and lessons plans for schools on preparing to teach about mental health and emotional wellbeing.
MindEd - MindEd is a free online training tool, provides information and advice for staff on children and young people’s mental health.
Counselling support - the recommendations suggest that providing counselling support within schools is something that head teachers should be working towards. Building links with other specialist support including CAMHS is also useful.
However, in terms of the values that schools uphold and the cultures they create, improving student wellbeing involves a reexamination of school life in a broader way. The DoE’s advice touches on a number of ways to go about this. We should be thinking more for example about how to better create safe spaces for students to talk to teachers discreetly and safely outside the classroom. The value of involving parents if appropriate and of cultivating peer mentoring also shouldn’t be forgotten.
Beyond that, there’s also emphasis on expanding opportunities for students to develop life and social skills as part of becoming fulfilled and happy people. Natasha Devon, the Government’s First Mental Health Champion, has spoken out recently about the importance of broadening the curriculum from its increasingly narrow focus on the EBacc subjects and increasing access for students to the creative subjects and opportunities to be active.
Another facet of this shift towards is fostering self confidence and individuality by encouraging students to discover their own unique selling point. Academic resilience too is a trait whose importance is increasingly recognised in improving students’ chances of achieving good outcomes despite adversity (check out the Young Minds website for some great teaching resources focused on resilience).
The increasing emphasis on happiness is mirrored in society at large and there is an increasing amount of research on what tools people need to be mentally well. Approaches based on neuroscience research focus on a number of key qualities which can be developed, to train the brain to be happier. Ten Tips for Happier Living have an excellent list which brings together much of the work being carried out in the field of mental health and wellbeing:
Giving - Doing things for others. Simple acts of kindness can activate the neural circuits which are the key to positive well being. So techniques like peer mentoring can be of benefit to both the giver and the recipient of the support.
Awareness - Living mindfully. Students who are absorbed in what they are doing are more likely to report themselves as feeling happy. Turn off the social media!
Resilience - Find ways to bounce back. Mindfulness practice can support the recovery back to baseline of the neural circuits that are triggered by difficult events, but research suggests that this can take many hours of practice.
Emotions - Look for the good. In contrast to resilience, these circuits are easily activated. Students can be encouraged to develop these by listing three positives each day, saying a simple thanks or doing something ‘nice’.
Relating - Connecting with people.
Exercising - Taking care of your body.
Trying Out - Keep learning new things.
Direction - Have goals to aim for.
Acceptance - Being comfortable with who you are.
Meaning - Being part of something bigger.
In our effort to improve students’ well being we should be trying to incorporate some of these into our practice as education professionals. What good is education if it's leading to unfulfilling and unhappy lives? Looking at things more optimistically though, what better place is there to start putting these tips into action than in education?
In schools, we have a ready-made community in which students (and staff!) can learn and practice these happiness skills and hopefully take them out to their homes, communities and the wider world. We've got to crack on!