Why Depth is More Important than Breadth – A Comment on Whole School Wellbeing Dr Helen Street

Unfortunately, as with many ideas taken at face value, conceptualizations of ‘whole school wellbeing programs’ can be dangerously ambiguous and substantially flawed.

If we want to support a whole school approach to building wellbeing in our schools, it is vital we begin with a definition and clear understanding of what a ‘whole school approach to wellbeing’ actually is.

For many schools a ‘whole school approach to wellbeing’ mean supporting theory and behaviour across the entire school community. For example, lets imagine ‘Local Primary School’. Local Primary wants to create a whole school focus on gratitude. Their whole school approach, taken over two to three weeks, looks something like this:

  • The children in years three and four produce posters depicting the power of gratitude which are placed in the front reception.
  • Children in year five participate in discussions about the value of gratitude in supporting mental health, in health education.
  • The principal hands out honorable mentions to selected children in the school in assembly, who have demonstrated gratitude in class.
  • Year one and two students receive smiley face stickers for telling the class what they are grateful for at home.
  • Year six students create a colourful ‘gratitude’ tree inside the front gate, where all children are invited to hang leaves expressing their gratitude for others.

Some of the above may sound great, some of it possibly less so. Some of the ideas may seem simple, others too idealistic. Some of Local Primary’s ideas may reflect strategies you have seen implemented in your local schools. Some may have a positive impact, others may not. But, good or bad, realistic or not, do they constitute a whole school approach? Moreover, is there a better way to develop a whole school focus on wellbeing, and in this case, gratitude?

First, let me share that I have seen all of the above ideas implemented in western primary schools. Not at the same time, in the same school, but none-the-less they are all based in real experience.  I have seen a forest of gratitude trees standing across Australia, and quite a few gratitude walls. I have heard about numerous options for the public acknowledgement of gratitude; be they in the form of certificates, prizes or honorable mentions. I have also seen more than a few colourful ‘gratitude posters’.

These ideas may well raise whole school awareness of ‘gratitude’ as a subject on the school calendar. Unfortunately, despite the best of intentions, I do not believe they are indicative of a whole school approach to significantly increasing gratitude, and whole school wellbeing for the long term.

So, if everyone is involved in some way in the above list, why is this not a whole school approach to effective change? Simply put, because it is involving the participation of the whole school community; rather than involving the evolving of the whole school system.

Raising awareness of wellbeing elements, in this case gratitude, is a great beginning, but it is not enough. Gratitude, and indeed other elements of wellbeing, are more than sets of behaviours or visible actions. Gratitude, like other elements of wellbeing, is a behaviour linked to an intention, which in turn is linked to a belief.  For example, a child who says they are ‘grateful for lunch’ in order to get their name on the gratitude wall; is believing, and doing something very different to the child who says they are  ‘grateful for lunch’ because they want to express their appreciation for the food that they have been given. The two actions may appear the same, but they are two wholly different things once we look under the surface.

It is not enough to suggest that gratitude is important, or to reward a public display of gratitude-like behaviour. It is certainly not enough to garner behavioural compliance using overt judgement and rewards. A school covered in colourful posters, handmade trees and stickers of appreciation is a school with words of gratitude on the surface. It is not necessarily a school embracing the intention, the experience and the reality of being a gratitude filled community.

So, what could we do differently?

Whole school approaches to wellbeing need to encompass a focus on the development of wellbeing beliefs and intentions that lead to desirable behaviours, rather than purely on the behaviours per se. In the example of gratitude, this means creating systemic development through the creation of normative gratitude . This will only happen in an environment that reflects ideas of gratitude and contributes to their fruition. The entire school context needs to  support a deep-seated belief about the power of appreciation, and the intention to express that appreciation to others. This may sound a bit all encompassing and possibly grandiose. So, what does this look like in concrete, practical terms? To address this question, lets return to Local Primary School and our original list of ideas.

The posters of gratitude developed by the years three and four students could still form the basis of a lovely activity but, the activity would be far more powerful if centered around the organic development of appreciation. For example, a discussion about the wonders of paint and paper making. If time permitted, the children could focus on making their posters from recycled paper, so that they could organically appreciate the work and science behind every sheet of A4 that crosses their desk.

The children in year five could indeed have a useful discussion about the value of gratitude; as could the children in every year. This, however, only becomes meaningful if their teacher demonstrates gratitude in action. For example, the teacher could begin every class with a few moments genuinely reflecting on something that they are grateful for in their day. “I had a great coffee at break and am so grateful Mrs. Smith bought it for me”. “I feel so grateful to know everyone has found a place in a group today, and no-one is left wondering where to sit” These are simple examples of ‘show’ being more powerful than ‘tell’.

To ensure that expressions of gratitude in class are authentic, teachers also need to develop gratitude practice in the staff room, at meetings and when on duty in the playground. Even the most involved and complex discussion about the power of gratitude will be lost in a room that is full of people not feeling gratitude themselves.

On consideration of the principal handing out awards in assembly; as an alternative, everyone could share more equitably in an anonymous gratitude practice. For example,  at assembly everyone could take two minutes to consider someone or something they are grateful for, in quiet contemplation. Community honoring of gratitude is at its most powerful when it involves sharing in the power of gratitude; rather than judging the actions of others.

Similarly, rather than handing out smiley face stickers to children who express appreciation, teachers could simply encourage self-reflection about how good it feels to say thank you and mean it. Supporting self-determined behaviour is far more powerful than garnering compliance.

Finally, the gratitude tree could indeed be a beautiful symbol of shared appreciation in a school. However, once again, it is important that it reflects the broader context of the school; and does not stand separate to it. As such, consider the normative development of gratitude within the school context, rather than the development of gratitude behaviours across it.

If we conceptualize whole school approaches to wellbeing as approaches that focus on positive behaviours and the seeking of extrinsic rewards, we may be making broad strokes to wellbeing, but any progress will be lacking in depth or longevity. We want children to learn to express appreciation because they experience beauty in the details of their lives; not because they want a gel pen or certificate. We want the gratitude tree in the courtyard to represent the school values, not stand separate to them.

Whole school wellbeing needs to involve contextual development within the school that leads to the creation of a wellbeing reality; not simply a wellbeing lesson.


Helen.street (at) uwa.edu.au

Twitter   @drhelenstreet

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