Student Wellbeing Guide for Schools
Student wellbeing underpins every aspect of a student’s schooling, from their ability to learn in class, to their ability to build positive relationships. Educators now understand that wellbeing is a fundamental component of the school experience and is just as important as academic learning.
This guide provides an overview of student wellbeing – what it is, why it matters and how to nurture it in your students. It looks at how student wellbeing programs and mental health education in schools can be used to build more resilient learning communities. This guide is designed to be a useful resource for teachers, families and other members of the school community, who all play a part in enhancing the resilience and wellbeing of students.
Read along or use the navigation to jump ahead.
Table of Contents
What is student wellbeing?
Student wellbeing can be broadly defined as a student’s overall development and quality of life. Wellbeing is a holistic term that encompasses all aspects of a student’s life, including their physical, social, mental and emotional state. A student’s wellbeing can change from day to day, month to month and year to year. It is affected by changes happening inside their bodies and in the world around them.
Wellbeing does not mean students feel good all the time. Emotions such as sadness, fear, anger and frustration are all normal human experiences, and actually help them to learn, grow, stay safe and build meaningful connections with others. Wellbeing means they have the capacity, skills and resources to cope with these emotions in a way that is positive and constructive for their development.
- Having supportive relationships;
- Feeling that their life has meaning and purpose;
- Feeling connected to others in their school and community;
- Feeling confident in their ability to manage their emotions;
- Doing activities that are important to them.
Below is an overview of some related terms that are often used when talking about student wellbeing.
Mental health is defined by the World Health Organisation as “the capacity of thought, emotion, and behaviour that enables every individual to realise their own potential in relation to their developmental stage, to cope with the normal stresses of life, to study or work productively and fruitfully, and to contribute to their community”. Mental health is not simply the absence of a mental disorder and generally refers to a continuum of mental states, ranging from positive mental health at one end to significant psychological distress or impairment at the other. An individual can move along this continuum at different times, depending on their circumstances.
As with wellbeing, our mental health is influenced by a range of biological, social, emotional, cognitive and environmental factors. Some of these factors are within our control, whereas others are largely out of our control.
It is helpful for students to be aware of their own mental health and where they are on the continuum at different points in time. They might notice they feel more tired than usual. They may feel worried, stressed or sad more days than not. They may be socially withdrawn or irritable with their family. An understanding of common signs and symptoms, and an awareness of their own mental state, can help students to identify mental health concerns early and seek help to improve their wellbeing.
Resilience refers to a person’s ability to cope with life’s ups and downs and bounce back after a difficult experience. By teaching them resilience skills, we are preparing children to cope with challenges now and into the future. Resilience is not just an individual capacity. Resilience is also the capacity of communities to cope with adversity and is considered to be an important factor in explaining why many people who experience adversity or trauma do not go on to develop long-term mental disorders.
By teaching children and young people resilience skills, we are empowering them to take care of their own mental health and wellbeing, and giving them the confidence to cope with adversity. Resilience skills, when nurtured within a supportive and emotionally responsive environment, will help students to thrive into the future.
Social and emotional learning (SEL)
Social and emotional learning (SEL) is now widely accepted as a key component of every student’s education. Social and emotional learning involves the acquisition of skills students need to develop positive wellbeing, resilience and mental health. These skills include noticing and interpreting their own emotions and having empathy for the emotions of others. Social and emotional learning also includes skills for managing difficult emotions when they arise, so they can make responsible decisions, solve problems and interact respectfully with others.
Social and emotional learning (SEL) helps students to make friends, get along with their peers, stay focused on their work, and feel more engaged and connected with their learning. Social and emotional learning is just as important as other areas of the curriculum, as it gives students skills they can use in all aspects of their life.
Why student wellbeing?
Prevention is better than cure
Mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and substance misuse can have a devastating effect on children, young people and their communities. If not addressed early, they can impact on a person’s ability to work, socialise and function throughout their life. A national survey found that 1 in 7 Australian children and adolescents aged 4 to 17 years were experiencing mental health issues. Of the people who experience a mental health disorder in their lifetime, half of those will start having problems before the age of 14.
Effective prevention and early intervention is both more effective and less expensive than intervening later in life, and is key to enhancing mental health across the lifespan. Schools play an important role in the prevention and early detection of mental health conditions, and are well-placed to link children and families in with local support services.
Wellbeing and learning are closely linked
Most educators and policy-makers would agree that the education system should contribute to the development of the ‘whole child’. Schools are not just places for academic learning – they are places where students can develop vital social, emotional and cognitive skills that will help them function in an ever-changing world. A student’s social and emotional wellbeing not only influences their learning, but should also be considered an educational goal in and of itself.
A review of 213 school-based social emotional learning (SEL) programs found that, compared to controls, students who participated in SEL programs demonstrated significantly improved social and emotional skills, attitudes and behaviour, and academic performance that reflected an 11-percentile-point gain in achievement.
Student wellbeing and SEL are particularly important during key transitions. The Student Wellbeing, Engagement and Learning across the Middle Years report, prepared by The Centre for Adolescent Health, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute in 2018, looked at how students manage the transition from primary to secondary schooling. The report presented some important findings about the wellbeing of students in the middle years, and the links between wellbeing, school engagement and learning outcomes:
- A substantial proportion of Australian students are not tracking well: Around 1 in 5 students experienced persistent emotional or behavioural problems across Years 3 to 5, and around 10% reported persistently low wellbeing. Approximately 1 in 5 students in Years 3 to 5 were bullied across two or all three years.
- Student wellbeing in the middle years matters for learning: Students with persistent emotional or behaviour problems fell about one year behind their peers in numeracy and reading between Years 3 and 7.
- Poor wellbeing in primary school predicts poor engagement and learning in high school: Students reporting persistent low levels of wellbeing in middle primary school lost eight months of numeracy and were twice as likely to be disengaged from school by Year 7.
- Persistent bullying has damaging effects on learning: Students who were bullied for two or three years in middle primary school fell nearly 10 months behind their peers in numeracy by Year 7.
- Transition to secondary school is a difficult time for some students: Difficulties with academic studies, peer and teacher relationships or changes in daily routine are experienced by 13% of students in Year 7.
Overall, these findings suggest a reciprocal relationship between social and emotional learning (SEL), school engagement and academic learning outcomes, highlighting just how central wellbeing is to the experience of students at school.
This is why student wellbeing must be considered as a key component of every student’s schooling and should be central to all aspects of school decision-making.
What are the wellbeing challenges facing Australian students?
In the Mission Australia 2019 Youth Survey of more than 25,000 Australians aged 15 – 19 years, mental health was identified as the number one National issue for young people in Australia. This has been the case for three years running. Young people also identified coping with stress, school or study problems and body image as significant personal issues.
Below are some of the key issues for children aged 5 to 12 listed on the Kids Helpline website:
- Being safe on the internet
- Fights with friends
- Bullying and cyber bullying
- Making a mistake
- Adjusting to family changes, like parental separation, birth of a new sibling or death of a family member
- Making friends
- Seeing scary stuff on the news
Below are some of the issues affecting young people aged 12 to 25, as identified by headspace:
- Academic stress
- Identity, gender and sexuality
- Body image
- Bullying and cyber bullying
- Social media and screen time
- Managing emotions
- Mental health issues
- Grief and loss
- Alcohol and other drugs
- Health and lifestyle issues, such as healthy eating, sleep, exercise and screen time
How can schools nurture student wellbeing?
Student wellbeing is most likely to flourish in a consistent, supportive and inclusive environment. When students feel safe and connected they are better able to learn and engage positively with their peers.
Below we have reviewed some of the key student wellbeing programs, frameworks and approaches in Australian schools. Although state and territory governments, Catholic schools and independent schools offer a range of frameworks and policies, we have provided an overview of some of the largest and most up-to-date national frameworks, student wellbeing programs and resilience programs for schools.
Take a whole-school approach to student wellbeing
The Australian Student Wellbeing Framework is an initiative of the Australian Government and has been developed to ensure Australian schools provide students with the strongest possible foundation to help them thrive. The framework was launched in 2018 and offers a set of guiding principles to help schools promote student wellbeing, safety and positive relationships in their communities, so students can reach their full potential.
The wellbeing framework is aligned with state, territory and other national wellbeing and safety initiatives. It is also linked to the Australian Curriculum and the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers and Principals. The framework is based on evidence that demonstrates the strong link between safety, wellbeing and learning.
The Australian Student Wellbeing Framework focuses on five key areas
School principals and school leaders can take active steps to create positive learning environments in which students feel safe, respected, connected and included. This includes creating whole-school policies to enhance the wellbeing of students, families and staff.
All school staff play a role in creating a school culture that celebrates diversity and promotes respectful, positive relationships. That includes promoting cultural safety, engaging in regular professional learning and ensuring all members of the school community feel that they belong.
Students should play an active part in decisions that affect their learning and wellbeing. Schools should create inclusive, collaborative and interactive learning environments, and taking a strengths-based approach to learning. Active participation also involves teaching students social and emotional skills, so they have the capacity and agency to stay safe and resilient, and seek help from trusted adults when needed.
Schools should collaborate with families and communities as partners to enhance the learning and wellbeing of all students. This includes developing a shared understanding of what students need, and working collaboratively with community organisations, services and agencies. It also involves fostering an environment of cultural safety, such as ensuring a reciprocal exchange between schools and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
Promoting, recognising and supporting positive behaviours in the school community.
Build mentally healthy learning communities
Be You: The National Education Initiative was launched in 2018 to support the mental health of children and young people in Australian schools and early learning services. The primary aim of Be You is to create mentally healthy learning communities. A mentally healthy learning community is one in which:
- Each member of the community plays an important role and has a shared vision for positive mental health;
- Leaders make clear commitments to creating positive learning environments, and model behaviours that contribute to a more mentally healthy community;
- Each member of the community has the opportunity to speak openly about mental health without stigma or discrimination;
- Policies and procedures are continuously evaluated and reviewed to ensure the principles of a mentally healthy community are maintained;
- Key risk and protective factors are identified that impact on the mental health of the community, and these factors are actively targeted and addressed.
Be You aims to build the capacity of teachers to promote and model positive wellbeing and mental health practices in their learning communities. It aims to enhance the capacity of educators to identify and appropriately respond to the mental health needs of students, support students through key transitions, and actively involve families and carers in the wellbeing of their children.
The Australian Student Wellbeing Framework and the Be You initiative are complementary and mutually reinforcing. Be You provides professional learning that will help teachers put into practice the strategies outlined in the Australian Wellbeing Framework. The program provides practical, evidence-based training for teachers so they can confidently implement their school’s mental health and student wellbeing programs and create positive learning environments. Be You also provides practical support to educators via the Be You Consultants.
Be You is developed by Beyond Blue in partnership with delivery partners Early Childhood Australia and headspace.
Prioritise child safety
Safety is central to student wellbeing. All schools and organisations who are concerned with the wellbeing of children should be familiar with the National Principles for Child Safe Organisations. A child safe organisation is one that creates a culture, adopts strategies and takes action to promote child wellbeing and prevent harm to children and young people – where childrens’ safety and wellbeing is at the centre of thought, values and actions, where children are genuinely engaged and valued, where conditions are in place to reduce the likelihood of harm and increase the likelihood that harms are identified, and where any concerns, disclosures, allegations or suspicions are responded to.
Nurture student wellbeing across the curriculum
Students have the opportunity to develop social and emotional skills across all areas of the Australian curriculum. Every challenge they encounter in their learning is a chance to develop new skills that will help them to thrive and succeed in the future.
Personal and Social Capability
Social and emotional learning is most explicit in the Australian Curriculum in the area of Personal and Social Capability. This is a general capability that can be applied to all aspects of a student’s learning, and involves a wide range of social and emotional skills, including recognising and regulating emotions, developing empathy, understanding, establishing and maintaining positive relationships, making responsible decisions, working effectively in teams, handling challenging situations constructively and developing leadership skills.
- Social awareness
- Social management
Personal and social capability skills are woven through all learning areas and stages. In mathematics, for example, students learn how to take initiative, make decisions, communicate their processes and findings and work independently and collaboratively in the classroom.
They also learn self-regulation skills through the completion of challenging tasks and frustrating problems. In The Arts, students learn to identify and assess their personal strengths, interests and challenges. They have the opportunity to develop skills such as self-discipline, initiative, confidence, resilience, adaptability, cooperation and leadership. They also learn how to empathise with the emotions of others and appreciate diverse perspectives.
Health and Physical Education
A learning area that explicitly addresses student wellbeing is Health and Physical Education (HPE). In HPE students develop skills to manage their emotions and understand the physical, social and emotional changes that occur across development. There is also a focus on developing positive school environments in which students are encouraged to make healthy, active and safe choices. Health and Physical Education is separated into two main content areas: Personal, Social and Community Health, and Movement and Physical Activity, with an emphasis on practical skills development.
Other curriculum areas
Students have the opportunity to learn resilience, social and emotional skills through other general capability areas, such as ethical understanding, critical and creative thinking and intercultural understanding.
Student wellbeing is also the focus of the Online Safety Curriculum Connection, which was developed for the Australian Curriculum in collaboration with the eSafety Commissioner.
Prevent bullying at school and online
Bullying can have a lasting impact on psychological wellbeing and is consistently identified as a key concern for student wellbeing across all age groups. A school wide bullying prevention program is important for creating a safe and harmonious school climate.
Bullying. No Way! provides information and resources for students, parents and teachers to prevent bullying in Australian schools. Bullying. No Way! also hosts the National Day of Action Against Bullying and Violence (NDA), Australia’s key anti-bulling campaign for raising awareness and taking a stand against bullying at school and online.
For more information about anti bullying programs for primary schools and high schools, check out our Anti Bullying Guide for Schools.
Promote online safety
Cyber safety education has become a priority for Australian schools in recent years. Students have started interacting online more frequently and from a younger age, increasing the risks of online harms such as cyber bullying, image based abuse, grooming, privacy and security breaches, scams and online hate. That is why schools are now implementing school wide cyber safety programs for their students.
The eSafety Commissioner is Australia’s independent regulator for online safety and is the world’s first government agency committed to keeping its citizens safe online. The eSafety Commissioner leads and coordinates the efforts of government, industry and not-for-profit organisations to safeguard Australians from online harms and encourage safer and more positive online experiences. They also have powers to investigate and take action in response to complaints of serious cyber bullying or abuse.
The eSafety Commissioner offers a range of resources to support cyber safety education in schools, including the Trusted eSafety Provider Program, which endorses external online safety education providers.
For more information about online safety education check out our Cyber Safety Guide for Schools.
Create a school climate of belonging, connectedness and respect
Positive relationships are key to student wellbeing. When students feel connected to their peers, teachers and other school staff, they will feel more valued and engaged with their learning, and will be more likely to maintain social and emotional wellbeing. According to an Australian survey of student’s views, primary and secondary students identified their relationships with themselves, teachers, friends, peers and significant others as being central to their wellbeing.
According to the 2015 PISA study of student wellbeing “when students feel that they are a part of a school community, they are more likely to perform better academically and are more motivated to learn”. It is therefore important to identify students who are most at risk of social exclusion and provide them with the resources and skills they need to build positive connections in their school community.
Student voice and participation is also closely linked to wellbeing at school. When students feel they have a say in issues that matter to them, and are listened to, recognised and respected, they feel more connected to their school community and feel more motivated to learn.
Develop skills for positive mental health
Teachers can help students develop positive mental health by having regular discussions about mental health in the classroom.
Mental health education in schools is not only associated with better mental health outcomes, it has also been linked to the prevention of bullying and violence.
There are a number of school wide mental health education programs available for schools. Below is an overview of some important components of mental health programs for high school students:
- Help-seeking: Despite the importance of early intervention, most young people do not seek help for mental health concerns. Many are reluctant to seek help from others, believing they should be able to cope on their own. Information about the importance of help-seeking, and how and where to seek help, is a key component of any mental health education program in schools.
- Mental health literacy: Poor mental health literacy has been identified as one of the key barriers to help-seeking for young people. Young people often have difficulty understanding their psychological distress and knowing whether their experience is ‘normal’. They may be unsure whether they need professional support, and may feel confused and isolated. Mental health literacy is an important component of any mental health education program, including education about the signs and symptoms of mental health conditions, and information about treatment and support options.
- Challenging myths and misconceptions: We need to challenge common myths and misconceptions about mental health treatment. For instance, we often hear people dismiss a young person’s distress, self-harm or suicidal thoughts as “just attention-seeking”. We must remember that if a young person is seeking attention, then it means they need attention and care. It is important for young people to know that if a friend discloses thoughts of suicide this should be taken seriously, and that a trusted adult needs to be involved immediately.
- Stigma reduction: Many young people do not seek help for their mental health due to stigma. Stigma can be actual or perceived prejudice directed towards people with mental health conditions in the community, or it can be the internalisation of negative attitudes and beliefs about mental health conditions by the people who are experiencing them (also called ‘self-stigma’). While mental health stigma is reducing in our society, we still have a long way to go, which is why stigma reduction is an important component of mental health programs for high school students.
- Peer support: Adolescents are more likely to talk to their friends about mental health concerns before they speak to a parent, teacher or mental health professional. We also know that encouragement from loved ones is key to increasing help-seeking behaviour. That is why we need to educate students about how to identify the signs that a friend, peer or family member may need help. The R U OK? Education page is a great resource for teaching students how to identify the signs and symptoms of mental health struggles, and how to have a supportive conversation with someone they are worried about. The R U OK? classroom toolkits for primary and secondary schools also teach students how to help that person take action to improve their mental health and seek support from a trusted adult or health professional.
How can educational theatre support your student wellbeing program?
Addressing and improving the mental health and wellbeing of students is a big task for educators. We know that in order to be effective, students need multiple exposures to the messages, and the messages need to come from different sources and using different learning styles.
Theatre in Education is a powerful way to engage and connect with students, and help them to build resilience. Human beings are moved by works of art in a way that improves our wellbeing – through empathy with the emotional experiences and perspectives of others and through the aesthetic experience that art provides.
Theatre in education is a fun and creative way to engage students in conversations about their wellbeing and mental health, and enhance a school’s existing mental health, resilience and student wellbeing programs. Theatre performances can reinforce and expand on the themes students are already exposed to in the classroom – but presented through a different medium and perspective.
Brainstorm Productions is an educational theatre company, performing live theatre in schools. Our performances are closely aligned with the national and state curricula, and informed by broader student wellbeing frameworks. By telling a story, we can help students connect with wellbeing concepts and apply them to their own lives.
Our young actors offer a fresh voice to the conversations that are already taking place in schools. Our student wellbeing programs include:
- Pre-performance resources to help you prepare for the production, including information for staff, compliance documents and promotional tools. Primary schools are also given a song to download that can be taught to the students before the performance;
- A live theatre production performed in your school, with high quality soundscapes, music, costumes and a simple set. Each performance is based on an intriguing narrative and performed by young, professional actors that the students can easily relate to;
- A post-performance discussion with the actors in which the key themes and strategies are explored, and support services and help-seeking options are provided. Students also have the opportunity to ask the actors questions.
- A full suite of classroom resources are provided to continue the conversations, including structured lesson plans linked to the curriculum, discussion guides, worksheets, online resources and downloads.
Brainstorm offers a range of productions for schools, so that the messages can be reinforced and built on throughout the year or as students progress through the year levels. Each performance uses a different storyline and characters, while conveying the underlying themes of empathy, respect, positive relationships and resilience.
The aim of our productions for schools is to absorb students in the story and connect them with the characters, so they feel empowered and motivated to make changes in their lives. We focus on key wellbeing themes and practical skills, such as emotional awareness, empathy, respect, self-regulation, ethical behaviour, communication and friendship skills, conflict resolution, online safety, mental health literacy, stigma reduction and help-seeking.
Theatre in education is a great way to support resilience programs for schools. Students have the opportunity to see the strengths of each character emerge, and witness these strengths being harnessed and developed to reach a positive outcome.
More student wellbeing resources for teachers
- The Student Wellbeing Hub provides a range of wellbeing resources for educators and school staff. The resources align with the Australian Curriculum and are underpinned by the Australian Student Wellbeing Framework. The hub contains professional learning modules, videos, support materials, podcasts, practical strategies, and an audit survey tool that helps schools assess the effectiveness of their student wellbeing programs and policies. The resources give educators ideas for teaching students about positive relationships, bullying, diversity, online safety, physical and mental health, and making safe and responsible choices. There is also a section with dedicated resources for parents and students.
- R U OK? offers free curriculum-aligned Classroom Toolkits to support mental health education programs in schools. The resources help primary and secondary students look out for their peers, offer support and encourage others to seek help if needed.
- Kids Helpline Schools offers free educational sessions and resources for teachers and students.
- ReachOut Schools offers classroom resources, teaching programs and teacher wellbeing resources to help support the mental health and wellbeing of secondary school communities.
- Smiling Mind offers a free app that helps make mindfulness more accessible for people of all ages, with modules designed for use in the classroom. Mindfulness is a skill that may help some people manage their emotions, thoughts and behaviour.
- Headspace Schools partners with education and health sectors across Australia to build the capacity of school staff to respond to the mental health needs of their students, including staff training in suicide prevention and suicide response.
Wellbeing resources for students
The following resources are available to support students who are struggling with their social and emotional wellbeing, mental health or any other life issues:
- Kids Helpline offers counselling, support and information to children and young people aged 5 to 25 years. The website provides age-appropriate information about a range of topics, including bullying, cyber safety, family relationships and dealing with emotions, for kids, parents and teachers.
- Headspace provides young people aged 12 to 25 years with physical and mental health support in the form of online, telephone and face-to-face counselling (eHeadspace), and information about mental health and where to go for help.
- Reachout.com offers practical support and information for young people about a range of mental health and wellbeing issues, as well as personal stories from other young people.
- Youth BeyondBlue is another resource and support service for young people aged 12 to 25 years, offering phone and online counselling, and information about help-seeking and mental health.
- Orygen provides specialist mental health services for young people aged 15 to 25 who reside in the western and north-western regions of metropolitan Melbourne. They also have some great information and resources about youth mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and early-onset psychosis, for young people, parents, carers and mental health professionals.
Wellbeing resources for parents
According to the Australian Government Department of Education, schools share the responsibility of wellbeing with the whole community. Schools are only one piece of the wellbeing puzzle – parents of course play a central role in the wellbeing and resilience of their children. It is important for parents to be informed and actively involved in the school’s approach to student wellbeing, and to be linked in with resources that will help them to nurture the wellbeing of their child.
When parents, schools and communities work in partnership, then the shared goal of student wellbeing is more likely to be achieved.
Information and community support services
- Raising Children Network is a well-regarded parenting website providing free information and resources backed by evidence. The resource is funded by the Australian Government, reviewed by experts and is non-commercial.
- Beyond Blue – Healthy Homes contains lots of resources to help parents cope with challenges such as loss, conflict and separation, and help them foster healthy family environments by building resilience, establishing consistent boundaries and supporting healthy habits.
- You can talk to your local GP about any parenting concerns or worries you may have about your child’s health or wellbeing. They can refer you to more specialist support services if needed.
- Your local community health centre may offer physical and mental health support for parents, children and families.
- Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service(CAMHS) provide services in the local community to children, adolescents and their families to help with difficulties that are seriously impacting on their mental health and emotional wellbeing.
- Private allied health professionals, such as psychologists, clinical psychologists, social workers, occupational therapists and mental health nurses can provide support to children, adolescents and families with a referral from your GP.
- Interrelate is a not-for-profit provider of relationship services who specialise in working with parents and children.
- Relationships Australia is a a community-based, not-for-profit organisation providing counselling and relationship services to individuals, families and communities.
Did you find this guide helpful?
Check out our other free student wellbeing resources for schools:
Follow us on Facebook for updates on our student wellbeing programs and other student wellbeing resources.
Follow us on Instagram for our latest stories and posts.
Learn more about student wellbeing on our blog.