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High performance schools students most stressed says 15-year survey

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School is becoming an increasingly stressful place for students says The Social and Emotional Wellbeing Survey, with the most pronounced unhappiness found among students in schools with high expectations from the institution and their parents.

More than 135,000 students answered the survey administered by You Can Do It! Education and ACER.

Prof Michael Bernard (University of Melbourne, Melbourne Graduate School of Education and founder of You Can Do It! Education) designed the survey and ACER have published and administered it to students in Years 2–12 in over 700 states, in both independent and Catholic schools around Australia since 2003.

The results show that:

  • High numbers of students are experiencing difficulties, with 17% of students having ‘low’ or ‘emerging’ social and emotional
  • Stress appears to be increasing, with 49% of children responding affirmatively to the statement ‘I feel very stressed’ in 2017 compared with 28 % in 2003
  • Overall wellbeing does not improve with age but instead decreases as students progress through the education system
  • Significantly more girls (60%) than boys (44%) surveyed say they ‘worry too much about schoolwork or what others think’
  • Students are getting better at managing anger: 41% agreed with the statement ‘I have difficulty controlling my anger’ in 2003 versus 28% in 2017
  • Students appear to lack the characteristics necessary for success at school more than ever, reporting low confidence in their ability to cope with difficult schoolwork (76% in 2003; 59% in 2017) and general under-achievement (‘I could do better in my schoolwork’: 61% in 2003; 70% in 2017).

“In a climate in which mental good health has been redefined from an absence of disorders to positive social and emotional functioning, the Social and Emotional Wellbeing Survey provides an important measure of the mental health and wellbeing of young Australians,” Professor Bernard says. “We can now identify the level of social-emotional wellbeing individuals and groups of students at a school demonstrate and its findings give us an insight into the very real challenges our children face every day.”

A key finding of the survey includes the discovery of five distinct levels of student social- emotional wellbeing: low (1% of students), emerging (16% of students), developed (59% of students), highly developed (16% of students) and very highly developed (8% of students). Used in conjunction with knowledge of the typical characteristics possessed by students in each category, Bernard says this is a valuable tool for targeting teaching to meet the needs of all students in a school in order for them to move up to higher categories of wellbeing.

“The social-emotional needs of students depend a lot on their demographics,” he says. “In some schools using the ACER survey, problems with resilience, including anxiety management, top the list – especially in ‘high performing’ schools with parents who tend to over-protect and who communicate extremely high expectations for achievement.

“Meanwhile, some schools using the survey and catering to low-SES students are making great strides in improving achievement levels by focusing their attention on areas like building persistence and work confidence."

Prof Bernard also points to parental engagement and strong connections with school and the wider community as major contributors to a student’s social-emotional wellbeing.

“Parents do a whole world of good when they act as coaches of their children’s social- emotional development, including not taking too much responsibility for their children’s welfare and discussing ways children can manage their emotions,” he says.

“It is simply not possible for a single teacher to positively influence the wellbeing of every student in a school but when all school staff work together with parents and the wider community to provide a gold-class social and emotional education, the potential of every child can be realised.”

A new edition of the ACER Social-Emotional Wellbeing survey is being released in JUne.

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