Peter Goss, School Education Program Director at the Grattan Institute, sheds light on how poor mental health and low wellbeing harms student learning outcomes.
If you ask a policy wonk how well a primary school is doing, you’ll probably be subjected to statistics about NAPLAN.
If you ask a parent, you’re more likely to hear how their child feels about school. Of course, both things matter. But the dynamic interplay between wellbeing and mental health, social and emotional skills, and academic learning is starting to get a higher profile in policy circles. It’s about time.
Social and emotional skills include managing emotions, setting positive goals, building relationships and being aware of others. They are vital for success in life – but of course they aren’t isolated from academic learning. Students with strong social and emotional skills tend to improve more quickly in those domains – a non-cognitive version of the Matthew Effect – but also progress more rapidly on academic skills.
At the other extreme, poor mental health and low wellbeing harm learning. But two major Australian studies are shedding more light on how common these issues are: how young they start and how much of an impact they have on learning.
Young Minds Matter: the second Australian Child and Adolescent Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing is run by the University of Western Australia. It shows that roughly one in seven students has a mental disorder in a given year, with ADHD the most common disorder for boys and anxiety for girls. The prevalence of mental disorders is broadly consistent across Years 3, 5, 7 and 9.
The impact on learning is already apparent by midway through primary school. Year 3 students with any mental disorder are six to nine months behind in NAPLAN compared to their mentally healthy peers. This gap grows to between 1.5 and 2.8 years by Year 9, depending on the NAPLAN domain. Some of this slower rate of learning progress is probably due to lower attendance rates, although absenteeism for students with mental disorders is much lower in primary school than secondary school.
These are huge learning gaps. The Year 9 learning gap is about the same as the learning gap for students whose parents didn’t finish high school or are unemployed, two common markers of social disadvantage.
To make matters worse, family background and mental health challenges interact. Students from low-income households have twice the rates of mental disorders as those from high-income households, students from unemployed sole parent households have three times the prevalence of mental disorders as students who have two employed parents or carers.
In effect, worse mental health may account for somewhere between one tenth and one quarter of the overall gap between socially advantaged and disadvantaged students.
The second major study is the Childhood to Adolescence Transition Study (CATS), run by the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute in Melbourne. It shows that students lose about eight months’ worth of learning from Year 3 to Year 7 if they have low wellbeing, and nearly ten months of learning if they are bullied for two or three years.
Because it tracks students as they move through school, the CATS study can tease out the links between these interacting factors. And there are strong links: students with low wellbeing in primary school tend to have poor engagement and learning in secondary school.
Primary school principals have always focused on the wellbeing of their students and the data increasingly shows just how vital this is. Prevention is better than cure, but schools also need the capabilities to identify and support mental illness.
But what should principals do? After all, there are dozens (if not hundreds) of programs on offer that claim to improve wellbeing/reduce bullying/ support mental health.
There is one new initiative that can help principals cut through the noise. ‘Be You’ was launched late last year as the national mental health initiative in education, with a vision to create a mentally healthy generation of young Australians.
It gives educators knowledge, resources and strategies to help children and young people achieve their best possible mental health.
Be You is led by beyondblue with delivery partners Early Childhood Australia and HeadSpace. It integrates several successful initiatives into a single framework and also provides details about the implementation and evidence base of a wide range of external programs. And Be You is free, courtesy of generous funding from the Federal Department of Health. It’s great that policy makers are getting on board with mental health in schools. But in the end, each school has to choose how it will approach student wellbeing and mental health.
The hard yards get done each day, with each child, in the classroom, in the playground, and at home. Be You is there to help you find the right approach for your school.
Peter Goss is an unpaid member of beyondblue’s National Education Program Council for Be You.