Over the past twenty years Australian educators have increasingly embraced the concept of wellbeing as a core element of successful education. The majority of public and private schools in Australia now boast at least one wellbeing initiative, with many making explicit statements about the importance of social and emotional learning within their school community framework.
On the face of it, these findings suggest that tables are being positively turned within the Australian education system. It could even be tentatively suggested that Australia is becoming a wellbeing leader for primary and secondary schools. However, it is vital that we do not simply take this level of adherence to the ‘concept of wellbeing’ as tantamount to ‘improving and nurturing wellbeing’. Now that wellbeing programs are becoming the norm in the majority of Australian schools, it is vital that we extensively explore their effectiveness, sustainability and longevity. We need to ensure that positive education is being effectively delivered in every school, not simply laminated for their marketing campaigns.
In reality, many Australian school based practices and policies remain embedded in misconceived but deeply ingrained beliefs. For example, beliefs about the effectiveness of homework, the benefit of early structured education and reward based systems for reinforcement, all continue to have a strong hold, despite research repeatedly questioning their effectiveness. As with many ingrained beliefs, those in education are often entrenched to the point of confusion with ‘fact’. They are rarely questioned or challenged and very resistant to change.
Thus, Australian social and emotional learning has been embedded within a mix of an increasing awareness about wellbeing along with lingering faith in many ineffective practices. This has resulted in many questionable outcomes for school based wellbeing programs and frequent confusion over program delivery. For example, many schools are keen to encourage positive social behaviour among students and staff (signifying increased wellbeing awareness) but do this with reward systems such as stickers, certificates or prizes (unhelpful ingrained practice). Similarly, many schools now realize that mental health is a primary concern in young people (wellbeing awareness) but still choose to highlight the long term dangers of poor health rather than support the immediate benefits of good health (unhelpful ingrained practice).
It is vital that we don’t drown our growing interest in wellbeing within an outdated belief system. The misconceived self-esteem movement of the early 1970s wrongly assumed that self-esteem was paramount for good grades and good social behaviour (inaccurate wellbeing awareness). Moreover, it resulted in teachers everywhere attempting to increase their students’ self-esteem with uncritical praise; to the point where no-one could fail, or possibly succeed (unhelpful practice). We need to learn from the mistakes of this time and ensure that we understand both the ingredients of wellbeing and the best method for creating a positive education recipe.
Interest among educators tends to shift from one facet of wellbeing to another. Three years ago we discussed resilience, two years ago mindfulness entered the spotlight, last year creativity came longingly into focus. We have learnt that it is important to bring attention to many aspects of the wellbeing puzzle but to be careful not to hold up any one facet of wellbeing as ‘the answer’.
In terms of delivery, we have shifted from a deficit to a strength based model – nurturing wellbeing rather than ‘treating’ problems. In 2015 we have embraced increased emphasis on building ‘whole school approaches’ and supported the importance of physical health. Overall, our well meant but highly fractured Australian approach to wellbeing is being refined and tamed under the umbrella of positive education.
It is time to turn the tables on the Australian education system. Time to ensure that we use our time supporting social and emotional learning effectively, not just enthusiastically. It is vital that we embrace and support ourselves and our students mindfully, intelligently and wholeheartedly.
Helen is co-originator and chair of The National Australian Positive Schools Initiative (NAPSI), The Positive Schools conferences and a major contributor to The Positive Times. The incredible success of Positive Schools is a satisfying reflection of her passion to bring positive education alive in Australia, the UK and beyond.
Originally from the UK, Dr Helen Street has a background in applied social psychology and youth mental health. She has worked extensively in Australian schools since 1999. Her work exploring wellbeing, engagement and motivation in young people has been presented internationally in academic journals and in the popular media. Helen’s ideas have been met with international acclaim and have been endorsed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and ‘brown eyes blue eyes’ creator Jane Elliott, among many others.
Helen is an adjunct research consultant for the health department of WA’s Centre for Clinical Interventions and an Honorary Research Fellow with the School of Graduate Education at The University of Western Australia. She appears on frequently on Australian TV and radio and writes regularly for Educational publications including Western Teacher magazine and The Positive Times (www.positivetimes.com.au). Helen is also the author of several books and book chapters and co-editor, with Neil Porter, of Positive Schools first book, ‘Better Than OK’
Helen is available to present talks and workshops for staff and parents on a range of topics including wellbeing, motivation, creativity, and media literacy.