Reframing wellbeing in schools: We need a toolbox, not a hammer

By far my favourite book that I have read this year is Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World–and Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling. As the title suggests, this book seeks to show that for all of the imperfections and challenges in the world, it is in a much better condition than we would like to believe. Rosling does this through revealing ten different instincts which distort our reality, and offers ways in which we can challenge our own subscriptions to these unhelpful instincts. In my role as a Head of Sixth Form, I am situated within a small counselling department and as such a lot of mine and my colleagues’ focus is centered around student support and wellbeing. With thoughts of ‘how can we improve wellbeing in the school’ often quietly simmering away even when I’m not at school, one instinct from Rosling’s book that really jumped out at me was ‘the single perspective instinct’.

We as humans are really attracted to simple ideas, we are drawn to that feeling of really understanding something or having that moment of insight, which fills us with a sense of pride and achievement. The problem with this is the snowball effect that leads us from one attention-grabbing idea to the feeling that this is able to perfectly explain or act as the optimal solution for many different things. This makes the world seem simpler and can (mis)lead us into thinking that problems have a single cause, or likewise, a single solution – an instinct that we need to challenge. 

“Give a child a hammer and everything looks like a nail”. We all possess valuable expertise, whether it’s doctors and their knowledge of how to perform medical interventions, or teachers and their knowledge of how to educate. Because of this we may sometimes seek to apply our hard-won knowledge and skills in ways beyond what is actually useful, and can shadow what actually works. Similar to a doctor treating a patient with depression solely by using medication, issues of poor wellbeing in schools cannot be solved (or improved) just with educational programmes focusing on mindfulness, or resilience skills, or growth mindset education programmes. One, because we have all experienced the gap between knowing and doing (the struggle to eat a healthy diet is real!), but also because we’re framing the issue of wellbeing as a simple problem that requires a simple solution. We have the hammer and we’re seeing wellbeing as the nail.

The thing here is that we don’t need a hammer, we need a toolbox.

Professor Kathryn Ecclestone’s article entitled ‘Well-being programmes in schools might be doing children more harm than good’ highlights the fact that there is very little evidence to suggest that educational programmes which are aimed at improving children’s wellbeing are having any impact on the transferability of skills in the short or long term. The proliferation of programmes related to improving wellbeing has taken place within the broader context of the social ‘ticking time bomb’ of growing mental health problems in young people, which has produced fear and a sense of urgency in schools to grab that hammer to try and fix it.

The difficulty is that wellbeing is complex and multifaceted, and we need a toolbox with screwdrivers, wrenches, and a tape measure as well if we are going to help construct something that will help students in the long-term. This comes from lots of different things; the culture of the school and the sense of belonging and commitment that the space inspires in students, the extra-curricular programmes and all of the opportunities to learn ‘non-academic’ based skills and experience success, and also in the everyday care in the small interactions that we have with students, and they have with each other. One new thing our school is trying this year is to create student wellbeing positions within our Student Council so as to make students part of the design of the long-term vision in our school’s focus on improving wellbeing.

Wellbeing is a long-term endeavour and so it requires a long-term vision. Building a house needs more than a hammer, and our focus should be on helping students to find the tools to construct their own home.

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