We all know that well-being (social intelligence, mindfulness, self-regulation, grit, resilience, etc.) are important. Mental health is the number one issue in schools today as identified by our teachers, principals, superintendents, directors of education and trustees according to the Ontario School Board in 2013. The epidemic of anxiety, stress, and teen depression is alarming. We are expecting this generation of students to change the world, yet we aren’t giving them all the tools they will need to be successful.
Right now, many schools are making great strides towards changing this. Across Canada we see mindfulness programs introduced, growth mindset curriculum launched, and psychology topics like gratitude and grit being applauded and encouraged.
Despite these massive efforts, mental well-being remains a tricky topic. How much is needed? (More) If you talk about it too much can it make it worse rather than better? (Yes) Are some methods more effective than others? (Absolutely!)
Let’s start by defining exactly what’s needed. According to the World Health Organization, mental health is defined as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.
When an individual grows or develops in a healthy or vigorous way, especially as the result of a particularly favorable environment it’s called flourishing.
We’re aiming for well-being so students and staff can flourish.
Another Little Problem
Most schools are teaching tools. Gratitude is a tool. Growth mindset is a tool. Getting enough sleep is a mental health tool. Social capital is also a tool. But what if the students, and let’s face it the staff too, what if they are given the entire toolkit but they don’t have the blueprint to know what they are making with these tools?
“If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to treat everything as if it were a nail.” Abraham Maslow
It’s time to give both teachers and students a blueprint to go with their tools. Every problem doesn’t need a hammer.
One More Problem
Everyone wants to know how their child’s school ranks on standardized test scores and rankings like the Fraser Institute School Rankings for Canadian schools. School blogs, magazines, administration, students and their families all broadcast how many students got accepted to an Ivy school but nobody is talking about how many students, both those too overcome by their stress and depression to be successful and those coping with massive amount of depression, stress, and anxiety and still appearing successful, are eventually falling prey to the lack of balance in their lives. Is it really success to land a place at Stanford or Harvard and drop out second semester? Is it a success to practice grit through med school only to have a massive breakdown and never practice medicine? Defining success to include well-being and balance is key. Research says that success and productivity drop off after 55 hours of work in a week. Many students, whose work includes not only their time in class and their homework but also their extra-curricular sports, clubs and volunteer hours are just depleted physically and mentally.
What Do Schools Need?
We cannot expect teachers to be experts at mental well-being. It wasn’t part of their bachelor's degree in education curriculum and even if they have an area of professional development beyond their degree requirements, that only provides their students with a really useful tool. Without the entire school system continuing to teach these skills until they are embedded fully into a child’s default brain system, it just isn’t enough. It’s like watering a plant really well for one year and expecting it to thrive. Is it even the school's role? Some believe that parents should be the primary source of well-being education. Let's assume that we can all agree that kids with more positive emotion and less mental deficit are better students- they can be more engaged, focused, and successful (and research shows this is true). It would seem counterintuitive for schools to not deliver well-being education.
Well-Being education needs to be:
When something is quantifiable it allows us to know if it is working. It stops time and dollars from being wasted on curriculum, speakers, and lessons that aren’t makinga positive impact. How can you measure well-being? Until recently it hasn’t really been easy to do unless your school is part of a research program or study. Who had time to measure and what exactly was being measured? Recent innovations like the Flourishing at School by People Diagnostic out of Australia are changing this. This innovative cloud-based software solution uses a survey as an indicator of mental health, useful for proactive wellbeing interventions at both an individual and collective level. uses a positive psychology approach to assess the degree to which individuals have developed the “pillars” of good mental health to stay well and optimise quality of life.
Children can learn to recognize the difference between useful stress and dangerous levels of stress. They are quite capable of turning a negative downward spiral around. They are also able to form social connections with supportive peers and adults who can be mentors. Starting early teaching tools and providing a blueprint for mental wellness is important. School counselors are overwhelmed dealing with the problems and have very little time to help prevent the problems. If schools put well-being as one of the basic required skills for all students, we can prevent the epidemic of poor mental health from continuing.
Conversations about mental health more public than ever. Movements like WE Day have made strides in taking topics that used to be hidden into mainstream media and everyday conversation. Talking about suicide, bullying, cutting, and eating disorders is no longer taboo yet talking alone isn’t enough. A whole school model like Geelong Grammar School’s Learn, Live, Teach, Embed model opens conversations, teaches science-backed skills and fosters wellness across an entire community. Until everyone across a campus (parents too) has the same language and understanding of wellness, the depth required to impact community mental health cannot be reached.
Wellness is unique. Everyone's blueprint is slightly different. There are seven domains proven to impact long-term happiness, success, and resilience according to recent research. The tools to boost an individual’s experience of each domain are universal. The blueprint, however, must be customized to match motivation, age, and habit formation tendency.
The problems around delivering well-being at school haven’t changed. But the number of tools available and experts willing to assist is growing. If your school needs help designing and implementing a program, ask for expert help from Positive Minds International and our team of experts or your local positive psychology practitioner.