Teachers can have a huge impact on pupil wellbeing
Updated: Jan 31, 2018
Research in a new book, The Origins of Happiness, explores what contributes to human happiness and, it turns out, that schools and teachers play a crucial part.
On Monday 22nd January, I got to meet a #wellbeing hero of mine, Lord Richard Layard. Layard has been at the forefront of the wellbeing movement in the UK, forcing it onto the agenda of governments past and present. I was attending the launch of Layard’s new book, The Origins of Happiness, when I got to meet him (see photo below). It was a great evening with Layard presenting some of the key findings from the book, and then being interviewed by BBC’s Andrew Marr (you can watch the event here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qQR7IltAEFk).
Key findings from the research
In the book, Layard and his colleagues have drawn from an extensive range of longitudinal research (over 40 years’ worth!) on over 100,000 individuals across the globe to establish the key factors that affect human wellbeing. The conclusions made in the book are illuminating such as the fact that income explains only a very small part of the variation in people’s happiness (money makes a big difference to people if they are poor, but once people have their basic needs met, money really doesn’t make us much happier). Key factors that really impact on our happiness and wellbeing are strong personal relationships, our mental health (in simple terms how much anxiety and/or depression we experience) and physical health, and the mental health or our parents (especially our mothers). Layard and his colleagues make the point that government policy should be less focused on ‘wealth creation’ and more on ‘wellbeing creation’. But when the book delves into the data from people’s childhoods, that’s when the research gets really interesting!
Children’s happiness more important than their grades
One of the most significant aspects of the longitudinal research is that Layard and his colleagues were able to look at the adults who were happy and satisfied with their lives and then trace them back to their youth. By doing this, they could answer the question, ‘In childhood, what best predicts happiness in later life?’ The book concludes that, ‘If we go back to childhood…the best predictor of an enjoyable adult life…is the child’s emotional health, which…is significantly more important than all the qualifications the person ever obtains.’ As a primary school teacher who has spent the last 7 years prioritising children’s wellbeing, this was music to my ears! If we want children to grow up to be happy adults, satisfied with their lives, and with good mental health, their emotional health as children is the most important factor. This does not mean that academic education is not important (the book highlights that unemployment massively undermines adult happiness, and qualifications are one of the best ways to secure employment) but surely the relentless focus on grades above all else, which our current education system is so intent on, is not the way to go.
Schools and teachers can really make the difference in a child’s life
But, that’s all very well and good, I hear you say, but can teachers really affect children’s happiness and emotional health? Surely, the combinations of genes (nature) and parental upbringing (nurture) hold all of the cards in this area. Well, amazingly, Layard’s research shows that schools and teachers can contribute significantly to children’s happiness. In one area of the research, they were able to determine the effect that individual teachers had on their pupil’s wellbeing, as well as their academic attainment in maths. The book finds that , ‘primary school teachers have more impact on the emotional health of the children than on the children’s performance in maths.’ Even more encouraging is the fact that this influence carries on and the positive effect primary teachers have had on pupil wellbeing and behaviour ‘does not fade over time…and persists throughout the following five years and longer.’ The chapter on schooling ends with the encouraging conclusion, ‘Primary and secondary schools have major effects on the emotional wellbeing of their children.’ These findings are incredible. As teachers, we always question the impact we are having on our pupils. We can sometimes get deflated when we teach lessons and our classes don’t seem to retain the information, or maybe some children perform badly on end of term assessments. But, this research shows that one of the most enduring aspects of our teaching is on children’s emotional health which is key to them growing up to be happy adults.
Factors that build emotional health in childhood
At Layard’s book launch I also got to chat to Nancy Hey (@Work_Life_You) who is the Director of the What Works Centre for Wellbeing (@WhatWorksWB). We discussed some of the findings from the book and Nancy told me about another recent report by Public Health Wales into the factors that build children’s resilience, especially in response to ‘adverse childhood experiences’ (ACEs). An ACE could be something like a child’s parents separating, them experiencing neglect, being abused, or having a parent with a mental illness. The more ACEs a child has, the bigger the negative impact on their wellbeing. The most vulnerable children in our schools will often be dealing with several ACEs and will show low levels of emotional health, and be at significant risk of growing up with a mental illness. But, this report shows that children with some levels of resilience can halve the risk of having a mental illness, even in children with four or more ACEs. And what were three of the top factors helping children build up this resilience? Well, it turns out that they are all things schools contribute to:
1.) Having a trusted relationship with at least one adult – teaching staff can be that one person in a child’s life that makes them feel safe and secure. Teachers can be that positive role model that the children aspire to emulate and can trust.
2.) Regular participation in sports – many studies show the physical and mental benefits of sport but this is also about feeling part of a team and a group. Another reason for schools to teach more PE rather than less, and getting children involved in extra-curricular sports.
3.) Supportive friends – friendship issues at school can sometimes be an annoyance to teachers but it is crucial we teach children how to make friends and, importantly, how to repair friendships when they inevitably go wrong.
These three factors give children a level of resilience that act as a buffer against the damaging effects of ACEs. When schools get the above factors right, they can really help build children’s emotional health and help them cope in even the most challenging circumstances.
What teaching is all about
So, as I write this blog, I can feel the dreaded ‘Sunday blues’ creeping in as another weekend draws to a close and my classroom beckons. But, today, feels different. I’m reminding myself that my most important job in the classroom is not the content I’m about to teach my children, it’s the human relationships I’m about to invest in with each child. The most important thing is the example that I set to my class – one of kindness, encouragement, support, nurture and trust. The most important factor is that I try to help every child in my class feel like they matter, that I care about them and that they are part of something bigger than themselves – a team in the classroom, and a community in the school. So, teachers, as you start to think about the week ahead, keep in mind that your job is bigger than teaching a curriculum. You are about to contribute to your children’s happiness in ways that you cannot imagine and that don’t get captured in SATs scores or Progress 8 data. You are building their resilience just by being you – a trusted and supportive adult in their lives. You might be the only one they have and just the one they need to help them in their times of need. And that is what teaching is all about.
Adrian is a primary school teacher, founder of Teachappy, and author of Wellbeing in the Primary Classroom – A Practical Guide to Teaching Happiness (due out on 6th September 2018). He tweets: @AdrianBethune
 The Origins of Happiness - The Science of Wellbeing over the Life Course, Layard et al (2018) pg 29-30
 Ibid pg 192-193
 Ibid pg 192
 Ibid pg 192