The Education Partners

Why Emotional Well Being Matters for Education

We will fail vast numbers of children if we don’t make their mental health our business.

Imagine the end result of a perfect education system. Here’s one suggestion for what that might look like:

“A state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”

This goal comes from a source that’s not often associated with education: It’s the World Health Organization’s definition of mental health.

We don’t often see education and mental health as parallel. It’s assumed that we need different tools and different specialists for each field. But I believe that the more we separate the two the less each will achieve its aims for young people.

To illustrate why, consider one factor that prevents children from achieving their potential. Emotional and behavioral problems in childhood are consistently associated with poor academic attainment (Currie et al., 2010), early termination of education (Lee et al., 2009), unemployment (Farmer, 1995), criminality, suicide, substance misuse and early pregnancy (Fergusson et al., 1993).

These are not problems confined to the few. A review of international evidence by Kiesling and colleagues (2011) found that 10-20% of young people worldwide have at least one diagnosable mental disorder, and that doesn’t include developmental disorders such as autism and learning disabilities.

Mental health is more than just the absence of mental illness, however. Those with a diagnosable disorder represent the lowest end of a continuum between thriving, on the one hand, and disabling impairments on the other. The 10-20% who aren’t feeling the benefits of education because of mental disorders are not the only children for whom emotional and behavioral support matter. The impact of universal social and emotional learning programs testifies to that, with a meta-analysis by Durlak and colleagues (2011) demonstrating that students’ test scores improved by 11 percentile points compared to controls when schools address their emotional needs.

It’s also important to note that those at the bottom of the mental health continuum are not a random selection of the population. Many of the risk factors (which overlap with those for educational failure) are strongly related to poverty (Patel & Kleinman, 2003).

Children growing up in low-income families experience greater violence, family turmoil and insecurity than their wealthier peers, which may explain why poorer children have higher rates of emotional and behavioral problems. They more often struggle to manage aggression, regulate anxiety, get on with other children, communicate, concentrate, and follow rules and routines; it’s no surprise that they find it more difficult to succeed at school.

Although awareness of mental health has begun to grow over the past decade, mental health professionals remain scarce, and out of proportion to the scale of need. And the more emotional distress and its behavioral effects are seen as medical, the more teachers feel unable to help. In the absence of widely accessible psychological services, vulnerable children are left stranded between mental health professionals who lack the capacity to help everyone, and teachers who think they can’t.

As we’ve seen, though, mental health--like education--is about thriving. It’s about handling problems and realizing potential. This is what teachers dedicate themselves to, and there is plenty that they can do.

One of the greatest things schools can offer is to foster resilience. Anne Masten describes resilience as “ordinary magic in the minds, brains and bodies of children, in their families and relationships and in their communities,” meaning those protective factors that buffer children against negative environments, allowing them to overcome adversity.

Crucially, these resilience factors are not just the domain of psychologists or psychiatrists. They’re the “hidden curriculum” of schools. What makes a difference to children, often, is forming a relationship with an adult who cares about them outside the home--someone who doesn’t give up on them, shows faith in their abilities, helps them to find something they’re good at and to aspire to, and who teaches them how to manage their emotions (see e.g. Hart, Blincow and Thomas, 2007). These are all things that great teachers do. And the importance of this ordinary magic needs to be reflected in teachers’ training, and the way in which schools’ performance is measured, to an extent that reflects how central this is to schools’ success.

I’m not saying that there’s no need for specialist mental health services. But we will fail vast numbers of children if we decline to make their emotional needs our business. Just as promoting physical health involves teaching children about nutrition and exercise, not just providing access to doctors, so the answer to emotionally healthy children is not just to scale up mental health services to deal with problems once something has already gone wrong.

Schools have a unique opportunity to divert the path of the most disadvantaged in society.  If we are to succeed in helping children to develop into well-rounded, contributing citizens, we need to broaden our concept of education and re-evaluate what matters most for a successful education system. Only then will education achieve its aims.

Tessa Roberts has a background in international education and school-based family interventions. She holds a degree in psychology and philosophy from the University of Oxford and is part of the Centre for Global Mental Health, a collaboration between London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College London, where she is completing a Master's in Global Mental Health. She is currently working at Maudsley Learning, an organization that provides world class and accessible learning in mental health and wellbeing.


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