Out of 15 countries, children in England ranked 14th for life satisfaction and 11th for recent feelings of happiness and feeling positive about the future (The Good Childhood Report 2015).
Children in England (aged 10 years and upwards) have relatively low levels of satisfaction with 4 areas of life; their body, the way they look, their self-confidence, their relationships with teachers.
3 children in every classroom have a diagnosable mental health disorder (Young Minds)
Evidently, children’s emotional well-being can be blown off course for whatever reason that might be. It is every educational setting’s responsibility to promote every child’s well-being and to provide more targeted and specialised support to those children who are struggling longer term with their emotional well-being, whether they appear anxious, sad, angry, or frightened. Resilience (the ability to bounce back after adversity) is a flexible trait and as such any child, even those with good emotional well-being, can take a significant knock and need to be steered back on track. Developing children’s resilience is one way of helping to ensure their bounce back ability over life. The emotional well-being of children is just as important as their physical health. Good mental health allows children and young people to develop the resilience to cope with whatever life throws at them and grow into well-rounded, healthy adults.
Research into children’s emotional health and wellbeing has lagged behind that of adults. For example, there has only been research into children’s anxiety and what works over the last 18 years or so. It was just these last two years that selective mutism was re-categorised in the DSM V as an anxiety disorder. Recently, the Duchess of Cambridge (Royal Patron of Place2Be) has been urging parents, teachers and health professionals to give child mental health the attention and focus it deserves. She commented that great strides have been made in tackling the stigma around adult mental health and hoped that the same would now happen with children’s psychological illnesses.
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What is meant by children’s emotional well being?
There is no single way of defining this but here are some current ways of thinking:
“Social and emotional wellbeing creates the foundations for healthy behaviours and educational attainment. It also helps prevent behavioural problems (including substance misuse) and mental health problems. That's why it is important to focus on the social and emotional wellbeing of children and young people”. (NICE)
- emotional wellbeing – this includes being happy and confident and not anxious or depressed
- psychological wellbeing – this includes the ability to be autonomous, problem-solve, manage emotions, experience empathy, be resilient and attentive
- social wellbeing – has good relationships with others and does not have behavioural problems, that is, they are not disruptive, violent or a bully.
“Well-being ….refers to the quality of people’s lives”. It can be measured in two ways; objectively (descriptive indicators of people’s lives) and subjectively (people’s assessment of their life). (The Good Childhood 2015)
Children’s mental health, emotional and social well-being focuses on how children act, behave, feel, communicate their feelings and get along with others. The positive mental health, emotional and social well-being of young children has a profound impact upon their physical, cognitive and spiritual development. (National Children’s Bureau, 2009)
The Wider Picture of Children’s Well Being
The National Children’s Bureau Research Centre, 2009 looked at children’s well-being in terms of key domains and the context in which children develop. The research included children aged 0-8 years.
The key domains of young children’s well-being are:
- physical well being
- mental health, emotional and social well-being
- beliefs (self-concept, self-esteem, self-efficacy, competence and related constructs focus on children’s beliefs about themselves and their ability to influence desired outcomes).
The key contexts of young children’s well-being reviewed are:
- family economic status and resources
- caregiving and the home environment
- features of the community and neighbourhood.
The Importance of Children’s Emotional Well Being
Children begin developing emotions and initial strategies for regulating their emotions in the first year of life. Children have such varied experiences right from conception and for the rest of their dependent development. Good enough experiences are crucial for psychological well-being i.e. self-acceptance, mastery, positive relationships, autonomy, purpose in life and personal growth. Imagine your life without these features, where would you be now, what would you be doing, thinking or feeling?
The Children’s Society have been researching children’s well-being for over 10 years and published “The Good Childhood Report” June 2015. 10% of children have low levels of well-being and they need our help. If we do not measure the well-being of our children, but do measure their intellectual development, the latter will always take precedence and yet both are part of the wider picture of well-being.
“…children’s development does not occur in a vacuum. It is crucial that the contexts and environments in which children grow up are accounted for – or are even the focus of – reports on children’s well-being.” (National Children’s Bureau, 2009)
The Centre for Research on the Wider Benefits for Learning, “Children’s Well-being in Primary School” January 2008. The key findings were that:
- Most children experience positive well-being in primary school and between the ages of 8 and 10, there is an overall increase in levels of well-being, with 35 percent of pupils experiencing improvements
- However, 20 per cent suffer from either declining or low levels of well-being from 8 to 10 years. This subset is most likely to be male, from low socioeconomic-status (SES) backgrounds and low achieving
- It is children’s individual experiences such as bullying, victimisation, relationships with teachers and friendships, and their beliefs about themselves and their environment, which mainly affect their well-being, rather than school-level factors such as type of school.
- Boys have better mental health than girls, with higher levels of belief in their own abilities and more feelings of control. On the other hand, boys are less likely to engage in pro-social, and more likely to engage in antisocial, behaviours.
What Can Adults do to Promote Children’s Emotional Well Being
Things that adults can provide/support with to help keep children and young people mentally well include:
- being in good physical health, eating a balanced diet and getting regular exercise
- having time and the freedom to play, indoors and outdoors
- being part of a family that gets along well most of the time
- going to a school that looks after the well-being of all its pupils
- taking part in local activities for young people.
- feeling loved, trusted, understood, valued and safe
- being interested in life and having opportunities to enjoy themselves
- being hopeful and optimistic
- being able to learn and having opportunities to succeed
- accepting who they are and recognising what they are good at
- having a sense of belonging in their family, school and community
- feeling they have some control over their own life
- having the strength to cope when something is wrong (resilience) and the ability to solve problems.
EPIC and its work with Schools
Most children grow up mentally healthy, but surveys suggest that more children and young people have problems with their mental health today than 30 years ago. That’s probably because of changes in the way we live now and how that affects the experience of growing up. The time is now for us to work together to think about every child’s life experiences and emotional well-being. The above list alone provides a raft of ideas for us to take forward when doing a school environment mental health check. It is hoped that EPIC will work with all DSAT schools in order to define and agree on a commonality of what children’s emotional well-being is so that we can monitor impact over time through pupil surveys, whole school and targeted projects. This work will then be discussed with other schools as part of Affinity TSA.
In order for schools to promote children’s emotional well-being, staff need to also think about their own well-being. All school staff need to be able to contain children’s emotional states and in order to do this effectively every adult needs the head space to think, to act. Positive well-being gives us this head space. Just as children’s resilience is a fluid trait, so it is true of adults. Adult:adult support is essential in a healthy system. EPIC hope to have a role here too and from discussions with schools this has been positively received.
Research gaps from The Good Childhood report suggest that educators should be evaluating initiatives to improve children’s subjective well-being, developing pilot studies on particular interventions and helping policy holders to identify the impact. This is certainly something that EPIC and schools could join forces with.
Some Useful Resources
Telephone numbers for advisory services
CAMHS Professional Advisory Service (0116 2955048)
- Mental Health & Behaviour in Schools, DFE Advice March 2015
- The Good Childhood Report 2015, The Children’s Society
- Young Children’s Well-Being, Research Centre, National Children’s Bureau 2009
- The Centre for Research on the Wider Benefits for Learning, “Children’s Well-being in Primary School” January 2008.