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How Schools Can Contribute to a Student's Wellbeing: TEDxCroydonYouth

Updated: Aug 19, 2023



TEDx Croydon Youth 



How can schools truly shape the development of teenagers?

Our education system has so much potential to foster wellbeing in students, yet the question looms: how effectively does this system embrace this responsibility?

That’s what I want to talk about today: how the education system discourages young people from seeking support.

I stand before you as the founder of an educational wellbeing non-profit and an 18-year-old youth advocate. Since I was 14, my life’s purpose has been to cultivate an environment where every student feels empowered to stand up and voice wellbeing concerns.

Throughout my journey, I’ve had the privilege to listen to countless high schoolers share their experiences of the school system, the barriers preventing them from speaking up, and their insights on enhancing wellbeing within educational institutions.

I’ve heard good stories. Bad stories. Stories that made me passionate. Stories that made me cry.

This topic is so important to me, because when I was only 8, I lost my dad to suicide. When he was 13, he lost his dad to suicide. My goal is to end that cycle and use my experience to educate young people about healthy coping skills, ways to speak up, and destigmatising getting help.

So, long story short, I’m very passionate about changing our education system and early intervention.

I’m not a ‘destroy the institution’ type person, but I do think we need to recognise that school-aged children are in a critical phase of development. School has the power to guide a student’s sense of becoming if you will.

And I think in many cases we’re not considering that critically enough, and sometimes, not even at all.

I think we can all agree, schools have an obligation to take student’s wellbeing into consideration and need to invest time in developing it.

They should recognise student’s individual identity and empower them, but instead, the current institutional structure conforms students into a society where they are faced into a heart-wrenching dilemma – choosing between academic excellence and their mental health.

It’s no surprise why high performing students have declining mental health at schools, as seen in research by Eren and co, who concluded that gifted children are at risk in respect of mental health.

A fundamental shift is imperative. Being academically excellent and having good mental health can coexist harmoniously, but only if we do it right.

I think we need to reimagine what our education system could look like. Think outside the box. We need to start considering school as this magical world where we can guide students to what they want to become – where they want to go.

I see our education system as a facet of educational development that embraces individuality and diverse pathways. Our educational system should celebrate individuality, not suppress it.

Yet, it often appears bound by what feels like countless boxes needing to be ticked. Bound by rigid curricular requirements. Failing to dive into individual student support, exploring pathways for a student’s future, and instead creating a rigid structure that condemns any sort of individuality.

Why is it that every student learns the exact same thing, at the exact same time, for the exact same reasons? Especially after COVID might I add.

In COVID we learnt the hard way that students need places that allows them to socialise and interact, and we learnt that we can do more than the typical way we’ve been doing things.

We need to stop thinking about what education is now, and look at what it ought to be.

School was designed in the industrial revolution. Factory owners required a docile, agreeable workers who would show up on time and do what their managers told them. Sitting in a classroom all day with a teacher was good training for that.

But are certainly out of the industrial revolution, but we aren’t accounting for it.

I think it’s also important to define what ‘educational wellbeing’ means.

Whilst ‘wellbeing’ has become a massive buzzword in the media, research says its shrouded in ambiguity and poorly defined.

How can we make policy for educational wellbeing, when we don’t even know what it means?

In 2003, researchers Pollard and Lee identified five distinct domains of wellbeing generally:

  1. Physical

  2. Phycological

  3. Cognitive

  4. Social

  5. Economic

But still, within an educational context, we don’t know what that means.

Having no universal guidance of what educational wellbeing looks like in practice lacks congruency and stalls progress.

It contributes to an inconsistent and ad hoc policy landscape.

And it means we can’t effectively move forward, because the goal posts keep moving.

I also don’t think our education system handles wellbeing concerns very well.

Young people are crying out for support, but in time of crisis, young people aren’t turning to their teachers or parents until it gets serious. In the first instance, they’re going to their friends.

Studies back this up, revealing that 66% of 16–17-year-olds seek support from their friends, while only a mere 22% approach teachers.

That seems pretty logical when you think about it right? During adolescence, young people turn away from authority figures, and try to figure it out themselves, with their peers.

But we need to develop a system that doesn’t ridicule them for this basic sociological behaviour.

We can’t allow students to slip through the cracks, bearing not only their own burdens but also those of their friends.

If 66% of 16-17-year-olds seek help from their friends, why aren’t we teaching high school students how to support their friends and how to have those really tricky conversations?

How can we expect a 16-year-old to be capable of giving advice to their friends, when they struggle to handle their own mental, physical, and emotional burdens?

And that 16-year-old could be your best friend. Your son. Your daughter. Your brother. Your sister. It could be those around you, but we aren’t equipping young people with the tools, skills or resources to effectively handle wellbeing concerns.

Speaking up to teachers becomes a monumental challenge for students.

One respondent in Anderson and Graham’s 2016 research says, “if you get involved once and nothing happens, you might not bother to next time.”

Speaking to a principal, he told me he knew of “lots of instances where coming forward is a student’s biggest fear”.

This reluctance echoes an alarming truth: our educational wellbeing system is faltering. But it makes sense!

It makes sense when I hear things like I heard a few months ago. A few months ago, I listened to some of the most horrible things I’ve ever heard in my career. A group of young people came and told me some very serious wellbeing concerns. However, they told me that when they reported it, they told me they felt fobbed off, like a burden, or as if it’s their fault.

And this raises serious alarm bells for me. How is it that young people are reporting serious stuff, like really serious stuff, and they feel it’s their fault, or as if there are other priorities coming before the young person.

Schools should be havens of happiness, health, and belonging. Yet, students are calling for reform, dissatisfied with the status quo.

As a student, I was one of those people.

I distinctly remember walking in to my assistant principal’s office, supporting my friend. Even though we were there to discuss a serious wellbeing matter. And even though we were told he was told about it, the assistant principal, our head of wellbeing, had no idea what we were talking about.

Stories like this happen too often.

In an industry with such tight regulation how do we simply not know who’s been told what? The best the school can do is look at an email – and don’t forget the caveat: that only happens if an email was ever sent, and not done via word of mouth.

I think that’s shocking.

No wonder students are dissatisfied. Doesn’t it make sense that students are tiptoeing around their teachers?

Students are commonly joking about where ‘the line’ is before teachers have to report it.

I read a report by the NSW Advocate of Children and Young People and it raised valid concerns by students about their school not maintaining confidentiality and speaking to parents without informing the student.

All students should be understanding that school counsellors maintain confidentiality and will only speak to a student’s parent if the student is in danger. But more importantly, students should be able to believe that.

Teacher’s workloads are already undeniably heavy, leaving little time for genuine student connections. Yet, research indicates that these connections are so important.

Researcher Mary Ann Powell and her colleagues identified 6 key themes of how teachers empower student wellbeing:

  1. Caring

  2. Support and encouragement

  3. Having conversations with students

  4. Treating students as individuals

  5. Mentoring students

  6. Making learning fun

Although you might expect this to be the ‘normal’, teachers just simply don’t have enough time to genuinely connect because of the disgustingly high administrative workload.

All students should have a teacher they can go to where they feel safe and supported.

Also, teachers shouldn’t be penalised for connecting with students and being a source of comfort. All that’s doing is disincentivising teachers who do put in the effort to connect even more.

But let’s go to a student’s perspective. The value of relatable figureheads cannot be overstated; they provide guidance and comfort.

A young person shared, “having someone genuinely care about my educational wellbeing was integral in my schooling and has reflected on the way I conduct myself at work and around others.”

Schools need to be an environment that makes it possible for their students to thrive and achieve, not only academically but in all ways that relate to their overall wellbeing.

In 2016, researchers Anderson and Graham concluded that “schools in Australia have increasingly been identified as key […] environments for promoting children and young people’s social and emotional wellbeing.”

And as schools start to increase as this type of environment, we should be moving away from an institution based on just education and move to one that recognises a student’s individuality, tailors’ education to them and builds real, meaningful connections.

An institution that allows students to take time to sit, consider and think about what type of person they want to become.

What you get there is an institution that allows a student to become themselves.

It means that teenagers can spend more time being teenagers and can stop forcing themselves to fit into a mould.

It means that students feel safe at school. Feel comfortable at school.

Youth are the future, and they deserve quality education systems that genuinely care about their wellbeing.

The journey to reshape education is a collective effort. Everyone has their part to play.

It’s a journey where understanding the problem paves the way for impactful solutions.

Our students deserve institutions that prioritize their wellbeing alongside academic growth.

Einstein said that no problem can be solved from the same consciousness that created it. I ain’t no Einstein, but I think he’s right.


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