Wellbeing begins with ‘We’

| January 23, 2014

Many of Australia’s challenges stem from poor relationships and unsupportive environments. Dr Sue Roffey argues that our wellbeing as individuals and a community is limited unless we are positively connected with others.

What does wellbeing mean for you? Although we are talking about it more these days, there is no simple, agreed definition. Although health and wellbeing often go together as a phrase the concept of wellbeing is developing far beyond physical or even mental health. For those working within a positive psychology paradigm it is about how well we ‘flourish’ in all aspects of our lives.

This explores our social and emotional functioning and the ability to have and maintain a positive sense of self. But as wellbeing for individuals is limited unless we are positively connected with others it is also about the quality of relationships we experience. Wellbeing begins with ‘we’.

Wellbeing Australia is a not-for-profit informal network of people and organisations committed to developing individual and community wellbeing. We are interested in disseminating both research and practice that lead to greater understanding of our selves and our relationships to promote healthier, more compassionate societies.

Many of the challenging issues facing Australia have their roots in poor relationships, unsupportive environments, the harmful expression or management of feelings, lack of empathic understanding and denial of agency leaving people feeling powerless. This includes bullying in schools and in the workplace, family breakdown, community violence, mental health and behavioural difficulties.

Wellbeing Australia has a strong focus on education and promoting approaches that value the potential and wellbeing of each young person. UNESCO’s Delors Report Learning: The Treasure Within identifies four pillars of learning.

The first two, learning to know and learning to do are delivered within the formal curriculum. The second two, learning to be and learning to live together comprise the knowledge and skills that enable individuals to make the most of their learning, interact well with others, be resilient when faced with difficulties and contribute positively to their communities. Wellbeing Australia encourages schools to make learning to be and learning to live together overt and positive in their vision, values, policy and practice.

Imagine two schools: One has a autocratic ethos where just the executive make decisions, a focus on strong discipline and non-negotiable rules, together with low tolerance of both difference and problematic behaviours. The school promotes itself as ’good’ school with excellent results. The other school emphasises the value of the ‘whole child’ in all aspects of their development and has high expectations across the board. It acknowledges the importance of relationships, values diversity and inclusion and gives all stakeholders a say in what happens. It promotes itself as a ‘caring’ school.

Young people from strong, supportive families are likely to be resilient and do well in either school but students across the social spectrum struggle with either short term or chronic challenges that can lead to poor concentration, less compliant behaviour or mental health issues. We know that anxiety and depression have increased in the last decade and for younger children.

Which school would you prefer to have your child in? Which school would you rather work in?  And which one is more likely to promote authentic wellbeing? The research on student wellbeing shows unequivocally that promoting wellbeing not only enhances resilience and mental health, it also fosters pro-social behaviour, increases academic attainment for all and supports teacher wellbeing. This seems a no-brainer for anyone concerned about children’s future. According to the scoping study on approaches to student wellbeing this includes physical and emotional safety, pro-social values, a supportive and caring school community, a strengths-based approach, a sense of meaning and purpose, social and emotional learning and a healthy life-style.

I have come across prestigious schools who are letting some of their students down because of inflexible responses to their circumstances and needs, and also schools in disadvantaged areas who are outstanding in their ability to get the best from each and every child. Many schools exploring positive education and authentic wellbeing are some of the most distinguished in Australia – alongside some stunning examples in Catholic Education who begin with the centrality of the whole child. But surely this is the way all schools should be heading? Although funding helps, it is less about money and time than acknowledging that learning to be and learning to live together matter for every child’s future and having the willingness to explore a wellbeing vision.

Over the last decade Wellbeing Australia has been involved in surveys and research, made representations to the government, uploaded relevant research, stories and videos onto the website, linked with like-minded organisations and sent out 3-4 newsletters a year to the growing membership. We are now in partnership with the ARACY – the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth to form SWAN – the Student Wellbeing Action Network.

SWAN is currently concentrating on four issues – teacher wellbeing, student voice, family and community and marginalised/disadvantaged young people all of which support ARACY’s NEST agenda. Wellbeing Australia members automatically become members of SWAN.

Being on the Wellbeing Australia email list is free (ignore the word subscribe on the website!) If these issues matter to you please join us by filling in the form on the website.

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Sue Roffey

Dr Sue Roffey is the Founder and Director of Wellbeing Australia, Lead Co-convenor of SWAN, adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Western Sydney. More information about her research, projects, publications and presentations here.