Taking care of our youth: School climate and students’ mental health and wellbeing

Associate Professor Jill Aldridge and Dr Katrina McChesney, Curtin University

The mental health and wellbeing of NZ’s young people are in crisis. The latest iteration of the Youth 2000 national survey of NZ secondary school students found that 16% of female students and 9% of male students reported clinically significant symptoms of depression, while in the previous 12 months:

  • 38% of female and 23% of male students reported feeling down or depressed most of the day for at least two weeks in a row;
  • 29% of female students and 18% of male students had deliberately harmed themselves;
  • 21% of female students and 10% of male students had seriously thought about suicide; and
  • 6% of female students and 2% of male students had made a suicide attempt.

NZ has the highest teen suicide rate and the second-highest youth bullying rate in the developed world, with our rates for both these issues being more than double the OECD averages. Concerningly, all these trends have been relatively stable over the last decade or so – things are not (yet) getting better for our youth. In addition to these national statistics, we must also acknowledge the heightened challenges faced by youth in Canterbury following the 2010-2011 earthquakes.

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So, what can we do? Lots of policy-level ideas have been floated, including more social workers and educational psychologists in schools, increased national attention to wellbeing outcomes, cross-sector approaches to improving youth mental health, and learning from past intervention efforts to inform productive ways forward.

Policy-level efforts are important, but so are school-level ideas. How can schools make a difference to student mental health and wellbeing – and what is realistic now, in the context of existing staffing, funding, policies and requirements?

School climate: One way schools can contribute

Our research centres on measuring socio-emotional school and classroom climates, and investigating how these climates affect students’ experiences and outcomes. As part of this work, we recently published a systematic literature review in which we examined over 550 past studies and synthesised the 48 studies that directly linked school climate with students’ mental health and wellbeing.

96% of the studies we examined found evidence of associations between the school climate and students mental health and wellbeing. In most cases, the research designs mean that we can’t be sure that it was the school climate that directly caused the student outcomes – but the consistent pattern of associations found in almost all of the studies nonetheless indicates that there are important links between the school climate and students’ mental health and wellbeing. Since school climate is “malleable” and can be deliberately modified, it may be a useful lever for promoting positive mental health and wellbeing among students.

Our analysis identified four key aspects of the school climate that are associated with students mental health and wellbeing. We suggest that by considering these four aspects, schools can take manageable steps to promote an environment that supports student mental health and wellbeing.

  1. Social connectedness / relationships: When students had positive relationships with both their peers and their teachers, they reported better psychosocial wellbeing, more positive / pro-social behaviours, fewer mental health issues, and fewer delinquent or risk behaviours. Aspects contributing to this sense of social connectedness included: positive peer relationships, peer support, an absence of bullying, teacher support, positive relationships with teachers, teachers’ regard for students’ perspectives, a democratic school environment in which students are given autonomy and voice, and respect and trust between all members of the school community.
  2. School safety: When students felt that their school was a safe environment, they reported better psychosocial wellbeing, more positive / pro-social behaviours, fewer mental health issues, and fewer delinquent or risk behaviours. Aspects contributing to students’ sense of school safety included: school safety policies, rule clarity, rule enforcement, mechanisms for reporting and seeking help, and typical behaviour patterns at the school. It is important to note that teachers, parents and students all tend to have different views about how safe a school is, meaning that we should be cautious in making assumptions about how our students might feel about the school.
  3. School connectedness: When students felt a sense of connection to their school, they reported better psychosocial wellbeing, more positive / pro-social behaviours, fewer mental health issues, and fewer delinquent or risk behaviours. Aspects contributing to students’ sense of school connectedness included their feelings of belonging at school, their loyalty or attachment to the school, a positive school community, and positive attitudes and practices to affirm diversity.
  4. Academic environment: When students experienced an academic environment that was characterised by high demands and pressure, they reported increased mental health issues and delinquent or risk behaviours. Aspects contributing to high-pressure academic environments included perceived academic demands at the school, a competitive school or classroom culture, an imbalance between academic efforts (what is required of students to meet expectations) and rewards (the outcomes students experience such as good grades, praise, and opportunities), and a focus on academic outcomes without attention to social, emotional, and motivational influences.

Ways to make a change

The New Zealand Curriculum offers schools the opportunity to define their own cultures and values, in consultation with their communities, and to craft curricula that reflect these values. ERO have highlighted five principles that are important for schools’ promotion of and response to student wellbeing. These principles illustrate how wellbeing can be integrated at all levels, from strategic planning and vision to on-the-ground systems and practices:

Although wellbeing is explicitly incorporated in the health and physical education learning area of the NZ Curriculum, we believe attention to students’ mental health and social, emotional and spiritual wellbeing should be much broader than this. The models and concepts that underpin the health and PE curriculum, however, remain excellent springboards for whole-school practice: the whare tapa whā model of wellbeing / hauora; a health promotion stance; a socio-ecological perspective; and attention to students’ attitudes and values (and not only their behaviours).

New Zealand schools also have free access to NZCER’s excellent Wellbeing@School programme which includes tools, resources and support around examining the current school climate and planning and implementing improvements (see also this overview of related work Jill and her team do in Australia). As a starting point, these school and classroom level checklists are good prompts for reviewing current practice against what we know works in NZ contexts.

Overall, our recent literature review contributes to the growing body of evidence showing that what schools do every day matters for student mental health and wellbeing. Our school climates are not neutral – they have important links to our students’ experiences and so it is important for teachers, school leaders, school trustees and policy makers to consider the nature of our current climates and how these can be improved over time. This is one way that we can take better and better care of our youth.

He aha te mea nui o te ao?
He tangata; he tangata; he tangata.

What is the most important thing in all the world?
It is people; it is people; it is people.

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Jill Aldridge is an associate professor at Curtin University, Western Australia. Her central research interests focus on the development of effective, inclusive learning environments at the school and classroom levels. Her research has examined the effects, determinants and outcomes of the school and classroom climate in national, international and cross-cultural settings involving a range of research methods.

Katrina_colour_squareKatrina McChesney completed her PhD in 2017 under the supervision of Dr Aldridge, focusing on teachers’ experiences of professional development. She has also contributed to a number of Dr Aldridge’s research and professional development projects related to school climate and its impact on student outcomes. Katrina is currently on the NZARE National Council.


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