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What if Wellness and Well-being Came First?

Updated: Aug 8, 2019

It is remarkable how quickly wellness and well-being have become a dominant topic of concern in education over the past few years. To clarify, wellness refers to the quality or state of being healthy as a result of deliberate effort. Well-being refers to a more holistic life experience; a good feeling of existence. While well-being includes wellness, you can’t have one without the other.

So, what’s going on and what are the implications for the classroom, school and district level systems of education?


In their book The Coddling of the American Mind, authors Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt reference the work of social psychologist Dr. Jean Twenge who offers some specifics about the generation of children that immediately followed the Millennials, who she refers to as iGen. Twenge identifies 1994 as the last birth year of the Millenials and 1995 as the first birth year of iGen. The “i” in iGen refers to internet. In other words, iGen is the first generation of children that have grown up with the internet “in their pocket” through smartphones and corresponding platforms; notably, social media.


What is helpful about this generational view is the correlation that can be made between iGen and rapid changes in a variety of indicators associated with teenage behaviour. Here is one example, from Twenge, through the lens of children aged 12-17 years experiencing major depressive episodes.


% (American) 12-17 Year Olds Experiencing a Major Depressive

Episode in the Last Twelve Months, by Age Group


Source: National Survey on Drug Abuse and Health, US Department of Health and Human Services, 2004-2015.


It can be seen how significantly the rise in depressive episodes of these children began in 2011, when the cohort year of iGen children turned 16 years of age. In her research, this same trend is demonstrated across a wide number of indicators. In short, Twenge believes “that the rapid spread of smartphones and social media into the lives of teenagers, beginning around 2007, is the main cause of the mental health crisis that began around 2011.” (pg. 152)


However, equally important is an understanding that the impact of smartphones and social media on children varies widely depending on the context of other external factors including the amount of daily screen time used, participation with other stimuli (eg. reading, outdoor activities, face-to-face interactions, hobbies, etc.), diet, sleep time, parenting styles etc.

We should also take note that despite (or perhaps due to) their pioneering status, iGen also demonstrates a number of positive attributes including lower rates of smoking, alcohol and drug dependency, safer sexual practices and safer driving practices. This is a generation that is passionate about social equity, environmentalism and improving the world.


Like most things, what matters most is how informed self-decisions can lessen the negative impact of individual behaviour. After all, it would be dangerous to suggest that the internet/personal device/social media is bad so we should simply remove access to the internet/personal devices/social media. This is much more complex. From an Edushift perspective, the notable conclusions to be drawn from this information are:

  • we are, in fact, witnessing an unparalleled student need for wellness and well-being support, and

  • this need is connected with new generations of students never witnessed before in the history of our educational systems.


Why Wellness and Well-being Matter

We want our children to be happy and productive in a changing world. We also know that, in the context of learning, wellness and well-being need to come first because children with wellness and well-being challenges can’t also be engaged in their academics.


But what does wellness and well-being really mean from a system perspective? After all, most people seem to agree that there is an issue that needs to be addressed. What is open for interpretation is the what and the how. To get closer to this, let’s consider the World Health Organization which defines wellness/well-being as follows:


“Wellness is an active process of becoming aware of and making choices toward a healthy and fulfilling life. Wellness is more than being free from illness. It is a dynamic process of change and growth.” Furthermore, “wellness matters because everything we do and every emotion we feel relates to our well-being. In turn, our well-being directly affects our actions and emotions. It’s an ongoing circle.”


In other words, systematically seeking to improve student wellness and well-being presumes to also embody the larger concept of helping to develop the whole child; aligning academic achievement with the cognitive, emotional, social and physical well-being of every student.


The Systematic Issue at Hand

Our industrial-era educational systems tend to address challenges, such as the clearly evident need for wellness and well-being support, through interventions. On the surface this seems logical. There is a classroom, school and district level system in place and it is therefore assumed that most students fit to the system. When students don’t fit to the system already in place, interventions are deemed necessary. That is what an intervention is intended to do; work as an add-on to the “regular” systematic structures already in place.


From the perspective of wellness and well-being this is problematic because our industrial-era educational systems were never designed, nor intended, to address wellness and well-being as an active process. Wellness and well-being has, for the most part, been addressed as program interventions. As evidence, consider a commonly applied concept in education called the Response to Intervention (RTI) Pyramid.


The RTI Pyramid of Intervention is intended to act as a guiding approach for teachers to respond to the special needs of struggling students. Based upon ongoing assessments, supports are provided to three different groups of students before they fall too far behind.


Through Tier 1 of the Pyramid, classroom instruction strategies are intended to enable 80-90 percent of students without further intervention. Through Tier 2, interventions of moderate intensity are provided to smaller groups of students as supplement to Tier 1 strategies. Tier 3 provides the most intense interventions to the smallest number of students as a supplement to Tier 1 and 2. Student can move between all three tiers.


Please note that, in offering this example, there is no intention to challenge a systematic response for students with extreme wellness or well-being needs. There are professionals in most educational systems that are trained, experienced and prepared to assist students with severe depression, anxiety and related issues. These situations are representative of system interventions in the truest sense; where students in need of specific mental health supports are assisted by adults with expertise in these disciplines.


What does require reconsideration, however, is Tier 1 as an approach to addressing wellness and well-being in classrooms and schools - noting again that academic achievement needs to be aligned with the cognitive, emotional, social and physical well-being of every student.


At the outset, the suggestion that virtually every (Tier 1) student receives an intervention would appear contrary to the definition of intervention itself. Students either fit within the education system structure or they don’t. The issue at hand should more appropriately involve how we can embed wellness and well-being within the constructs of the overall classroom, school and district systems.


By their very nature, systematic supports to address student wellness and well-being require the ongoing review and response to individualized schema. Maintaining industrial-era system structures is based upon a misconception that this is about managing student behaviour through program delivery. In actuality, this is about guiding and assisting student self-regulation through process support.


We should not be surprised that our current educational structures are stressed when behavioural management programs are being used in response to the significant and rapid increase in wellness and well-being support required by the iGen generation. Student behaviour management programs may fit with the delivery structure of industrial-era educational systems, but they act in contrary to research (eg. Daniel Pink) demonstrating that effective behavioural change is the result of autonomy.


Further aggravating this challenge is the increasing expectation of parents and students for the type of personalized services that are available in other public and private business sectors. In all, the demands now being placed on educational staff are unprecedented and often out of sync with traditional systematic structures that are in place to provide this support.


Consider the numerous approaches now available for any educational system to use in response to the need for student wellness and well-being support. However, in doing so, it is critical for educational system leaders to also ask “is this a program to instruct/enforce behaviour or a tool to assist the process of individualized student and staff growth?” The following continuum chart can be used as a starting point to initiate important systematic discussions and decisions as they relate to professional development, data, resources, student voice, opportunities for curricular alignment, etc.

The Wellness/Well-being Program to Process Continuum


Edushift, August, 2019


The Opportunity Before Us

Systematically moving from program delivery to process support will be necessary to effectively address the wellness and well-being needs of the iGen and future generations. At the same time, educational systems everywhere are seeking to understand how to advance personalization as a necessary alternative to traditional industrial-era models. This requires leadership, innovation and practice, both operationally and pedagogically.


Impeding the transition to personalization is a need for clarity about what our educational systems are trying to achieve. Without clarity, change efforts can become weakened from a lack of specific direction and monitoring to understand and build upon success.

In its 2018 National Landscape Scan of Personalized Learning in K-12 Education in the United States, the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) defines personalized learning as “tailoring learning for each student’s strengths, needs and interest – including enabling student voice and choice in what, how, when and where they learn – to provide flexibility and supports to ensure mastery of the highest standards possible.” Going further, the report also states that personalized learning “may complement a “whole-child” approach, which is an effort to transition from narrowly defined academic achievement toward promoting the full development of all children.”


Clearly, there is an opportunity before us to leverage the necessary support of wellness and well-being processes with the larger move to personalized educational systems overall. What if wellness and well-being came first? Could our educational systems seize this moment to initiate, and harness wellness and well-being processes which, in turn, could inform a deeper and wider application of these operational processes? Let's try - together.

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