Reflections On . . . How Not to Cause Harm to Children

By Jolanta Burke

Updated / Wednesday, 07 April 2021 10:16

What if school wellbeing programmes were bad for children? I used to think that introducing any wellbeing programme in school was better than none at all. However, the more research I read, the more I wonder about the benefits of these once-off interventions.

Wellbeing is not something we catch and keep. It is a process that fluctuates due to the external circumstances affecting us and the internal processes we engage in to make sense of the world around us. An eight-week mindfulness programme can be effective when we enjoy mindfulness, fully engage with it, and choose to continue practicing it long after the course is finished. Otherwise, it will offer only a temporary boost in wellbeing.

Wellbeing is like a bucket of water we need to fill regularly to provide us sustenance. We keep drinking it daily, but it is not a limitless resource. Sooner or later, we will need to re-fill our buckets when the water levels drop. The same applies to wellbeing. Developing a habit of engaging in regular activities to maintain wellbeing will be more effective for children than attending a short-term programme.

To add to it, there are only a few wellbeing programmes that have tested children’s long-term wellbeing. The vast majority offer only a quick assessment before and after the implementation of the programme. Many don’t even assess young people’s wellbeing. Instead, they base the efficacy of the programme on students’ enjoyment of it, which is not adequate to claim that the programme effectively enhanced their wellbeing. We can just as well take the children out to the playground to achieve the same effect.

Worryingly, however, some programmes have shown negative effects. These included an increase of boredom, if young people were uninterested in the interventions offered by the programme; or irritation, when the programme was introduced before an exam and took them away from the necessary study time. This is why, when introducing wellbeing programmes, it is important to consider their context.

Our knowledge of what makes wellbeing programmes work is constantly improving. We now know that the most effective interventions are those introduced by teachers, not the experts. We also know it is important that students willingly select and practice these interventions, rather than being adult-imposed. Finally, we know that what matters is long-term engagement with these wellbeing practices, which cannot be encouraged by a once-off intervention. It is imperative that the school’s long-term strategy and commitment for enhancing wellbeing extends not only to students, but to the entire school community, including teachers.

Teachers are an important part of the school’s ecosystem. Their wellbeing impacts on others, and is influenced by others. Teachers’ wellbeing is central to students’ wellness. When they experience depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues, their students are more likely to report distress. When teachers are happier, their students are more engaged and feel more connected with their schools. Therefore, any wellbeing strategies need to put teachers at the forefront of school change. This is where a true transformation can happen.

There is yet another way in which a positive change can occur. This alternative is a low-cost and high impact intervention that could allow us to enhance the wellbeing of millions of young people worldwide. It may result in improving the wellbeing of both students and teachers simultaneously. That approach relates to designing pedagogies for wellbeing.

Traditionally, the basis for the effectiveness of pedagogies derives from the impact they have on students’ performance. However, little consideration is given to the impact they have on students’ wellbeing. If we refocus our attention on how various approaches to teaching can be tweaked to boost the wellbeing of both teachers and students, the effect these approaches have on mental health can be potentially substantial.

Everything students and teachers do in a classroom affects their wellbeing. School exams provide a source of stress greater than any other events in most students’ lives. Stress itself is not bad for young people. In fact, exposing students to moderate levels of stress can lead to stress inoculation and help them live a better life. The problem, however, lies in the relentless exposure to stress, due to constant questioning, class tests, and exams, all of which may be detrimental to some students. Therefore, reducing the number of class tests, and introducing practices, such as “call a friend” when a student is stuck for an answer, can help them maintain their wellbeing more effectively.

Also, most of the school-related wellbeing comes from relationships, be it peer, or student-teacher relations. Finding pedagogies that can facilitate enhancing these relationships can be useful. They may include such teaching methods as “think-pair-share,” which is a collaborative activity that helps students to solve problems together. Alternatively, regular activities that promote social connection and laughter, or an opportunity to get to know each other better, can have a more significant effect on the school community’s wellbeing than introducing a wellbeing programme.

Mind you, this blog does not call for the elimination of wellbeing programmes from schools. There is space for all types of strategies for enhancing wellbeing in schools. Young people can benefit from psycho-social skills, once-off programmes (as long as they are not imposed on students and are part of a long-term school strategy), and altered pedagogies that can facilitate wellbeing outcomes. What makes pedagogies special is the instant and continuous impact they have on students and teachers alike. After all, it is the little drops of water that make a mighty ocean.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of the Museum of Childhood Ireland.

Dr Jolanta Burke is a Chartered Psychologist, and a Senior Lecturer in the Centre for Positivist Psychology and Health, in RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences. She specialises in research relating to wellbeing and positive education. Her latest book is The Ultimate Guide to Implementing Wellbeing Programmes for School, published by Routledge. For more information, please go to