Most educators would agree that wellbeing programs help children and young people become better learners. However, there is little robust evidence available (Taylor et al., 2017) about its impact on student academic outcomes.
Few systematic reviews go beyond assessing wellbeing to consider academic outcomes, and those that do, tend to investigate the impact of a specific approach, such as social emotional learning. A student's overall development and their ability to cope and thrive in the face of adversity require skills across emotional, physical, social and cognitive functions (OECD, 2017).
Late last year, Evidence for Learning commissioned a systematic review with our partners at the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) and VicHealth to address this gap in the research evidence. The resulting systematic review (Dix et al, 2020) investigates the impact of wellbeing-related interventions on student academic and wellbeing outcomes.
‘Wellbeing' was defined in its broadest terms to be as inclusive as possible. This resulted in a broad range of interventions. The majority (77 per cent) aimed to improve mental wellbeing, a further 18 per cent focused on physical wellbeing, and five per cent of studies focused on preventing harm from substance use.
The recent release of the review findings is timely to assist schools in implementing evidence-informed strategies to support students' wellbeing. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated vulnerabilities and some of these issues may be long-lasting for learners, parents and communities. Trauma-related studies have shown that stressors and social disruption as a result of crises can reduce students' and families' mental health and wellbeing, often for years (Gibbs et al., 2019; Bryant et al., 2014 & 2018).
More than ever, schools need robust evidence on effective strategies and programs to support students' wellbeing and mitigate these associated risks when they return to face-to-face learning. Schools also have an opportunity, in this next phase of recovery, to help students become more resilient in the face of adversity.
How was the review conducted?
Systematic reviews are considered the ‘gold standard' and the strongest level of evidence on which to guide practice and inform decisions. This systematic review provides the most robust evidence to date to broadly quantify the impact that wellbeing interventions have on, not only student wellbeing outcomes but on academic outcomes. All of the studies are randomised controlled trials or high-quality quasi-experiments of wellbeing interventions delivered in primary or secondary schools.
Due to the scope and sheer diversity of outcomes, the process to summarise the evidence was complex. The search identified 4850 studies which were screened and critically appraised to yield 78 high-quality studies. The interventions were reviewed to extract information about design characteristics and outcome measures (432 outcomes in total). A risk of bias assessment examined the extent to which the design and conduct of studies were likely to have minimised bias. All studies had at least one area with high risk of bias, as is typically the case in education research where participants can't be blinded to the treatment group.
What the evidence tells us
Although not a feature of the systematic review, we know that students can experience heightened stress and anxiety and other mental health conditions triggered by crises, like the COVID-19 pandemic. The review highlights five key findings to assist schools in supporting students through these challenging times. As a guide, a reported impact of 0.04 is considered low impact, 0.19 moderate and high impacts are above 0.45 (Education Endowment Foundation, 2020; Evidence for Learning, 2020).
1. Student wellbeing programs improve academic outcomes
Students who received wellbeing interventions gained up to four months in learning (effect size: 0.31) compared to students in the control group, who were engaged in usual activities (Dix et al., 2020). There were positive impacts across all intervention types, which tells us that wellbeing approaches that schools implement make a difference to students' mental health.
Of all the interventions examined, those that are likely to have higher impacts on both wellbeing and academic outcomes are those that foster school belonging, mentoring and social-emotional skills.
An impact map developed by ACER shows the estimated effects of the interventions on student academic and wellbeing outcomes.
2. Evidence highlights four success implementation factors
As highlighted in the key messages infographic, programs with the best evidence share common ingredients for effective implementation of wellbeing approaches which include:
- having shorter programs of up to one school term to make them manageable with competing curriculum priorities;
- being delivered over a number of regular sessions to incrementally build student capacity;
- having the skills explicitly taught by a classroom teacher trained to deliver the program to build teacher capacity first; and,
- using a universal approach that raise awareness and builds the whole-school community, including school leaders, teachers, students, and their families.
3. Teachers play an essential role in their capacity to influence students' wellbeing, but professional learning is crucial
Programs delivered by trained teachers who received professional learning can be as effective, if not better, than those delivered by expert professionals. The evidence suggests that teachers who were trained to deliver the program to students (making students the ‘indirect' recipients of the program) were marginally more effective in impacting academic outcomes than those delivered by expert professionals directly. ‘Indirect' programs had a greater positive impact on wellbeing outcomes (effect size: 0.18) compared to ‘direct' programs (effect size: 0.16) led by expert professionals. This highlights teachers' vital role and capacity in influencing students' wellbeing.
4. Disadvantaged students benefit most from programs that are differentiated and tailored to meet their needs
The evidence suggests that a combination of universal, whole-school programs supported by targeted approaches are effective, particularly for disadvantaged students who may have additional needs that require tailored support. Importantly, targeted support had the greatest impact on students' wellbeing outcomes (effect size: 0.27), helping to reduce anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions that may reduce wellbeing in the longer term.
5. Different settings of student groups may have influence on academic and wellbeing outcomes
The programs reviewed in this study involved students in various settings – ranging from individual to small groups and whole-school activities conducted through the curriculum at the classroom level. Those that were delivered to students in medium group sizes – from 11 to classroom size – had the largest impact on academic outcomes (effect size: 0.24), but results showed that small group settings – less than 11 – had marginally greater impact on wellbeing outcomes (effect size: 0.27).
School actions and next steps
Emerging from this evidence are three actions for schools to consider when planning student wellbeing program and support. While these actions are not new, their emergence from the comprehensive review process gives new significance to their effectiveness.
1. Prioritise school belonging and connectedness
A student's sense of belonging at school is influenced by the relationships they form with others around them, not just in school but also their family and the community. To do this, schools should consider systemic whole-community practices that include:
- shared understanding and communication with families and the community on school priorities for wellbeing, learning, and connection;
- awareness-raising programs that provide support and resources for students and families;
- teacher capacity-building in supporting student and families' needs;
- resources that support the learning and development of social-emotional skills through the curriculum;
- parent involvement in setting expectations and goals for catching up on learning and in striving for learning improvement more generally; and,
- encouraging peer-led approaches and student voice, so that students feel valued and engaged about their learning.
2. Provide targeted support to students with additional needs
It is important to identify students who are most at risk of social exclusion, and provide targeted support. In the wake of this pandemic, safe and inclusive opportunities for social support and check-ins could help teachers respond to immediate needs and establish rapport and trust during the transition back to school.
In the mid- to longer-term, schools could consider partnering with specialist staff from the community to provide targeted support for students, as well as support for teachers.
3. Set time and opportunities for building teacher capacity in wellbeing support
One of the clear findings from the review is that teachers have an influence in their role and capacity to lead and improve student wellbeing outcomes. However, we can only be confident of this result if teachers themselves are coping, and are properly trained to deliver these programs effectively. There are many priorities for schools as students return to school sites, but students' wellbeing is as important as literacy and numeracy skills.
Better evidence to improve student wellbeing
It is noteworthy to highlight that only one Australian study of a wellbeing intervention was included in this systematic review. While there is a plethora of wellbeing programs available in Australia, this indicates that we need to prioritise the robust evaluation of programs that show promise or those that are widely used.
As we improve wellbeing for students, more robust evidence is needed to identify effective features of programs and approaches. As this is still work in progress, schools should ensure that approaches they implement are monitored to understand the nature of changes that lead to improved outcomes over time.
The authors of this article will be sharing more details about this work at a free webinar on 10 November, 2020.
Bryant, R., Waters, E. , Gibbs, L., Gallagher, H. C., Pattison, P., Lusher, D., MacDougall, C., Harms, L., Block, K., Sinnott, V., Ireton, G., Richardson, J. & Forbes, D. (2014). Psychological outcomes following the Victorian Black Saturday bushfires. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 48(7), 634–643. https://doi.org/10.1177/0004867414534476
Bryant, R. A., Gibbs, L., Gallagher, H. C., Pattison, P., Lusher, D., MacDougall, C., Harms, L., Block, K., Sinnott, V., Ireton, G., Richardson, J. & Forbes, D. (2018). Longitudinal study of changing psychological outcomes following the Victorian Black Saturday bushfires. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 52(6), 542–551. https://doi.org/10.1177/0004867417714337
Dix, K., Ahmed, S. K., Carslake, T., Sniedze-Gregory, S., O'Grady, E., & Trevitt, J. (2020). Student health and wellbeing: A systematic review of intervention research examining effective student wellbeing in schools and their academic outcomes. Main report and executive summary. Evidence for Learning. https://www.evidenceforlearning.org.au/assets/Uploads/Main-Report-Student-Health-and-Wellbeing-Systematic-Review-FINAL-25-Sep-2020.pdf
Education Endowment Foundation. (2020). DIY Evaluation Guide. https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/modals/help/projects/the-eefs-months-progress-measure/
Evidence for Learning. (2020). About the Toolkits. https://evidenceforlearning.org.au/the-toolkits/about/
Gibbs, L., Nursey, J., Cook, J., Ireton, G., Alkemade, N., Roberts, M., Gallagher, H.C., Bryant, R., Block, K., Molyneaux, R. & Forbes, D. (2019). Delayed Disaster Impacts on Academic Performance of Primary School Children. Child Development, 90(4), 1402-1412. https://doi.org/10.1111/cdev.13200
OECD. (2017). PISA 2015 Results (Volume III): Students' Well-Being. OECD Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264273856-en
Taylor, R. D., Oberle, E., Durlak, J. A., & Weissberg, R. P. (2017). Promoting positive youth development through school‐based social and emotional learning interventions: A meta‐analysis of follow‐up effects. Child development, 88(4), 1156-1171.
What is your whole-community approach to supporting school belonging and connectedness?
How are teachers trained and supported to implement planned strategies and interventions to support students’ wellbeing?
How do you determine if some students require additional support with their wellbeing? What data collection sources do you have in place?