NAB Education Insights Special Report: Student wellbeing - Education Matters Magazine
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NAB Education Insights Special Report: Student wellbeing

student wellbeing

New research compiled by NAB Behavioural & Industry Economics, reveals how young Australians really feel about their lives.

The study, titled NAB Education Insights Report: Student Wellbeing, presents challenges and opportunities for an increased focus on mental health and wellbeing in schools. It further addresses parental expectations around comprehensive, proactive and tailored wellbeing solutions for all students.

Wellbeing not only positively influences student learning outcomes, but success in learning enhances student wellbeing. Educators understand this only too well, and with that comes increasing pressures on budgets, teachers and support staff.

“School wellbeing programs are doing a remarkable job in the face of very complex problems – such as heightened anxiousness due to COVID – but remain only one part of the solution. Wellbeing will always be the joint responsibility of governments, educators, students, wider communities, extended families and parents,” said Ms Biljana Nikolova, NAB Executive Education.

“The report gives education decision makers a voice, and the data and insights to go to parents and boards. and validate the observations they are seeing in the sector.

Quick insights

  • 1 in 5 high school age students identify as having ‘low’ levels of mental wellbeing.
  • Compared to a year ago, on balance just 1 in 10 students said their mental wellbeing had improved.
  • Almost 1 in 2 students said school wellbeing programs did not help much.
  • Around 1 in 5 parents believe their children don’t have any personal concerns or worries.
student wellbeing
The Australian Catholic University has defined student wellbeing as a “sustainable state of positive mood and attitude, resilience, and satisfaction with self, relationships and experiences at school”.

Student wellbeing

Wellbeing is not just the absence of disease or illness. It integrates mental and physical health, and both are inextricably related. Physical injuries can impact mental health, and vice versa. Regular physical activity can relieve tension, anxiety, depression and anger, while healthy eating can also improve mental health.

Wellbeing recognises how people see life from their own perspective and it can change over time depending on personal circumstances. The Australian Catholic University has defined student wellbeing as a “sustainable state of positive mood and attitude, resilience, and satisfaction with self, relationships and experiences at school”. Put simply, when students feel well, happy, secure and are thriving socially, they can fully participate in and learn from their daily routines, play, interactions and experiences at school.

Wellbeing is the shared responsibility of governments, educators, students, wider communities, extended families and parents. When children complain that their parents don’t understand them, often they mean they don’t understand their feelings. Misperceptions are a natural part of parenting. Often, parents see children filtered through our own fears, desires and issues. This is not to imply that parents don’t care. So called “helicopter parenting” (typically describing a time and resource-intensive style of child-rearing), has become a well-worn phrase.

As a result, and based on various surveys of student wellbeing employed across Australian schools that provided significant existing data sets, NAB Behavioural & Industry Economics published this report to address some of the key findings on student wellbeing, versus parents’ perspectives.

Key insights and report findings

  • Overall, Australian students perceive themselves as having only ‘moderate’ levels of physical (66.5 pts out of a possible 100 pts) and emotional/mental (64.3 pts) wellbeing.
  • Parents view their children’s wellbeing much more positively (scoring on average 80.9 pts for physical and 79.1 pts for emotional/mental wellbeing).
  • Boys (70.2 pts physical and 69.0 pts emotional) reported higher wellbeing scores than girls (62.9 physical, 60.1 emotional).
  • Parents however rated the wellbeing of their children by gender much closer, with boys perceived as having only slightly higher levels of wellbeing than girls – both physical (81.6 boys vs. 80.2 girls) and mental (80.2 vs. 77.9).
  • By year level, student perceptions of their physical wellbeing were highest in years 7-9 (74.6) and lowest in year 11 (63.3).
  • Emotional/mental wellbeing was highest in years 7-9 (72.8) and lowest in year 12 (61.9). Parents particularly under-estimated the emotional wellbeing of children in year 12 (82.3 parents; 61.9 students).

The data was also split according to the type of school the student attends.

  • In terms of physical wellbeing, students at private independent schools rated their wellbeing highest (72.3).
  • Physical wellbeing in boys only schools (71.5) was also much higher than for girls only schools (64.3).
  • When it came to emotional or mental wellbeing, there is very large “wellbeing gap” between boys only schools (74.0) and girls only schools (59.3).
  • Students at private independent schools again rated highest (68.7).
student wellbeing
Nearly twice as many girls overall (19%) reported a ‘low’ sense of physical wellbeing than boys (11%), as did twice as many students in year 11 (19%) than years 7-9 (9%).

Average wellbeing scores often mask significant numbers of people that are struggling. Of concern, 1 in 5 students (20%) identified as having ‘low’ levels of emotional or mental wellbeing (i.e. scoring less than 40 pts), and 15% ‘low’ physical wellbeing. Around 1% of all parents thought their children had ‘low’ levels of physical wellbeing, and 4% emotional or mental wellbeing.

Perceptions vs. reality

  • Perceptions of low emotional or mental wellbeing was much higher for girls (where 26% identified as having low wellbeing) than boys (just 13%), and in years 11 (23% of all students) and 12 (21% of students).
  • Low wellbeing was around 5 times more prevalent in girls only schools (26%) than for boys only schools (5%).
  • The number of students with ‘low’ physical wellbeing trended in a narrower range, though nearly twice as many girls overall (19%) reported a ‘low’ sense of physical wellbeing than boys (11%), as did twice as many students in year 11 (19%) than years 7-9 (9%).
  • Many children have been uniquely impacted by the pandemic, having experienced this crisis during important periods of physical, social, and emotional development.
  • On balance +18% of all students rated their physical wellbeing better than a year ago (a net +55% of parents thought it was better). In terms of their emotional or mental wellbeing, +9% of students said it improved (+51% of parents).
  • Emotional or mental wellbeing was on balance rated better by male students (+22%) but slightly worse on balance (-2%) among female students.
  • Most parents believed wellbeing had improved.

Young people have a higher prevalence of loneliness than other age groups, increasing the risk of depression and anxiety. During the pandemic feelings of social isolation rose and those hardest hit were older teens and young adults.

  • When students were asked to score how lonely they feel, on average it was a ‘moderate’ 44.9 pts out of 100 (100 is ‘extremely’ lonely).
  • Parental perceptions were more broadly aligned (39.7 pts), with parents also identifying a similar share of students (17%) as ‘extremely’ lonely (i.e. scored 80+ pts) as students themselves (15%).
  • Loneliness was somewhat higher for girls in general (47.4 girls vs. 42.4 boys).
  • By year level, the year 10 cohort rated their feelings of loneliness highest (47.0), and the year 7-9 group lowest (41.4).
  • Parent perceptions were somewhat mixed.

When students were asked to rate how well they were coping with their anxieties or worries, on balance they rated only ‘moderately’ well, scoring on average 54.0 pts out of 100 (vs. 72.2 among parents). Boys in general believe (or at least say) they are coping (60.3) much better compared to girls (47.6).

  • Students in year 12 (52.3) and year 10 (52.4) were also finding it harder to cope than students in other year levels.
  • Once again, the average scores mask the concerning number of students – over 1 in 3 (35%) – that believe they aren’t coping well (i.e. scored less than 40 pts).
  • This rose to over 4 in 10 for girls overall (42% vs. 28% boys).
  • In contrast, parents identified fewer than 1 in 10 (8% or 12% of girls and 5% of boys) struggling to cope.

In general, severe anxiety symptoms, impairment due to anxiety, and anxiety disorders are more prevalent in women than in men. Similar sex-reliant patterns have been observed in young boys and girls. While men are less likely to experience anxiety and depression than women, they are also less likely to talk about it. From an early age, men are conditioned to believe that expressing their feelings is out of character with the male identity. This raises the possibility that boys are under-reporting their anxieties and concerns. Some researchers have however suggested that girls are also more inclined to blame themselves for negative life events, which then further elevates their anxious symptoms. This implies that in helping manage student anxiety, it’s important for both parents and teachers to model positive and adaptive reasoning when discussing why stressful or negative things happen in life, particularly for girls.

Students (and parents) were also asked to identify the top causes of their anxiety or worries.

  • The biggest driver of anxiety for students was schoolwork, tests or grades.
  • This impacted 2 in 3 (66%) students overall. Parents also highlighted this as a key driver – though fewer (1 in 3 or 34%).
  • Over 4 in 10 (44%) students called out looks, appearance and body image as the next most common cause of their anxiety (19% of parents did).
  • Rounding out the top 5 for students were mental health (41%), tiredness and lack of sleep (38%) and future job prospects (30%).
  • Parents identified their children’s friendships as the second biggest cause of anxieties (28%). Mental health was the third biggest driver according to parents (21%).
  • Parents were also asked how well the school their children attended is helping them with their anxieties or worries.
  • On average, they believe they are helping ‘quite’ well, scoring 68.5 pts out of a possible 100. However, this varied significantly by school type.
  • Parents were notably more positive regarding private independent (74.3 pts), and private Catholic (71.3) schools compared to public or state schools (65.5). Girls (76.7) and boys (76.1) only schools were also perceived as doing more than coeducational schools (67.1).
  • Parents also thought schools were slightly better at helping boys with anxiety (69.1) than girls (67.8), as well helping students in year 12 (71.6), compared to those in year 11 (63.1).
student wellbeing
Educators and school communities play a significant role in supporting and developing student wellbeing.

What could schools do better?

According to students, the top things schools could do to help them with their worries are:

  • Putting less emphasis on grades and scores (45%).
  • Having fewer tests and exams (41%)
  • Teachers who are more calm, honest and caring (40%).
  • Less strict policy on uniforms and appearance (33%),
  • Less homework (33%).
  • Noticeably more students identified different (earlier or later) school times (30% students; 8% parents)
  • More understanding of the individual person (25% vs. 16% parents)
  • More remote learning (14% vs. 5% parents).

Interestingly, a lot more parents (15%) than students (2%) said there was nothing the school could do to help.

  • Parents agreed one of the top things schools could do to help is having more calm, honest and caring teachers (32%).
  • More professional counselling or wellbeing services (25%)
  • More safe spaces and opportunities for check-ins with students (20%)
  • More feedback on progress and academic performance (19%)
  • More focus on core subjects (19%).

Educators and school communities play a significant role in supporting and developing student wellbeing. Schools use various strategies and programs to support student wellbeing and mental health including school-wide mental health and wellbeing promotion; early targeted support for students with emerging or moderate mental health concerns; and targeted or crisis response for students with complex mental health needs.

To read the latest NAB Education Insights Special Report (Part 1), visit the NAB Business website to download the full 23-page report. 


About NAB Behavioural & Industry Economics

NAB’s Behavioural & Industry Economics is a division of NAB Group Economics which consists of a leading team of economists who provide accurate, timely and relevant updates on domestic, international and industrial economic trends. NAB’s Behavioural & Industry Economics team is headed up by Dean Pearson, who has over 30 years experience in analysing the economy and assessing the implications both in Australia and globally.The team publish a wealth of content including reports, surveys, forecasts and indexes.

For more information visit here.

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