Guest post: How can we improve the happiness and wellbeing of children in the UK?

Georgina Clarke from the social enterprise New Approaches is passionate about the wellbeing of children in schools and believes more can and should be done to improve it. She has written this guest post to outline her thinking and suggest ways she believes education could use the field of Positive Psychology to improve outcomes, especially for some of the most vulnerable children…

Apparently the UK is getting better at addressing child wellbeing.  We are now ranked at 16 out of 29 developing countries according to the latest UNICEF report (BBC April 2013 reporting on UNICEF wellbeing report).  We were bottom of the ranking table in 2007.  

So why do our children have low levels of wellbeing and what can we do about it?  And what do they do in other countries who rank higher than us, that we can model over in the UK?

A report by UNICEF in 2011 compared life for children between the ages of 8 to 13 in Sweden, Spain and the UK and found that

“The message from them all was simple, clear and unanimous: their well-being centres on time with a happy, stable family, having good friends and plenty of things to do, especially outdoors.”

While true, we believe there are ample grounds to argue that the contribution of schools and caring teachers have a major capacity to influence and develop well-being in the young.

Sweden and Spain in 2011 had higher levels of reported wellbeing than children in the UK.  The UNICEF report found that the UK struggled more with issues of inequality and materialism than Spain and Sweden.  For instance families in the UK struggled to find time with their children, children were less able to continue with activities they enjoyed in secondary school and children from poorer families in the UK were less likely to be able to access activities.

New research by Ipsos MORI for UNICEF UK has shown that children in the UK feel trapped in a “materialistic culture” and don’t have enough time with their families. © UNICEF 2011

According to Carol Ryff (1989) who has defined wellbeing, there are six categories of wellbeing as follows:

  • self-acceptance
  • the establishment of quality ties to other
  • a sense of autonomy in thought and action
  • the ability to manage complex environments to suit personal needs and values
  • the pursuit of meaningful goals and a sense of purpose in life
  • continued growth and development as a person

We feel that although it is good that the UK is now measuring wellbeing, more needs to happen to increase wellbeing.  The UK government’s measures 10 domains of wellbeing including areas such as having a job and being in education.  And whilst it is true that employment and wellbeing are linked, more focus needs to be placed on individual and subjective wellbeing.  Many people are stressed at work or hate their job and although in a job, their wellbeing is low and they are prone to stress and depression.

Positive Psychology includes areas such as the development of human strengths, building optimism, hope and resilience, increasing positive emotions such as joy and gratitude, mindfulness, the journey of change and happiness, wellbeing and flourishing.

For increasing children’s wellbeing, positive change needs to happen in schools and in families.  We feel that improving policies on a national level and improving support and intervention on the ground are equally important.

It is promising that the government is investing in the wellbeing agenda. The Office for National Statistics is measuring national wellbeing, and the Cabinet Office is working on the implications for policy. Cabinet Office is particularly working with other government departments and interested in approaches to improving wellbeing.

We feel that Ofsted need to do more in terms of focussing on wellbeing within their inspections.  We have contacted Ofsted about this as we still feel that schools are pressurised to deliver academic targets.  The response signposted us to the Ofsted framework which includes spiritual, moral, social and cultural development.  However, we still want to understand how Ofsted are inspecting the impact of wellbeing initiatives on areas such as academic achievement and encouraging schools to invest and measure wellbeing.

On the ground there is a lot schools can do to increase children’s wellbeing.

To start our advice would be; involve pupils in the solution, and staff, and parents.  Create a happiness and wellbeing policy. Get governors on board and consider changing the schools ethos and vision.  Facilitate discussions around happiness and wellbeing.   Use the Values in Attitude (free online) to outline of 24 strengths to identify and apply organisational and individual strengths.  What strengths are important in your organisation and are there any that could do with more attention?  For instance how strongly does kindness feature in your school?   Are staff role modelling kindness?

Also how resilient are the staff, parents and pupils and how do the adults role model resilience and optimism to the children?  How can we support less resilient individuals by either building resilience or compensating with strengths approaches?  How can we create more optimistic and hopeful thinking styles which lead to increased resilience?

How can we value children’s unique strengths more at school?    Our answer would be; by celebrating strengths and focussing more on building strengths than weaknesses.  A child may have a strength of creativity, humour or social intelligence and these strengths should be nurtured and encouraged to grow.

By using the Ryff wellbeing tools or other similar tools, schools can start to build evidence to show how investment in wellbeing impacts on areas such as friendships, relationships and self-acceptance and also by measuring how increasing wellbeing impacts on other outcomes such as academic success.  Support needs to be extended to staff and parents where possible so they can role model to the children.

If we are going to increase our wellbeing, give children dreams to pursue and encourage them to be the best they can be, using their strengths to the full, then the adults need to role model to the pupils.  Strengths spotting in ourselves and others is a great way to bring out the best in yourself and those around you and enable a strengths based culture.

We challenge schools to move towards strengths led models and empower children to understand what makes them happy, how they can use their strengths and ultimately to flourish.

Perhaps our materialistic and target oriented culture is the reason inequalities are so apparent in the UK compared to other countries?  We seem to value the children who fit in with a specific set of rules.  Socially excluded children are sometimes getting a raw deal and not feeling valued by adults and agendas such as Narrowing the Gap and Pupil Premium could benefit from a focus on increasing and measuring wellbeing.

Perhaps also parents are caught up in social comparison, striving to buy the best car or house or gadgets or to make sure Jonny can go to tennis lessons, when actually investing time in playing tennis with Jonny or working less and spending more time with children which will help them to be happier in the long term.  I am told by my French friend that social comparison to such an extent, is a British trait, and does not happen to the same extent in France.

Positive Psychology can help to harness children’s strengths into adulthood so they don’t forget in years to come what they loved as a child but continue doing it as an adult.  We want children to learn the message that they are loved and valued by us whatever strengths they bring.  We want to celebrate, for example, the child with Aspergers who has a strength of honesty even if sometimes we see this as tactless or the child who is restless and active, but who is particularly good at sport or has lots of creative ideas which means it’s hard for them to sit still.

And this approach is evidence based.  There is growing research in the field of positive psychology that resilience and strengths do ultimately lead us to successful performance targets;  targets such as academic success, reduced anti-social behaviour and increased attendance and access to learning do improve with investment in happiness and wellbeing.

“We change the world by tiny individual acts of honesty, courage, kindness and integrity, by celebrating our own strengths, just a little more each day, and helping others to do the same.” – Jenny Foxes Eades

At New Approaches we seek to enable positive social change by increasing happiness and wellbeing and work with partners with similar goals to increase the UK’s wellbeing.  We work with schools, businesses, public and private sector organisations and offer strengths and resilience training, wellbeing projects and community engagement.

You can learn more at the New Approaches website or follow on Twitter @newapproaches

Please let us know what you think of Georgina’s article and her thoughts on positive psychology and children’s wellbeing via Twitter or the comments below…

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Categories: Guest Post.


  1. hramilne

    SchoolsImprove Excellent article! Small acts of kindness, integrity and optimism modelled by teachers can make big changes to pupil esteem.

  2. Sarah__Carley

    SchoolsImprove simple let them be children! Stop containing them behind a desk and let them play explore and have FUN!

  3. Kaz4Wokingham

    markashwelluk newapproaches Most of our kids must never afford a family home. There actually is no hope for 80% of a life like ours.

    • newapproaches

      Kaz4Wokingham markashwelluk agree poverty not good for Wellbeing. Research shows strengths work most effective with very unhappy youths

      • Kaz4Wokingham

        newapproaches markashwelluk as innovation reduces need for labour we must innovate wealth distribution and work. #Right2Work4Necessities

  4. adam_voigt

    PositiveSchool Zite newapproaches Good article. Collective strengths important too. Relationship strength (qual over quan) critical.

  5. lesleyarussell

    Really good article and well written. So important to focus and identify strengths in kids, so that they can develop them on a conscious level and learn to identify strengths in others. To harness self belief and confidence at such young ages will create much more confidence in adulthood. Kids and adults; are happy when they feel successful whether that is in relationships, work, school or within themselves. I would like to think happiness facilitates kindness which facilitates happiness…This article is really refreshing as this topic is in my view, is always left behind results, stats, exams and parrot fashion learning

  6. jellico1915

    actionhappiness I couldn’t agree more: for children to flourish, we need a school system focused on wellbeing & values as well as learning

    • Lisa_Welbourn

      SchNurseDerby yes I’m at leadership event. C u there? Should get to see some innovative technology to support healthcare incl. some tablets

  7. TeaLadyJune

    Send them all to live in lovely rural areas or by the stress-relieving sea! Oh, wait, let me think it through, A*-C scores! SchoolsImprove

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