“What do you most want for your students?”
“I want them to be happy. I want them to flourish. I want them to be ready to take on the world when they leave school.”
“And what do you teach at your school?”
“Well, of course, we teach English, maths, science, languages…”
This conversation between Professor Martin Seligman (the godfather of Positive Psychology) and Stephen Meek (headteacher at Geelong Grammar, Australia) is one that has been retold a thousand times on the international circuit.
The silence that followed spoke volumes. These two very simple questions exposed the difference between what a school often wants for its students and how it uses its valuable teaching and learning resources.
The response was remarkable and gave birth to an exciting and ambitious movement, which showed that the principles of wellbeing could be taught side by side with traditional subjects, and that, when taught well, would have a tremendous impact on student wellbeing.
Over the past decade, schools across the world have been asking the same question: if we genuinely believe student wellbeing should have equal billing with academic performance, does our curriculum enable its teaching?
The teaching of wellbeing can be quite ad hoc but when it comes to development, consistency is important. This can be especially true in international schools.
Here are five ways to implement a sequenced wellbeing curriculum:
1. Make it sustainable
Wellbeing days and one-off initiatives may have a good impact in the short term but their success is usually dependent upon a small number of key people.
Knowledge and ideas are easily lost when these colleagues move on and it is hard to articulate a long-term vision with which to measure impact.
A well-sequenced wellbeing curriculum ensures that schools are not just embracing a “happyology”, but that age-appropriate issues are being tackled to prioritise student wellbeing, with learning outcomes fully embedded.
2. Include the whole community
It is highly unlikely that a new team will be appointed to teach wellbeing. It is far more likely that existing staff will be required to champion it, and they will need high-quality training to deliver a new curriculum.
This provides a great opportunity to bring communities together on the journey.
Coordinating wellbeing training for staff, students and parents will further enhance their relationships – something that international students and staff reported that they most valued in recent ISC research.
3. Tackle transience
In international schools, two- and three-year contracts are normal among teachers and parents alike, meaning that movement every couple of years is likely.
Leaving families and friends can be a traumatic experience for any young person, so it is essential that schools have a robust curriculum that prioritises their students' wellbeing.
This will support those who have just joined their community, those who are soon to move, and those who may have been left behind by their best friend.
4. Improve academic results
Dr Alejandro Adler’s research in 2016 showed that a taught programme of wellbeing also increases students' standardised scores.
As wellbeing improved, so did their academic results. Competition among international schools is ever-increasing, and schools cannot afford to be left behind in any area that can give them an advantage.
5. Create a new norm
As our network of international staff and students move further around the globe, it is likely that a sequenced wellbeing curriculum will be expected of any top international school looking to recruit outstanding staff and students.
International schools hold a very privileged position. With generous resources and a freedom from home government agendas, they are able to fully embrace the science of wellbeing as a core part of their curriculum.
Who knows? Perhaps when students eventually repatriate home, these expectations will even spread back into their home communities.
Matthew Seddon is deputy head of senior school at Kellett School – The British International School in Hong Kong