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By: Susanna Grace Johnson

Learning is embedded in emotional states. There is a wealth of research that states as much. Learners tend to reason and make decisions on the basis of positive personal values and an understanding of their emotions when they are confident, responsible, reflective, innovative and engaged.

It’s clear that schools should therefore continuously seek to enhance the overall wellbeing of their students while taking a holistic approach to learning. This is even more relevant today, as we are only beginning to understand the full impact of the pandemic on mental health. Well-being is neither permanent nor innate. It is a state of mind and body that is acquired gradually. It can also be lost over time.

When we look at young people across the globe today, we can see that they have many more stressors that affect them – factors that contribute to one of three negative stress categories, occupy brain bandwidth and lower wellbeing. These include:

  • A perfect storm of change – everything is changing: the brain, body, chemistry, friends, social pressures, curriculum, fears, protection from adults. Change is stressful, especially if it’s a change that hasn’t been asked for or cannot be controlled.
  • Lack of control – young people can control very little about their day. They may have developed ‘learned helplessness’, becoming so used to this lack of control that they fail to notice those areas where they can take control. In addition, they may not ask for help because they think no help is possible.
  • Exams – stakes are high, with frequent demands to achieve the best, with often unattainable goals.
  • The internet and social media – these provide enormous benefits but come at a cost. This cost applies equally to adults, but teenagers may be more vulnerable because of extra pressures to do the same as friends and peers, and due to less well-developed neural control centres.

One of the best ways to encourage young people is to promote curiosity in learners. For children and adults alike, curiosity has been linked with psychological, emotional, social and even health benefits. These include:

  • Survival – the urge to explore and seek novelty helps us remain vigilant and gain knowledge about our continuously changing environment.
  • Happiness – research has shown curiosity to be associated with higher levels of positive emotions, lower levels of anxiety, more satisfaction with life and greater psychological wellbeing.
  • Achievement –studies reveal that curiosity leads to more enjoyment and participation in school , and higher academic achievement, as well as greater learning, engagement and performance at work.
  • Empathy – when we are curious about others and talk to those outside our usual social circle, we become better able to understand people with lives, experiences and worldviews different to our own.
  • Relationships – studies have found that people were rated as warmer and more appealing if they showed real curiosity when interacting with others. This implies that demonstrating curiosity towards someone is a great way to increase strong, meaningful relationships in any context.

It has been learnt over time that stressful situations trigger the release of the stress hormone cortisol, which interferes with neural growth. This can affect the learner in a massive way. In fact, prolonged stress impairs the ability to learn and maintain good physical health.

That is why wellbeing should be a vital part of a school curriculum and why it’s so beneficial. Wellbeing impacts in the following ways:

  • It has profound direct effects on learning and performance.
  • It affects relationships with peers, family and teachers.
  • A young person has a lot within his or her control once he or she has learnt good practices.
  • Wellbeing isn’t fixed; it is vulnerable over time to the social context. Therefore, young people need to build a bank of wellbeing to give them resilience.
  • Learning strategies to improve wellbeing at an early age can be used at all stages of an individual’s life – wellbeing management is a genuine life skill.
  • It helps students to better understand themselves as learners, because they will understand the influences that directly affect their ability to learn.

Young people with a good sense of wellbeing feel generally healthy, sufficiently positive, able to focus on the task at hand and ready to deal with whatever life throws at them. They have reserves of physical and mental health and resilience, to help them deal with negative events or challenges. This is why it’s so important for schools to focus on wellbeing initiatives – to bring out the best in their learners.

School Counsellor, GEMS Wellington Academy – Al Khail

Susanna Grace Johnson is a clinical psychologist and wellbeing specialist with over 10 years’ counselling experience, eight of which directly in the education sector. With a master’s degree in Clinical Psychology, Susanna has been solely responsible for establishing and effectively managing counselling and wellbeing departments for premium British schools across Dubai. She is passionate about embedding wellbeing in school curricula and has conceptualised and organised largescale community engagement programmes to raise mental health awareness in the UAE. Susanna has also been part of different Dubai Health Authority initiatives and aims to continue fostering a mindfulness culture across her school and GEMS Education.