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Why Children’s Happiness Matters

09 Sep 2018 | Adrian Bethune

John Stainer School V2

The title to this article may seem a little odd. Of course children's happiness matters!

But, as a primary school teacher of 8 years, I'm not sure children's happiness has been given the attention it truly deserves, particularly in our schools but also in wider society.

The Mental Health Crisis

Recent evidence shows that we have a growing mental health crisis among our young people. According to research shared by Young Minds:

  • 1 in 10 children have a diagnosable mental health disorder
  • Half of all mental ill health manifests by the age of 14, and 75% by the age of 18
  • Almost 25% of young people show some evidence of mental ill health
  • Suicide is the most common cause of death for children aged 5 to 19.

Each year the Children's Society's Good Childhood Report surveys over 65,000 children in the UK to gauge how our children our doing mentally and physically.

Following a steady rise in children's wellbeing from 1995 to 2010, progress has dramatically reversed with children's wellbeing now as low as it was 20 years ago. Worryingly, their most recent report notes that 'alarming numbers of children are self-harming'.

Children's emotional health is the key to future happiness

The statistics above are shocking in their own right. It is simply not OK that so many of our young people appear to be languishing and more should be done to help them.

However, there is also another reason that we should be investing more in our children's wellbeing - and that is because it is the strongest predictor of their future happiness.

In his book The Origins of Happiness, Prof. Richard  Layard and his colleagues, have drawn from an extensive range of longitudinal research from across the globe to establish the key factors that affect human wellbeing. Layard's team were able to look at the adults who were happy and satisfied with their lives and then trace back to their youth to answer the question, 'In childhood, what best predicts happiness in later life? They concluded:

"If we go back to childhood… the best predictor of an enjoyable adult life… is the child's emotional health, which… is significantly more important than all the qualifications the person ever obtains".

It appears that investing in our children's wellbeing pays dividends for the future!

Origins Of Happiness      Adrian And Richard 2

Schools and teachers are crucial

It may sound obvious that children's emotional health best predicts which children will grow into becoming happy adults. Happy child, happy adult, right?

But what can anyone other than parents do about that? Well, it turns out quite a lot. Layard's team were able to really dig down into the data and trace which schools and even which teachers some of the respondents had in childhood, along with their academic attainment.

Their analysis found that "primary school teachers have more impact on the emotional health of the children than on the children's performance in maths".

Even more encouraging is the fact that this influence carries on and the positive effect primary teachers have had on pupil wellbeing and behaviour "does not fade over time… and persists throughout the following five years and longer". The chapter on schooling ends with this encouraging conclusion: "Primary and secondary schools have major effects on the emotional wellbeing of their children".

As a primary school teacher who has tried to prioritise my pupil's happiness and wellbeing, this was music to my ears! Schools and teachers are crucial to developing and nurturing children's wellbeing and can be a force for good in addressing the mental health crisis.

Can schools teach happiness?

Some people might argue that a school's main purpose is to teach the curriculum and raise academic attainment, not to teach children how to be happier. What they often fail to realise is that teaching a curriculum that includes wellbeing is one of the best ways to raise attainment.

A report by Public Health England called The Link Between Pupil Health and Wellbeing and Attainment, showed that schools that pupil in place programmes to develop children's social and emotional learning had, on average, an 11% gain in attainment.

Kids Meditating At School

Positive psychologist Dr Alejandro Adler from Penn University carried out research teaching a wellbeing curriculum to over 700,000 students in Bhutan, Mexico and Peru. In all three studies, students in the intervention schools reported significantly higher well-being and they performed significantly better on standardized national exams at the end of a 15-month intervention.

This research demonstrates that schools can teach happiness and that, in doing so, pupils learn better. So it's therefore essential that schools prioritise the happiness and wellbeing of their pupils.

This means putting wellbeing on the curriculum; making positive relationships a key part of children's education; making physical exercise a core part of the daily routines; and having resources (e.g. counselling services) in place for pupils that need extra support.

Ideas and resources

In my school, I have been hosting a wellbeing-focussed weekly assembly with the whole school. We've been looking at Action for Happiness' Ten Keys to Happier Living using their fantastic book 50 Ways to Feel Happy. I share some of the science of happiness and then we carry out some of the activities suggested.

The first of the 10 Keys is 'Giving' and my school hosted an It's Cool to Be Kind Week. Every child was asked to carry out an act of kindness at home. One boy baked cupcakes with his dad and went to his local train station to greet tired commuters with his treats!

Brockley Metro Kids V2

Every class was asked to carry out a class act of kindness in their local community. Our Year 3 class wrote kindness notes and stapled them to the front of Metro newspapers to hand out to commuters. It was their small way of trying to spread a little bit of positivity. The school started to receive emails of thanks from all over the tube network!

We also set up a 'Good Deed Feed' in the playground so pupils and staff could note the kind acts they saw others do, in an effort to savour these moments that normally pass us by.

Good Deed Feed

If schools and teachers need more ideas to support pupil wellbeing, then excellent organisations like the PSHE Association and Anna Freud Centre have resources to help, while charity Place 2 Be supports schools and vulnerable children with counselling services.

Action for Happiness has also created a Keys to Happier Living Toolkit aimed at teaching primary school children the skills of wellbeing. And my new book Wellbeing in the Primary Classroom shows teachers how to weave wellbeing into a child's every day at school.

Take action

Whether you are a teacher, work in a school, or have children (or not), there is always something you can do to support young people's wellbeing and mental health. You could consider volunteering to be a governor at a local school. You could be a mentor to a young person. Or maybe you get involved with coaching at a local sports club.

Whatever part you decide to play, our children need us to look out for them. We need to take our children's happiness seriously. And it needs all of us to take action.


About Adrian Bethune

Adrian Bethune Square  Adrian Book Image

Adrian Bethune is a primary school teacher in Hertfordshire and author of Wellbeing In The Primary Classroom - A Practical Guide to Teaching Happiness (Bloomsbury, 2018). For more information visit www.teachappy.co.uk and follow @AdrianBethune on Twitter.


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