By: Kylie Power and Dr. Joe Thurbon
In recent years, children in the United States have been the beneficiaries of a movement in K-12 education that not only prioritizes student mental health but makes social-emotional learning an integral part of the school experience. In classrooms across America, teachers are helping students learn to manage emotions, achieve goals, demonstrate empathy, maintain healthy relationships and make responsible decisions — a strategy promoted by the U.S.-based Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL).
Even though we’re halfway across the globe in Australia, we’re familiar with the challenges American schools face with growing suicide rates among students and school violence. While the U.S. may face unique circumstances, it certainly isn’t the only country placing increased focus on its students’ social-emotional development. Australia has been a leader in the field for more than a decade, with the national Australian Student Wellbeing Framework serving as a model for similar policies.
In Australia, we use the term “student well-being” to encompass many of the same traits and behaviors recommended by CASEL. The framework provides guidance and resources to schools so they can establish communities focused on student well-being, positive relationships, and learning environments. Our educators believe that focusing on well-being helps identify students with emerging mental health needs before they reach a crisis state and also helps to prevent some of those issues, to begin with.
Our approach to supporting student well-being is captured in three words: notice, inquire and provide, or NIP (as in, “NIP issues in the bud”). This simple acronym reflects our educators’ core belief that focusing on well-being enables us to provide support to students earlier — and often in a more measured manner — with the aim of preventing ill-being or more serious mental health issues that may put the student and others at risk and require more serious interventions. Implementing a student support system based on NIP can be incredibly powerful, but it won’t just happen on its own. And while individual teachers both in Australia and America do an incredible job of supporting their students, supporting the whole-student truly is a whole-school effort. For Americans looking to put in place an effective system for student well-being, below are some of the best practices that we have found to be most instrumental from our experience:
1. Establish a culture and common language around well-being.
Supporting student well-being is about much more than purchasing an SEL curriculum. Though it uses a great SEL program, Iona College’s success in supporting student well-being is driven primarily by the culture and systems it created. This begins with a common vision for student well-being and a common language for discussing it with students, parents, and each other.
It’s a little easier for us in Australia, in part because the framework acts as a starting point for schools. Words themselves also matter, which is why we focus on “student well-being” as a broader concept than SEL. We still use the term SEL, particularly as we speak about the skills we’re developing in our students. But we believe “well-being” better captures both the outcomes we’re seeking to achieve and the broader systems and culture we’ve established.
2. Lean on regular, frequent data.
Student well-being, both for individual students and for a student body, changes from day to day in response to numerous variables and factors. A once-a-year survey on climate and culture simply can’t capture the nuance needed to understand the daily and weekly changes in well-being and climate. What’s needed are formative systems that easily fit within a teacher’s regular practice that allow schools to collect data on well-being quickly and frequently.
Iona College uses Educator Impact’s Pulse tool every Tuesday to receive updates on student well-being through short, 60-second check-ins. Students log in and click a color that corresponds with how they’re feeling: green for good, yellow for so-so, and red for “I need help.” That allows educators to intervene with students who may be struggling — and who otherwise wouldn’t have brought it to the staff’s attention. Students also answer a handful of questions on their experience in school that provide great, actionable data to schools on a range of potential well-being and teaching and learning issues.
3. Amplify and respond to student voices.
Collecting frequent information on well-being helps us better know our students and become more responsive to their needs, often through simple interventions and support or sometimes just through a conversation. This cycle of gathering information to understand how student experiences shape their mental health and well-being — and then responding to student concerns or questions — creates a powerful feedback loop, one that further encourages students to share their voice and articulate their feelings.
The result is a culture where students know their opinions are heard, respected, and acted upon by the educators in their school.
4. Ensure buy-in from school and district leaders.
For an SEL framework to succeed — even an informal one like CASEL’s — principals, superintendents, and state leaders must demonstrate a commitment to creating a positive learning community. Teachers need to hear from state and district leaders that student well-being is a priority, and they must have the tools they need to make that happen. So state and district leaders must make student well-being a central part of their mission statements, communicate the importance to their staff and monitor progress throughout the year.
They also must focus on developing staff capacity for incorporating student well-being into the school day. This is particularly necessary for veteran teachers, who may have attended college at a time when education schools weren’t talking about mental health and emotional well-being as they are today.
A true shift in a school’s climate and culture happens when teachers weave student well-being into every lesson for every subject, every day. And that’s true whether students are learning in Australia or the U.S. Getting there requires a shared language for students to express their emotions — and reach out to the adults in their lives when they need help.
For more, see:
- Why SEL is More Important Than Ever: Meeting SEL Needs Virtually
- Five Do’s and Don’ts of Today’s SEL
Kylie Power holds a master’s degree in student well-being, is deputy principal at Iona College in Geelong, Victoria. Australia.
Dr. Joe Thurbon is chief technology officer of Australia-based Educator Impact, which delivers well-being and culture platforms to schools.
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