How well are we? An education system under stress

Kevin Hawkins

Stress effects everyone at different times, in a multitude of different ways. This is no truer than in Education. With students preparing for their end of year exams, exam stress is a likely occurrence and something that many of us can remember experiencing at some point in our own lives. For Stress Awareness Month, Kevin Hawkins, author of Mindful Teacher, Mindful School: Improving Wellbeing in Teaching and Learning, talks about how it is  increasingly important for teachers to be emotionally and socially intelligent, as well as intellectually and academically knowledgeable to better support students.

Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.’ – Aristotle

In order to be well and to live well, a degree of economic security is clearly essential, but it’s only part of the story. Even those of us who are lucky enough to live in economic comfort aren’t necessarily getting any happier. The World Health Organization predicts that by 2030 depression will be the single biggest cause of ill health worldwide. A 2005 British Journal of Psychology paper indicated that half of us in the West will experience depression in our lifetimes.

Especially at risk are the elderly and, more recently, the young. We live in a time of crisis for the mental health of young people. Much of the recent growth of interest in wellbeing and mindfulness in schools in the UK is coming less from education and more from public health officials concerned about an epidemic of mental instability amongst young people:

  • 1 in 10 of the 5–16-year-olds in the UK now have a diagnosable psychiatric condition (Mental Health Foundation, 2015).
  • Globally, depression is the top cause of illness and disability among adolescents, and suicide is the third highest cause of death (WHO, 2016).

The onset of clinical depression is appearing at a younger and younger age. Just 50 years ago the most common age for the onset of major depression was seen in people in their 40s and 50s; now it’s in their 20s.

Poverty can add a whole other dimension to these psychological factors, but anxiety and depression know no boundaries. Even if you work in privileged private or international schools, you will know that many of our young people are no strangers to the negative impacts of psychological stress.

We don’t know exactly why this downward trend in mental health is affecting people at an increasingly early age, but the impact on learning and growth are highly worrying. Education systems that put a lot of focus on high-stakes exams (and I guess that includes most of them) certainly contribute to the stress young people feel. My three children grew up in international schools and all have now taken the Intentional Baccalaureate Diploma. It’s a very well regarded pre-university qualification and a well-thought through framework for a well-rounded final two years of school. But in reality I have to say that, much as I respect and admire the overall concept of the programme, in practice it is just far too demanding. Each teacher wants you to do well in their subject and as results are published there is significant pressure on teachers too. This for me is a clear example of how a lot of well-intentioned people and ideas in a complex system can end up having a negative effect on some of the individuals it was intended to serve. The International Baccalaureate Organization (IBO) is aware of these concerns and is looking at ways to reduce stress. Similar issues, of course, arise for students coping with exam stress in the UK and in many other countries. It’s part of a bigger picture in which school systems continue to be filtering mechanisms for increasingly competitive university places – and along the way there are many casualties.

In addition, many of our young people today are often sleep deprived – their lives may be dominated by a battery of digital ‘weapons of mass distraction’. If you are in your late teens and live in a wealthy country, chances are that you have had a pretty intense connection to a number of screen-based devices for over half your life. As a school leader, I have been responsible for introducing IT programmes and I appreciate the many ways technology has opened up learning for us all. But digital learning brings its own issues of compulsion and distraction, which we now need to equip our students to deal with.

In order to be successful and resilient in this age of distraction and complexity, there are some basic competencies that we have to learn – or perhaps to rediscover. We need to consciously cultivate our skills of:

  • Attention
  • Self-awareness
  • Emotional regulation

A legitimate function of schools can be to foster this understanding. If we know more about how to use our minds effectively, how to train the attention, how to develop awareness and build emotional regulation, and if we appreciate the value of these key life skills, should they not be more central to our school curricula? Understanding ourselves, our minds, bodies and emotions, is a key 21st-century life skill.

It is becoming increasingly important to society that we value and develop these self-awareness and self-management capacities in our students, but for this to happen we need teachers who value, and who are developing, those same capacities in themselves; educators who are emotionally and socially intelligent as well as intellectually and academically knowledgeable.

We are learning so much more theses days about how we can train affective skills and capacities such as empathy and compassion as well as how to improve our capacity to attend and to use our minds to their fullest potential.  But our definition of intelligence in mainstream schooling is still far too limited. Testing regimes still dominate our approaches to assessing understanding, and this gives confusing messages to children about the deeper purposes of education.  We are still obsessed with grades and numbers and other extrinsic motivators that take the focus of learning away from an intrinsic sense of discovery and from the joy of learning itself – and we are still confused about whether school is about learning for life or filtering for university.

Kevin Hawkins has worked with children and adolescents in various contexts for over 30 years as a teacher, school head and social worker, in the UK, Europe and Africa. He has taught across the age ranges in state schools and in international schools, with a focus on develop­ing the whole child through balancing academic, social and emotional aspects of learning. Kevin started teaching mindful awareness to students, teachers and parents in 2008, and in 2012 he co-founded MindWell which supports educational communities in developing wellbeing through mindfulness and social-emotional learning.

Find out about Kevin Hawkins’ forthcoming book here.

Learn more on stress and well-being – check out SAGE Education’s De-Stress Zone.

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