Research demonstrates that promoting social and emotional wellbeing in the K-12 education setting has tremendous promise in advancing student success and wellbeing throughout the lifespan (Durlak et al, 2007). But what are the beliefs and realities on the ground in British Columbia?
Over the course of 2015-2017, WellAhead worked with school districts in British Columbia to support the development of district-level strategies to promote wellbeing. In the 2016-17 school year, we surveyed 209 staff (e.g. teachers, principals, educational assistants) from these districts to hear their perspectives on the role wellbeing in K-12 education, and how districts are supporting it among students and staff. (See the full report here)
The vast majority of respondents felt that promoting wellbeing should be a core role of public education. These findings are consistent with those from a nationally representative study of teachers in the US, which found that over 90% of teachers believe that social and emotional learning is both important for the in-school experience, and benefits students of all backgrounds.
While the majority of survey respondents felt that promoting social and emotional wellbeing should be a priority in K-12 education, fewer felt that this prioritization was reflected in the system’s actual approach to professional development, or in their school, district and provincial-level policy.
With respect to professional development, forty-nine percent of respondents felt they have not received adequate skills training to support student wellbeing. However, 38 of the 49% felt they developed these skills independent of their formal training. Respondents suggested workshops, training on evidence-based programs, learning about the latest research, and hands-on training as priorities in this area.
On the policy front, respondents reflected inconsistent views on the prioritization of mental wellbeing at the school, district and provincial levels.
Only 49% of respondents felt that wellbeing was prioritized in provincial curriculum - this is despite the fact that BC’s new K-9 curriculum includes competencies related to student personal and social development. Similarly, only 33% felt that their district prioritized wellbeing, despite the fact that some of the districts surveyed do acknowledge wellbeing in their goals. These inconsistencies may indicate a lack of clear policy and goals around supporting student and staff wellbeing, and/or challenges in communicating developments that have already been made.
Supporting the System
Taken together, our respondents felt that wellbeing should be part of the core role of schools, yet the system is still en route to making this a reality. We also asked what supports would be useful in advancing their districts’ approach to promoting the social and emotional wellbeing of students. The top themes identified were:
1) Smaller class sizes and additional support staff
Respondents suggested district funding for additional educational assistants, counsellors and smaller class sizes would be beneficial for advancing student wellbeing. In the same school year that the survey was conducted, the BCTF won a Supreme Court ruling that unlocked significant funding to reducing class sizes and add teachers and staff to support classrooms across the province.
2) District-wide professional development
Respondents noted that taking time for district-wide professional development on student social and emotional wellbeing is a key strategy. Engaging both the champions and late adopters in pro-d was noted as a challenge that also needed to be addressed.
3) Wellbeing Strategy and Policy Mandate
Having support and direction from senior leadership to guide a coherent strategy for advancing student wellbeing was noted as a key action the district could support. Without a strategy to ‘hang’ initiatives on, they’re more likely to feel like add-ons, and may be less likely to scale out across the district.
4) Increased communication and consultation
Assuring district-level change processes have adequate input from multiple stakeholders, and are well communicated was noted as a key theme in supporting the districts’ approach to promoting student wellbeing. This theme resonates with the survey data that points to communication challenges surrounding existing policy developments at the school, district and provincial levels.
5) Staff Support
An emerging body of research suggests teacher stress has significant impacts on their health, on the wellbeing and success of students, and on the school system more broadly (Greenberg et al, 2016). Supporting the well-being of teachers and school staff is thus a critical component of a systemic approach to well-being. Survey respondents suggested reducing stigma surrounding staff’s access to mental health days or services, and providing opportunities for staff to bond at the start of the year were activities that needed to be addressed in the district strategy.
Building on Momentum
Rather than a box that can be ‘checked’, embedding well-being as a district-level priority is a complex task that requires ongoing commitment, learning and nimble development. We are grateful to our survey participants and partners that share their learnings and insights with us, and inspired by the efforts of teachers, parents, students, school staff, and community partners in leading this work.
Comments/ questions? Feel free to reach out directly to me, WellAhead’s resident research and data nerd, at firstname.lastname@example.org
Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D. and Schellinger, K. B. (2011), The Impact of Enhancing Students’ Social and Emotional Learning: A Meta-Analysis of School-Based Universal Interventions. Child Development, 82: 405–432.
Greenberg, M et al (2016). Teacher Stress and Health: Effects on Teachers, Students, and Schools. Issue Brief published for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.