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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
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The state of student social and emotional health

Australian Scholarships Group

The following article has been prepared from edited extracts of The ASG Student Social and Emotional Health Report and a summary of the report available on the website of the Australian Scholarships Group.

Student social and emotional health is an important area of growing focus within the community, government and educational sectors. At federal, state and school levels, student well-being policies are being formulated and funding is being provided to promote positive emotional and social outcomes for all students. Schools are increasingly being held responsible for putting in place plans, programs and practices to promote positive student social and emotional health and to prevent problems of poor mental health.

In this context the Australian Scholarships Group (ASG) has commissioned and funded The ASG Student Social and Emotional Health Report as part of its ongoing contribution to supporting children’s education. International researcher Professor Michael E Bernard, from the Faculty of Education, University of Melbourne, co-authored the report in conjunction with Andrew Stephanou and Daniel Urbach from the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER).

The report finds that social and emotional well-being of young people is a product of internal factors such as resilience, learning capabilities and social skills, and the external influences of school, home and the community. The report also makes a series of recommendations, addressing policies, programs and practices for improving the social and emotional health of all students.

The survey

Evidence was collected for the report through a survey conducted by the ACER between 2003 and 2007, which sought teachers’ perceptions and students’ self-perceptions of student social and emotional well-being. The survey involved 11,526 students in schools covering all Australian States and the Northern Territory. Students from all grades were surveyed. Teachers supplied data on 6,860 students in 73 of these same schools (in eight schools, teachers did not complete any surveys). Almost three-fifths of the students were boys. An index of Socio-Economic Status (SES) was assigned to each student based on the postcode area of the student's school. Overall, the SES of students in the sample was higher than that found in the general population.

A summary of the findings

  • Large percentages of students experience social and emotional difficulties.
  • Social and emotional health decreases from primary to secondary school.
  • Six different levels of student social and emotional well-being have been identified. Each level of social and emotional well-being can be described by different internal social and emotional characteristics (resilience, positive social orientation, positive work orientation) and environmental characteristics (positive adults, peers and programs in school, home and community).
  • Students with lower levels of social and emotional wellbeing are likely to experience many negative emotions and behaviours. They are likely to demonstrate few social and emotional capabilities (low resilience, learning capabilities and social skills and values) and perceive few positive actions on the part of adults, peers and youth-oriented programs in their schools, homes and communities.
  • Teachers perceive student social and emotional well-being differently to the students themselves.
  • Specific social and emotional characteristics that tend to accompany different childhood problems are reported. For example, students who bully tend to have difficulty in thinking before they act when angry.
  • Approximately half of the students who bully have high self-esteem.
  • Girls’ overall social and emotional well-being is higher than that of boys.
  • Surveyed teachers perceived that students from the highest 10% socio-economic level had significantly higher levels of social and emotional well-being than students from the lowest 25% socio-economic level.
  • Social and emotional competence is a vital contributor to student social and emotional well-being.
  • Evidence clearly links positive parenting to higher levels of social and emotional well-being in children.

Teacher and student perceptions of student wellbeing

Students were found to rate themselves higher in many negative emotional indicators (lose temper, worry, stress) than they were rated by teachers. Teachers rate the incidence of under-achievement higher in students than do students.

In terms of resilience, teachers rate students higher in their ability to manage their emotions than do students. In the area of positive work orientation, students and teachers are close to agreement in their perceptions of students’ work disorganisation and pessimism when tackling difficult work. However, teachers rate students’ work confidence and effort considerately lower than students rate themselves.

Overall, there are more agreements in perceptions of teachers and students concerning different social and emotional capabilities than differences.

Considerations for governments, parents, schools and communities

Almost 50% of students perceive they are not learning about their feelings and how to manage stress, while 40% say they are not learning about how to make friends or solve interpersonal problems. However, for many schools, academic achievement still remains at the core of school mission statements with social and emotional learning and well-being relegated to student welfare and pastoral care.

High levels of student social and emotional well-being are associated with parents who are not only actively involved in their children’s lives but who spend time discussing the skills they need to both understand and manage emotions, including coping with stress, making friends and managing conflicts. At Federal, State and local levels, greater efforts are needed to strengthen school-home links, so that parents can have ongoing access to effective parenting practices.

It is also clear that teachers are important contributors to student social and emotional well-being and that there is now a collection of good teaching practices that support student well-being. Student social and emotional learning and well-being should become an integral part of initial teacher training and ongoing teacher professional learning and development programs.

Intervention programs for individual students with low levels of social and emotional well-being should identify ways that they can be better connected to positive adults in the community, develop stronger connection with their family as well as strengthen their connection with teachers and programs at school. Increasingly, student support programs feature a team consisting of personnel responsible for student welfare, teachers, specialist staff, parents and, when necessary, members of community organisations and agencies.

Schools where many students have low levels of social and emotional well-being need to work in close partnership with community members, organisations and agencies to help strengthen the links between ‘at risk’ students and their families, support services, positive programs and adults outside of the home and school.

Boys’ levels of achievement and behavioural problems can be partly explained by the lower levels of social and emotional well-being of boys relative to girls. To close the gender gap in achievement and provide full equity and access for boys, the report advocates a broad-based approach that includes strengthening community, school and home practices that meet the unique learning style, sex-role identity and social-emotional needs of boys.

The report also recommends that State and Territory governments collect annual data on the various domains of student social and emotional well-being, and that the results are used to guide government as well as school planning and decision making.


Subject Headings

Educational evaluation
Child development