Chronicles of an Educator

Student Wellbeing - Rethinking the balance

28th May 2023
Are we missing the mark when it comes to student wellbeing? Last week, during our Grade 8 Outdoor Education program, I couldn't ignore the tightly-knit friendship groups within the class. While initially heart-warming, it became clear that these groups rarely interacted with one another. Recognizing the need for change, I proposed removing students from their comfort zones and friendship groups for the duration of the program. Despite the expected discontent we would face, the Head of Grade supported the plan.
Tightly knit friendship groups are great if there are no exclusions
As the new groupings were announced, a shift in the atmosphere was palpable. Students expressed their frustration, seeking answers that remained unanswered. Some even resorted to banging their heads on the table in exasperation. It was only the first day, yet discontent loomed large. This situation prompted reflection on our role as educators. Are we overly focused on ensuring their well-being to the point where even slight discomfort evokes outrage?
Well-being has become a prominent concept in schools, often equated with constant happiness and joy. We feel compelled to ensure students' happiness at all times, believing that being away from friends impacts their well-being. But is this belief valid? Are we unintentionally doing them a disservice? Dr. Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist and professor at NYU, co-wrote an article titled "The Coddling of the American Mind," in which he discusses the concept of "safetyism" and its detrimental effects. In an interview, he highlights the concept of anti-fragile and the importance of experiences for growth, stating:
" A carton of eggs is fragile, if you bang it around it breaks. But bone is anti-fragile. If you bang it around it gets stronger, and if you don't bang it around it gets weaker. Children are anti-fragile. They have to have many, many experiences of failure, fear, and being challenged. Then they have to figure out ways to get themselves through it. If you deprive children of those experiences for eighteen years and then send them to college, they cannot cope. They don't know what to do. The first time a romantic relationship fails or they get a low grade, they are not prepared because they have been rendered fragile by their childhoods."
So, how do we strike a balance between promoting well-being and providing students with uncomfortable experiences? Firstly, we need to remind ourselves that well-being goes beyond momentary happiness – the hedonic approach. In contrast, the eudaimonic approach emphasizes meaning and self-actualization. Our school's well-being principles encompass both approaches, defining well-being as feeling connected, autonomous, and competent.

Once we recognize that well-being is not solely about momentary happiness, we can explore the broader concept. It means creating an environment where students feel cared for, even if that involves challenging experiences. As Kurt Hahn, the founder of UWC, noted, "It is culpable neglect not to impel young people into experiences" and we should "make the children meet with triumph and defeat".

At the end of the five-day program, during the final debrief, I posed a question to my group:
"What is one thing you learned about yourself over the past four days?"

Throughout the various activities such as hiking, navigating, outdoor cooking, kayaking, and rafting, students were sometimes in groups, pairs, or even alone. Despite the diversity of experiences, a quarter of the students mentioned that they learned they could work with unfamiliar people and find it enjoyable. Even the student who banged her head on the table earlier mentioned that as her learning point.

So, let's pause for a moment the next time we think that we are helping the student's well-being. Are we robbing them of the opportunity to grow? Are we truly caring for them if we do not prepare them for the real world? Or do we find it hard to manage and help them process their emotions when things do not go their way. Taking the analogy of the bone, maybe our role is that of the cast to help support the healing and growth.
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