Wellbeing in international schools: Are we missing the bigger picture?

Having been interested in the subject of wellbeing for the past year, and spending much time researching this area through reading, listening to podcasts and attending webinars, I often can’t shake the feeling that many of these discussions, whilst helpful, neglect some of the biggest challenges to student wellbeing within the international school context; safeguarding, diversity and inclusion, and culture. 

Instead, what you get are four very much intertwined strands, separated. On one level I can completely appreciate why; these are big areas of discussion that warrant and deserve their own space. However, whilst I feel that whilst this proliferation of reports and webinars is only a good thing, they often have a tendency to examine wellbeing from a very narrow perspective. 

There has been much talk about student wellbeing, happiness, and self-confidence, and links drawn between these factors and subsequent academic achievement. All good stuff. But what these discussions often lack is a look at the bigger picture… Do students feel safe? Do they feel that they can be who they truly are? Do they have a greater appreciation for cultural nuances about wellbeing? Is the role of culture even something that is acknowledged in these discussions?

Let’s talk first about safety. As Jane Larsson, Executive Director of the Council of International Schools, mentioned in 2016, there is no information about the prevalence of abuse by teachers in international schools. Historically, safeguarding in international schools has posed unique challenges due to weak or inconsistent hiring practices, ease of mobility, and (in some countries) underdeveloped legal systems, all of which have served to make international schools an attractive place of work for those inclined to harm children. 

There has been, and continues to be, some tremendous work done by organisations such as CIS and the International Task Force on Child Protection (ITFCP), and a shift in thinking by many schools with a greater focus on ‘Maslow before Bloom’, but certainly the pandemic and on/off lockdowns and restrictions of movement have exacerbated issues of child safety. For example, reports by the BBC stated a 25% increase in domestic abuse calls and online requests for help. In addition Europol, along with U.K.’s National Crime Agency, the Swedish Police Authority had seen an increase in online child exploitation since the pandemic started.

In addition to this, in a recent webinar safeguarding series that was hosted by ISAT and the British Embassy, safeguarding expert Robin Watts echoed the words that he had mentioned previously in an EduCare article; that there can often be a false sense of security felt in independent schools (which could also be extended to international schools) as a result of the incorrect assumption that children in affluent families are less likely to experience abuse. However, as Robin states:

“There can be a perception that abuse only occurs infrequently in such advantaged families. However, this is a myth. Statistically, abuse is just as likely (and arguably marginally more likely) than in lower income families. In affluent families, abuse tends to be more hidden in these areas and abusers more sophisticated in their ability to hide abuse. 

“Children are far less likely to come to the attention of the authorities than children from a lower class/income. In addition to this, parents and carers are thought to be far safer when they are from a middle to high income area and viewed as such by the potentially protective adults around the child.”

In addition to these factors, many international school families often lack support networks in their newly settled countries. As a teacher living abroad and working in international schools myself, I am also aware of the transient nature of many friendships, and during tough times have sorely missed the support that I believe I would have had at home in the UK.

Another key factor that is often missing from discussions around wellbeing, is diversity and inclusion. Whilst there is some fantastic and important work being done by many groups and individuals in this area, I rarely see these discussions mentioned when it comes to wellbeing. If students (and staff) are not valued, appreciated and allowed to be who they truly are, then this will surely have a significant impact on their wellbeing and sense of self (probably one of the biggest factors after meeting core safety needs). As an LGBT+ educator who has experienced my own ‘coming out’ both as an 18-year old and continually ever since, I have felt first hand the fear of not being accepted for who I am, the challenge of having to hide parts of myself, the fear of being rejected, and the actual rejection itself. Despite this, I consider myself privileged in many respects, and I acknowledge that there are certainly many different intersectional identities that experience far more significant challenges than I. The point I feel it is important to make here is that if your school isn’t evaluating and examining it’s leadership, policies and procedures, hiring practices, and culture when it comes to diversity and inclusion, how sure can we really be that we truly honor and represent this for our students?

Lastly, what I often feel is missing from conversations around wellbeing in the international school context is an appreciation of culture, and in particular cultural differences when it comes to understandings of wellbeing and mental health. In a previous article I wrote on Mental Health and International Schools: Towards a greater understanding of cultural and contextual factors, I discuss in more detail different cultural understandings of mental health causes and treatment (emotional expression, shame and stigma, the ‘power distance’, collectivism and spirituality and religion). The reality is that many of our students take on some of the culture that they are raised in, some of the culture that they live in, and some of the culture of the school that they are educated in. Divisions and differences between accepted and enacted cultural norms may be much more fluid for the transnational students that we teach. I’m often surprised by the conversations that I have with students about their cultural views on things such as body image, career expectations, and even death. You can visibly see students grappling with the different parts of themselves, and I highly suspect that this often plays a factor in some students either not reaching out for support, or not wanting to engage in the type of talk support that many schools offer.

Despite this, I often fail to see this raised in discussions, or reflected in diverse panels that can comment on this from a ‘lived-experience’ point of view. The simple fact is that I have never been an international student, and my work and education aligns with the culture that I grew up in. It wasn’t really until I worked in an international school that I had a true appreciation of the power of culture in all aspects of life.

To bring this to a close, my feelings are that discussions around wellbeing need to be situated within, and have an appreciation of, this bigger picture. That way the efforts of schools to address and promote wellbeing will have deeper roots and will be much more likely to grow and embed as part of the school, rather than being a seasonal flower that blossoms brightly, but all too briefly.

6 thoughts on “Wellbeing in international schools: Are we missing the bigger picture?

  1. Thank you for this post. Certainly good for thought as we all look to increase wellbeing for our learners and staff.

  2. Sadie a terrific article that places the importance of the well-being agenda front and centre of our core business in schools. To compartmentalize well being is short sighted and narrow the school culture needs to live and breathe the concepts you cover in this article. Thank you for you insight.

  3. This is a fantastic site that is both informative and well-written. I’m hopeful you’ll begin publishing fresh posts soon.

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