Student wellbeing matters

Put simply, the evidence suggests that many young people in Australian schools are not well beings. Rather, our young people are facing extraordinarily high levels of mental health concerns. The World Health Organisation (2020) reported that “mental health conditions account for 16% of the global burden of disease and injury in people aged 10-19 years”. Further, Mission Australia (Carlisle, et al., 2018) reported that this is a growing problem, with the number of young people who identify mental health as an important issue in Australia increasing from 20.6% in 2016 to 43% in 2018. This was also supported by the Headspace Youth Mental Survey (2020), which found that 34% of Australian young people self-describe their levels of psychological distress as “high” or “very high”.

Although it has been the subject of study for hundreds of years, wellbeing has proven to be difficult to define (Dodge, et al., 2012).

Wellbeing is widely considered to be a construct with measurable elements including physical, psychological, emotional, social and spiritual dimensions. Within the Australian Curriculum, the Australian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (ACARA) defines wellbeing as “a sense of satisfaction, happiness, effective social functioning and spiritual health, and dispositions of optimism, openness, curiosity and resilience”.

A well-known multidimensional approach to wellbeing is the PERMA framework (Seligman, 2011), consisting of Positive emotions, Engagement, positive Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishment. The PERMA framework also established a connection between wellbeing and character strengths, with 24 key strengths identified and then grouped under six virtues in a framework called “Values In Action (VIA) Classification of Strengths” (Peterson & Seligman, 2004). Seligman (2011) described wellbeing as the topic of Positive Psychology, and the aim (or “gold standard”) of Positive Psychology as flourishing.

However, I suggest that Positive Psychology, as originally described by Seligman and as popularised in the form of PERMA and the VIA Strengths models (now incorporated into Positive Education programs), ought not be implemented in Christian schools without some form of adaptation. While some of the language used by Positive Psychology (e.g., flourishing, meaning, wisdom, transcendence) is language that is used within a Christian worldview, the interpretation of these terms in Positive Psychology is quite different, being grounded in a secular worldview.

A more appropriate understanding of student wellbeing for faith-based schools was offered by Volf (2015), who used the word flourishing to describe a life that is lived well (defined by loving both God and neighbour), a life that goes well (seen in good health and necessary material provisions) and a life that feels good (including the experience of joy and peace). Similarly, Swaner & Wolfe (2021) described flourishing students as “exuberant in their learning and … growing socially, emotionally, physically and spiritually” (p1).

When I say that “student wellbeing matters”, this is what I am talking about.