Why Schools Need to Spend Less Time Thinking About Students (and More Time Thinking About Culture) Dr Helen Street

Over the past twenty years, there has been an increasing consideration of the role schools can, and indeed ‘should’ play in supporting the mental health of young Australians.

But good intentions do not always translate into good actions.

Moreover, poorly implemented actions can arguably exacerbate any given problem, rather than offering any sustainable or meaningful solution.

Imagine a school with a population of 1000 students. Now imagine that while 950 of those students are thriving, 50 are struggling with their wellbeing. It would be understandable that we would want to help those 50 students so that they could also ultimately thrive. It would make sense if we chose to give those struggling young people some extra support, possibly in the form of counselling or coaching, depending on the focus and degree of each of their difficulties. Some might require professional psychological support for a specific mental health concern. Others might be surviving, doing OK, but could really benefit from some explicit teaching of wellbeing skills. For example, they might need some extra help understanding the nuances of social interactions, or support in learning to be assertive, respectful and fair minded.

Others might benefit if they learnt more about compassionate behavior; or increased their focus on the positive events going on in their life. Others might specifically benefit from study skills and stress management advice;  ideas and strategies to help them manage the challenges of academic learning.  Similarly, others could be better equipped to thrive if they better understand procrastination and the benefits of developing a ‘sense of mastery’.

In summary, in our imagined reality, I propose that it would be reasonable to want to offer individualized support to the 5% of the student population that were not doing as well as everyone else.  It would also be reasonable, and arguably progressive, to then want to expand some of those helpful ideas and strategies to those who were thriving. Afterall, if skills and strategies can help those who struggle, they could probably also help those who are not. In essence,  it would arguably be worthwhile and indeed extremely beneficial to embed positive education, as we know and understand it today, into the school context.

As much as we can certainly want to help those who are unhappy, If we had less than 5% of students dissatisfied or distressed within any large school, I think we could reasonably report that the school system was working well. This seems a reasonable deduction given the complexities of both social systems, and of being human. As Poet John Lydgate famously said, ‘we can’t please all of the people all of the time’.

In reality,  an average school with 1000 students includes at least 250 students who are not thriving, not the 50 imagined above. For example, a recent study of more than 28,000 Australians between the ages of 15 and 19 by Mission Australia and The Black Dog Institute, has found that nearly one in four (24.2%) of young Australians in 2018 reported experiencing mental health challenges. The study has also found that young people are more likely to report feelings of psychological distress than they were seven years ago and that adolescent girls are twice as likely to report mental health challenges than are boys. We do not have an imagined 5% of our student population who are struggling, we have a real 25%.

What’s more, many of the remaining 75% of students who do not report poor mental health, are none-the-less not as happy as we would like them to be. They might not be struggling, but nor are they thriving. In fact, recent reports from the OECD PISA survey in 2015[i] suggest that 28% of Australian adolescents do not feel like they belong at school, whereas 27% feel like outsiders and 28% report feeling awkward and out of place. Australian students feel a lower sense of belonging than their peers in 35 OECD countries surveyed, and their overall sense of belonging has declined significantly since the first PISA results in 2003. Similarly, mental health foundation ‘headspace’ has reported one in three (32%) young Australians (12 to 25-year olds) were reporting high or very high levels of psychological distress in 2018[ii]. This percentage is more than treble the rate in 2007 (which was 9%)

I believe that this reality changes everything.

With this number of students reporting social and emotional difficulties, we cannot feel confident in the educational context that supports young people in Australia.  This reality of youth distress tells us that we do not have a great education system in which a small minority of kids need some extra support; we have a dysfunctional system in which a significant number of kids are struggling to feel connected and struggling to thrive. This is not about blaming anyone, this is about the culture and context that influences us all.

Absolutely there are other significant contexts in every young person’s life, namely the home context, each child’s broader social context and their online world. Undoubtedly there are many influences, both positive and negative, contributing to each person’s wellbeing across all these difference and important contextual domains. None-the-less, young people spend a significant amount of time in the school context, and as such, we cannot afford to underestimate the importance of this experience to overall youth mental health and wellbeing.  Research has found that half of all lifetime mental health disorders emerge by age 14 and three quarters by age 24[iii] Moreover, mental illness contributes to 45% of the global burden of disease among those aged 10 to 24 years[iv]

You may or may not agree with my suggestion that 5% of students struggling in a school context is a percentage low enough to warrant a focus on individual social and psychological functioning, as opposed to contextual change. You may believe that it would be reasonable to expect up to 10% of students to struggle with social and psychological issues at school. In contrast you may believe that it is reasonable to expect less than 2 to 3% to be struggling in a truly healthy context. Whatever your personal opinion, I would hazard to guess that just about all of us would consider that if more than one in four students are struggling in any given context, there is a problem with that context, as opposed to a problem with those students.

And herein lies the rub.

In Australia, we have continued to focus our wellbeing ideas and strategies firmly on individual improvement and paid little or no attention to contextual considerations. We are trying to support school based mental health and wellbeing with ideas and strategies that would work for an inherently healthy context, but experience is telling us that the school context is inherently unhealthy.

As soon as we acknowledge this fact, we can usefully and meaningfully turn our attentions to creating a healthier educational context for young people, rather than continually trying to upskill or even ‘fix’ the people suffering at the hands  of the reality of school life.

Seligman’s PERMA model of wellbeing[v] suggests that there are key pillars of behavior that underpin wellbeing in individuals across the world. This suggested model of understanding wellbeing has become widely adopted in the emerging field of positive psychology and consequently now underpins much of what we have come to understand as ‘positive education’. Positive education is therefore now widely accepted as a means of supporting social and psychological wellbeing in students alongside academic education. This PERMA approach to positive education suggests that individuals are more likely to experience wellbeing if they have a combination of  five expressions of being well, namely positive emotion, engagement, positive relationships, meaning and achievement.  The model falters in making distinctions between signs and ‘symptoms’ of wellbeing (eg positive emotion) and underlying ‘causes’ (eg engagement).  Rather it simply  (perhaps over simply) suggests that significant relationships exist with certain ways of functioning and behaving.

The PERMA model has led to many other explorations of the ‘ingredients’ of  individual wellbeing. As such, there are many popular theories linking wellbeing to certain attitudes and behaviours, or indeed combinations of certain attitudes and behaviours. Many of these are being added to positive education theory and practice. For example, Angela Duckworth’s theory of ‘grit’[vi]; suggests that people with passion and determination are happier and achieve their goals more than do those with less gritty behaviours.   Similarly, findings supporting a significant relationship between gratitude and wellbeing have led to the suggestion we practice gratitude more often[vii]

The increasing list of human social and psychological factors linked to wellbeing, has resulted in an increasing list of topics to be ‘taught’, modelled and embedded at school,  with a view to better supporting students in their ‘pursuit’ of a thriving life.

This approach to wellbeing is enormously problematic.

It is an approach designed to help students to better understand their own wellbeing as individuals, rather than to understand their wellbeing as part of a social system. As such, poor mental health is seen as a state to be unpacked, repacked, broadened and built. It is an approach that assumes that those experiencing a lack of wellbeing need individualized support.

Think back to my imagined school with 50 struggling students. The current approach to positive education, whether focused on class gratitude letters or the identification of frequently expressed ‘strengths’, would aim to help these and the other 950 students to feel better and to better connect with their educational context. As such, the focus of attention is firmly placed on understanding and improving individual wellbeing. This makes wellbeing, and indeed a lack of wellbeing, an individual responsibility, with individual accountability.

Simply put, if you are not happy at school, current thinking tells us that you may need to change your attitude, your beliefs and/or your behaviour.

If you are not feeling a sense of belonging at school, or are feeling overly anxious or stressed, then maybe you need to practice more mindfulness, express more gratitude, or, possibly focus on greater levels of kindness and compassion.

I have two major concerns with this individualized approach.

The first major concern is that this approach assumes that most people are doing fine with the way things are. That the problems are with the inevitable outliers, and that in general, the context is fine.  It ignores the many problems of our outdated industrial approach to education.

If more than a quarter of Australian students are struggling at school, perhaps the context, the educational system, is at fault? Perhaps it is really a case of ‘it’s not me, it’s them’.  If this is indeed the ‘current state of affairs’, and research increasingly and glaringly suggests it is, then struggling becomes a healthy means of surviving an unhealthy context, rather than a dysfunctional way of operating.  Anxiety is a clear response to threat, feeling ‘ungrateful’ is a sign that a person’s needs are not being met, a lack of engagement is a positive response to a lack of healthy context to engage with…and a lack of joyous emotional expression is completely understandable.

With the above in mind, I suggest that it is not only unhelpful to aim to increase an individual’s ‘positive’ behaviours, it can be very unhealthy. Moreover, I suggest that we are exacerbating poor mental health in our youth by trying to change individual behaviours without changing the environment they are created within.

The second major concern I have is one of confusing ‘knowing’ with ‘being’. It may well be true that happier people smile more than unhappy people, but that does not mean that smiling ‘makes’ you happy, or indeed that being happy makes you smile.  However, lets assume that we can indeed increase wellbeing if we increase the factors associated with being well. Even with this assumption in place, this does not mean that we can increase any wellbeing factor with active practice that does not take environmental impact into consideration. For example, we may teach young people to be kind and compassionate to each other, however, if their context does not change in any way, are they likely to become kinder and more compassionate?

Ultimately, it seems to me to be futile and possible dangerous, to attempt to change the students, without attempting to change the system that is failing them. This seems comparable to being concerned about an increasing number of pedestrians being hit by fast moving vehicles in urban areas, and then offering advanced driving lessons rather than reducing the speed limit around town. Advanced driving skills may work for some drivers, but without a community approach, fatalities will still happen, the environment will still be a difficult one to navigate through.

So, what can we do to build a healthy educational context? How do we reduce the speed limit in schools?

We can examine the education system and ask:

  1. Is this system (my school context) meeting the three key human needs of kids in this school? I.e. does the system:
    1. Prioritize positive relationships and a sense of cohesion in all students
    2. Offer opportunity for student agency, choice and control
    3. Ensure that every student has an equal opportunity to experience a sense of growing competency and hope for the future
  2. Is this system equitable? I.e. does the school ensure that:
    1. Relationships are built in a fair and inclusive environment. Is there policy and normative practice ensuring that students are not continually competing against each other or, feeling more, or less, important than each other.
    2. Autonomy is a real practice and not about lip service. It is not minimalized within a framework of judgement and control where having agency is confused with taking action to get positive feedback from someone else.
    3. Competency is an opportunity for everyone. Competency is about progressing towards our ‘personal best’ rather than trying to be ‘the best’ (which can only be achieved by a very few).

Once we start to examine school context with the above considerations in mind, it is possible to see some of the many school norms and practices that are arguably contributing so heavily to the low levels of wellbeing in our youth. Schools today, are largely inequitable environments, defining success as a series of zero-sum games. Some kids win, but often with the loss of self-determination. Many others lose not only the award for being ‘best girl or boy’ but, also their sense of success, voice and belonging along the way.

If schools could provide opportunity for every student to achieve their key needs in an equitable way, then perhaps students would organically develop wellbeing and engagement in learning. Perhaps they would develop Contextual Wellbeing[viii].

I don’t think that positive education is best placed to identify, categorize or change each student to ‘fit’ the system regardless of whether they ‘win’ or ‘lose’. Rather, positive education needs to trust the human condition as inheritably social and driven to collective survival. As such, schools could usefully spend less time thinking about the students, and far more time building cultures of wellbeing excellence. 

About Helen

Helen is an education consultant, speaker and author who works with schools around the world. She has a background in applied social psychologist and mental health and maintains an honorary research fellow at The University of Western Australia. Helen has written four books, several book chapters and more than 100 articles and academic papers. Her book ‘Standing Without Shoes’ includes a foreword by His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

During the past eleven years, Helen has created and chaired The Positive Schools conferences across Australia and SE Asia. She is also the creator and editor of ‘The Positive Times’, a consultant with the WA Health Department and the WA Association of Mental Health; and appears regularly on TV and radio.

As a powerful advocate for the creation of positive school communities, Helen is particularly interested in the development of positive school contexts in which students can develop intrinsic motivation, self-determination and life-long wellbeing. Helen believes that students will flourish when, and only when they feel connected to a healthy school context. Her work is being adopted by schools worldwide and has led to the publication of her latest book ‘Contextual Wellbeing – creating positive school from the inside out’ in 2018.

Helen can be contacted at The University of Western Australia on helen.street(at)uwa.edu.au


Tweet @drhelenstreet @positiveschools

‘Contextual Wellbeing’ FB group for educators https://www.facebook.com/groups/1004456073075236/


[i] De Bortoli, Lisa (2018) “PISA Australia in Focus Number 1: Sense of belonging at school”

[ii] https://headspace.org.au/blog/new-headspace-research-reveals-alarming-levels-of-psychological-distress-in-young-australians/

[iii] McGorry, P. D., Goldstone, S. D., Parker, A. G., Rickwood, D. J., & Hickie, I. B. (2014) Cultures for mental health care of young people: an Australian blueprint for

reform. The Lancet Psychiatry, 1 (7), 559-568.

Kessler, R. C., Berglund, P., Demler, O., Jin, R., Merikangas, K. R. & Walters, E.E. (2005) Lifetime prevalence and age-of-onset distributions of DSM-IV disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Archives of General Psychiatry, 62, 593-602.

[iv]Gore, F. M., Bloem, P. J., Patton, G. C., Ferguson, J., Joseph, V., Coffey, C., Sawyer, S.M., & Mathers, C. D. (2011) Global burden of disease in young people aged 10–24 years: a systematic analysis. The Lancet, 377 (9783), 2093-2102.

[v] Seligman, M (2018) PERMA and the building blocks of well-being. Journal of Positive Psychology, 4 July, Vol.13(4), pp.333-335

[vi] Duckworth, Angela L. ; Eichstaedt, Johannes C. ; Ungar, Lyle H. (2015) The Mechanics of Human Achievement.(Report) Social and Personality Psychology Compass Vol.9(7), p.359(11)

[vii] Lin, Chih-Che (2016) The roles of social support and coping style in the relationship between gratitude and well-being. Personality and Individual Differences, January, Vol.89, pp.13-18

[viii] Street, Helen (2018) Contextual Wellbeing – creating positive schools from the inside out. Wise Solutions Inc. Australia