The concept of well-being in education today is not new. Many schools are moving towards a culture of well-being among their students to help them flourish in both academic and social realms. We speak to this issue’s guest editors Dr Imelda Caleon and Dr Jennifer Pei-Ling Tan from the Office of Education Research at NIE to understand this concept and how educators can foster it in classrooms.
Many tend to relate well-being to happiness. However, happiness does not define well-being; the feeling of happiness is only one aspect of overall well-being, which comprises other factors.
Research Scientist Dr Imelda Caleon explains: “Well-being is a complex multidimensional construct. Some might equate it with happiness and quality of life. However, it is often conceived as a combination of both ‘feeling good’ and ‘functioning well’.”
Feeling good is associated with the hedonic tradition in describing well-being, which emphasizes the positive emotional states. This includes positive affect such as the feeling of joy and pleasure, and satisfaction with life. Functioning well, on the other hand, is associated with the eudaimonic approach of understanding well-being as going beyond positive emotional experiences to emphasize meaning, sense of purpose and self-realization.
Importance of Well-Being
“The issue of student well-being needs to be tackled head-on, given that it not only affects the socio-emotional realm but also has detrimental effects on students’ overall learning and future life outcomes.”
– Dr Imelda Caleon, Office of Education Research at NIE
Over the past 10 years, a growing body of evidence shows why student well-being is an important element of education and overall student success. Two big reasons emerge. One is the recognition that schooling is about much more than academic outcomes. Second, students with high levels of well-being tend to have better academic and life outcomes, in school and beyond.
For these reasons, educators play an increasingly crucial role in supporting students’ mental health and well-being in schools. “There are many current reports of increased prevalence of depression and other well-being issues among youth globally and locally,” shares Imelda.
A recent article in Psychological Medicine reported that depression, especially among teens, rose significantly from 2005 to 2015 in the US. In Singapore, two Straits Times articles in March and August 2017 pointed to our children and teens experiencing high levels of stress and anxiety. In September last year, Channel NewsAsia reported that more Singaporean children are seeking support for well-being problems, such as depression.
Noting these, Imelda asserts: “The issue of student well-being needs to be tackled head-on, given that it not only affects the socio-emotional realm but also has detrimental effects on students’ overall learning and future life outcomes.”
Unpacking the Concept of Well-Being
Professor Carol Ryff, an American psychologist, conceived well-being as optimal functioning, which comprises six broad dimensions that cover the eudaimonic aspect: self-acceptance, positive relationships, autonomy, environmental mastery, purpose in life and personal growth.
Another American psychologist, Professor Martin Seligman, proposed the PERMA model of well-being as comprising positive emotions, engagement, positive relationships, meaning and accomplishment. This emphasizes both the eudaimonic and hedonic aspects of wellbeing.
“One’s sense of well-being is malleable and particularly sensitive to processes of identity formation and sense-making in relation to significant others in families, communities and broader society.”
– Dr Jennifer Tan, Office of Education Research at NIE
“Both frameworks stem largely from the fields of psychology and its rapidly growing sub-field of positive psychology,” explains Senior Research Scientist Dr Jennifer Pei-Ling Tan. “These are well
complemented by more sociological understandings of well-being as an accomplishment that continually evolves for individuals as they draw on social, moral and cognitive resources to navigate
She adds, “Well-being, seen through a sociological lens, is far from a static state of being that can be easily measured and quantified. Rather, one’s sense of well-being is malleable and particularly
sensitive to processes of identity formation and sense-making in relation to significant others in families, communities and broader society.”
As such, social, cultural, and historical influences, and the role that schools and teachers play, become paramount.
Advocating Well-Being: Some Caveats
Positive education, along with the broader field of positive psychology, focuses on promoting the positive aspects of human functioning such as human strengths and potentials, as well as the processes and experiences that enable human flourishing.
It is important for educators to generate environments and conditions where these positive attributes, dispositions, processes and experiences are cultivated. As such, positive education is not just about promoting positive thoughts, emotions and experiences. It is also not about ignoring the negative aspects of human existence.
“What positive education advocates is to emphasize what we are commonly neglecting. And that is to focus on our improvement and growth more than on our failure, and on our strengths
more than on our weaknesses,” Imelda says.
Imelda also believes that teachers need to keep an open mind when faced with difficulties in the classrooms. Imelda advises: “Remember that positive education approaches are there to supplement common strategies to handle students’ challenges and problems, but not to replace them!”
Adding to this, Jennifer stressed: “It is also important to remember that social conditions are imperative to students’ sense of well-being.” Social transitions, for example, across critical phases of schooling, or even “micro” changes of classes or teachers, could constitute vulnerable spaces and pivotal turning points for our students.
“Yet, many of these key social transitions are often taken-for-granted and may easily slip our attention in light of other pressing professional demands and responsibilities,” Jennifer explains. “Our students’ social networks and participation in and out of schools, as well as their felt levels of social support are crucial to their sense of purpose and wellness, especially in the face of life’s unending ebb and flow of successes, failures, uncertainties and challenges.”
Quoting Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, Jennifer concludes, “Just as all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare, fostering students’ well-being is no mean feat. Simple solutions are beyond our grasp. But opening up this shared dialogue in our Singapore education fraternity definitely marks an important step forward.”
“Positive education approaches are there to supplement common strategies to handle students’ challenges and problems, but not to replace them.”
– Imelda believes that approaches to nurture positivity should act as supplements to other common strategies in classrooms
Davie, S. (2017, August). Singapore students suffer from high levels of anxiety: Study. i. Retrieved from https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/education/spore-students-suffer-from-high-levels-of-anxiety-study
Mohandas, V. (2017, September). More kids in Singapore seeking help for mental health issues. Channel NewsAsia. Retrieved from https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/more-kids-in-singapore-seeking-help-for-mental-health-issues-9241214.
Ryff, C. D. (1989). Happiness is everything, or is it? Explorations on the meaning of psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57(6), 1069–1081.
Seligman, M. (2011). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. New York: Free Press.
Yeo, J. (2017, March). More children and teens are stressed out. The Straits Times. Retrieved from https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/health/more-children-and-teens-are-stressed-out
Veenhoven, R. (2008). Sociological theories of subjective well-being. In M. Eid & R. Larsen (Eds). The science of subjective well-being: A tribute to Ed Diener (pp. 44–61). New York: Guilford Publications.
Weinberger, A. H., Gbedemah, M., Martinez, A. M., Nash, D., Galea, S., & Goodwin, R. D. (2017). Trends in depression prevalence in the USA from 2005 to 2015: Widening disparities in vulnerable groups. Psychological Medicine. doi: 10.1017/S0033291717002781