When I was 14, I suffered from test anxiety. I feared making mistakes, and was uncertain about my educational and career prospects. I would often study until 2 a.m. to polish my homework and prove my worth. My fear of failure contrasted with the joy I felt when I was with my peers. I remember one time when a teacher called me to the blackboard to solve a chemical equation: I didn’t know the answer, but my friend Alexandra tossed me a scrap of paper she had scribbled the answer on. I was so grateful to her, and that experience really made me feel accepted by my classmates. Incidents like this taught me that in uncomfortable moments in education, it’s often possible to find the positive. Since then, I have found in my research that positive relationships, especially with peers, like the one I had with Alexandra, are a key ingredient in overcoming many of the challenges students face in school.

My school experiences helped me recognize the importance of well-being in schools. As an early childhood educator and schoolteacher, I learned that student well-being is an important driving force behind learning. And then, wanting to understand how to make school a place that responds to students’ needs, I became an educational researcher. I study how focusing on well-being in schools can contribute to positive education. This means paying attention not only to young people’s learning outcomes, but also to their emotional and social development.

“My school experiences helped me recognize the importance of well-being in schools.”

My research has been inspired in part by a 2016 UNESCO report, entitled Happy Schools: A Framework for Learner Well-being in the Asia-Pacific. The report contains an extensive literature review and is based on research including a workshop with schools, a survey, and a seminar. It draws on the voices of school-level stakeholders: students, parents, teachers, school principals, school support staff, and members of the general public. The research identified “three Ps” that are essential for a happy school – people, process, and place. Getting these right makes teaching and learning fun and enjoyable.

Building a happy school

The first P, people, is concerned with social relationships in school. Friendships and relationships in the school community are the most important factors in a happy school, according to the report. Positive and supportive relationships in school promote students’ motivation and interest in school, as well as the pursuit of educational and prosocial goals. The report suggests encouraging discussions with students to create empathy and understanding; for example, students might analyze a story from different perspectives. Schools can also cultivate positive values, attitudes, and behaviors in the classroom and through group work. A respect for diversity and differences can be fostered through discussions about different cultures and backgrounds, for example, or about the benefits of collaboration.

“Well-being improves when mistakes are valued as part of the learning process, when students are encouraged to ask questions, and when positive feedback is provided.”

The second P, process, relates to the teaching and learning methodologies that enhance student well-being. The use of engaging content that is applicable to daily life can make teaching and learning more enjoyable for both students and teachers. Well-being improves when mistakes are valued as part of the learning process, when students are encouraged to ask questions, and when positive feedback is provided. Schools can also implement well-being programs or introduce mindfulness meditation for students and teachers.

The final P, place, concerns the physical environment and the school atmosphere. Happiness can be fostered in schools by creating a secure and friendly environment free of bullying, with an emphasis on gratitude and smiles. School bells can be replaced with music. Learning and playing can take place in green outdoor spaces to nurture connections with nature.

This evidence-based framework underscores the fact that student well-being is influenced by a variety of factors on different levels. Many school systems have come to recognize that well-being is a vital part of the school experience, and just as important as academic performance. Fostering both well-being and traditional academic skills is a complex process. It requires input from students, teachers, schools, and wider society. Given the global changes, uncertainties, and pressures of our ever-changing world, we all share responsibility for promoting a flourishing and happy school culture.

“Fostering both well-being and traditional academic skills is a complex process.”

The restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic have made achieving the three Ps more challenging than ever. As the schools were closed, some students had limited access to digital technology, poor internet connections, and minimal student-student and student-teacher interaction, and this led in many cases to a lack of interest and academic motivation. The effects of the pandemic on students’ lives and their well-being are likely to be far-reaching and long-lasting.

No simple recipe exists for reshaping the character and atmosphere of a school so that it feels like home. And it is not always possible to transform these ingredients. But I strongly believe that any steps toward enhancing happiness and well-being in learners, however small, can make a difference. To start, we can embrace cultural and linguistic diversity in classrooms, stimulate whole-student learning through a focus on emotional, intellectual, and social development, give learners freedom to express themselves, and integrate simple positive activities into lessons, such as expressing gratitude. Small actions now can have a big impact later, with the ultimate goal of building a happier and more caring society.

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