Exclusive: Happiness lessons can make pupils unhappy, experts warn

29th May 2017 at 14:01
Even seemingly innocuous interventions, such as meditation or mindfulness exercises, can do damage, they say

Schools’ obsession with giving pupils lessons in happiness and wellbeing is doing them more harm than good, according to leading academics.

Even seemingly innocuous interventions, such as mindfulness exercises, can do damage to children, exacerbating existing problems, and pathologising normal emotions, such as sadness, they say.

Pooky Knightsmith, vice-chair of the Children and Young People’s Mental-Health Coalition, said that an intervention such as meditation or mindfulness can be actively harmful to children in genuine need.

“If a child is suffering abuse at home, being given space and time for thoughts to drift through your head isn’t necessarily good,” she said. “Schools need to be aware of the potential risks, even with the most seemingly nice of interventions.”

Misunderstanding of human emotions

Efforts to teach happiness and wellbeing in schools are also having a broader impact, according to Ashley Frawley, senior lecturer at Swansea University and author of Semiotics of Happiness.

She believes that a generation is being raised to believe that happiness is something that must be taught.

“Happiness becomes not something that sneaks up on you – something you might find when you’re looking at a sunset – but something you have to work at,” she said. “People are going into schools and encouraging young people to think that happiness is quite difficult, and you have to meditate and so on to get there. It’s a complete misunderstanding of how human emotion works.

“All that happiness education does is reinforce the idea that our psychology is vulnerable – it teaches children that personhood is very, very weak, and that they’re likely to be damaged by their experience. And that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

However, many teachers argue that, with pupils increasingly overwhelmed by exam pressure, such lessons have become necessary. 

“Teachers are recognising the pressures that young people are now under,” said Kevin Pace, who is piloting a wellbeing project in 31 schools in Wolverhampton. “They say, ‘We can’t stop children from being tested. So what can we change?’

“Professionals have gone: ‘How can I work with my children to make them happier – to give them coping strategies, make them less stressed?’”

'Pathologising children'

Ian Morris, Wellington head of wellbeing at Wellington College, was the teacher who first developed happiness lessons, back in 2006. But he agrees with Dr Frawley that an excessive emphasis on happiness above all other emotions can be damaging for pupils.

“We seem to be saying that some emotions are dangerous for children,” he said. “I think it’s pathologising children.

“Saying, ‘Oh, God – anxiety’s bad, and we must eliminate that from children’s experience,’ is really absurd, and patronising as well. It’s easy to do quite a lot of damage with this.”

Kathryn Ecclestone, a visiting professor at the University of Sheffield who is researching how the national preoccupation with wellbeing is transforming education argues that the trend of medicalising all negative emotions can lead schools to overlook genuinely needy pupils.

“How do you differentiate, when the spectrum of what counts as mental-health problems is so huge?” she said. “How do you decide who gets the resources? That’s a real problem for teachers.”

This is an edited version of an article appearing in the 26 May edition of Tes. Subscribers can read the full article here. To subscribe, click hereTo download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here This week's Tes magazine is available in all good newsagents. 

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