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Schools are not just places where students acquire academic skills, they also help students become more resilient in the face of adversity, feel more connected with the people around them, and aim higher in their aspirations for their future.
Not least, schools are the first place where children experience society in all its facets and their experiences can have a profound influence on their attitudes and behaviour in life.
PISA (the Programme for International Student Assessment) is best known for its data on learning outcomes, but it also studies students’ satisfaction with life, their relationships with peers, teachers and parents and how they spend their time outside of school.
The results show that students differ greatly, both between and within countries, in how satisfied they are with their lives, their motivation to achieve, how anxious they feel about their schoolwork, their expectations for the future, and their perceptions of being bullied at school or treated unfairly by their teachers.
Students in some of the countries that top the PISA league tables in science and maths report comparatively low satisfaction with life; but Finland, the Netherlands and Switzerland seem able to combine good learning outcomes and high satisfaction with life. It is tempting to equate low levels of life satisfaction in East Asia or elsewhere to long study hours, but the data show no relationship between the time students spend studying, whether in or outside of school, and their satisfaction with life. And while educators often argue that anxiety is the natural consequence of testing overload, the frequency of tests are also unrelated to students’ level of school-related anxiety.
There are other factors that make a difference to student wellbeing and much comes down to teachers, parents and schools.
Positive relationships with teachers
For a start, PISA finds that one major threat to students’ feelings of belonging at school are their perceptions of negative relationships with their teachers. Happier students tend to report positive relations with their teachers and students in ‘happy’ schools (schools where students’ life satisfaction is above the average in the country) report much higher levels of support from their teacher than students in ‘unhappy’ schools.
On average across countries, students who reported that their teacher is willing to provide help and is interested in their learning are also about 1.3 times more likely to feel that they belong at school. Conversely, students who reported some unfair treatment by their teachers were 1.7 times more likely to report feeling isolated at school. This is important, particularly in countries like Australia where students’ sense of belonging in schools is lower than in many countries. Teenagers look for strong social ties and value acceptance, care and support from others. Adolescents who feel that they are part of a school community are more likely to perform better academically and be more motivated in school.
‘Belonging’ and behaviour management
There are also big differences between countries on these measures. An average of three quarters of students feel they belong at school, and in some of the highest performing education systems, including Chinese Taipei, Japan, the Netherlands, Vietnam, Finland, Korea, Estonia and Singapore that share is even higher. But in France it is just 41 per cent. In Australia, too, it is below the average. In some countries, there are also large differences among students from different home backgrounds and in 23 countries and economies, students without an immigrant background reported a stronger sense of belonging than immigrant students, even after accounting for socio-economic status.
Of course, most teachers care about having positive relationships with their students, but some teachers may be insufficiently prepared to deal with difficult students and classroom environments. Effective classroom management consists of far more than establishing and imposing rules, rewards and incentives to control behaviour, it involves practices and instructional techniques to create a learning environment that facilitates and supports active engagement in learning, encourages co-operation and promotes behaviour that benefits other people.
A stronger focus on classroom and relationship management in professional development may give teachers better means to connect with their students and support their engagement at school. Teachers should also be better supported to collaborate and exchange information about students’ difficulties, character and strengths with their colleagues, so that they can collectively find the best approach to make students feel part of the school community.
Students’ perceptions of testing
While it is not the frequency of testing that affects student wellbeing, students’ perception of tests as threatening has a clear influence on how anxious students feel about tests. On average across OECD countries, 59 per cent of students reported that they often worry that taking a test will be difficult, and 66 per cent reported that they worry about poor grades. Some 55 per cent of students say they are very anxious for a test even if they are well prepared, and in Australia that share is close to 70 per cent, and very high even among the top performing students.
Also here PISA suggests that there is much teachers can do about this: Even after accounting for students’ performance, gender and socioeconomic status, students who said their teacher adapts the lesson to the class’s needs and knowledge were less likely to report feeling anxious when they are well prepared for a test, or to report that they get very tense when they study. Students were also less likely to report anxiety if the science teacher provides individual help when they are struggling.
The impact of negative teacher-student relationships
By contrast, negative teacher-student relations seem to undermine students’ confidence and lead to greater anxiety: On average across countries, students are about 62 per cent more likely to get very tense when they study, and about 31 per cent more likely to feel anxious before a test if they perceive that their teacher thinks they are less smart than they really are.
Such anxiety may be students’ reaction to, and interpretation of, the mistakes they make – or are afraid to make. Students may internalise mistakes as evidence that they are not smart enough. So teachers need to know how to help students develop a good understanding of their strengths and weaknesses, and an awareness of what they can do to overcome or mitigate their weaknesses.
More frequent assessments that start with easier goals and gradually increase in difficulty can also help build students’ sense of control, as can opportunities for students to demonstrate their skills in low-stakes tests before taking an assessment that counts. It is noteworthy that in all countries, girls reported greater schoolwork-related anxiety than boys; and anxiety about schoolwork, homework and tests is negatively related to performance. The fear of making mistakes on a test often disrupts the performance of top-performing girls who ‘choke under pressure’.
Parental involvement and life satisfaction
Last but not least, parents can make a big difference too. Students whose parents reported ‘spending time just talking to my child’, ‘eating the main meal with my child around a table’ or ‘discussing how well my child is doing at school’ daily or nearly every day were between 22 per cent and 39 per cent more likely to report high levels of life satisfaction.
‘Spending time just talking’ is the parental activity most frequently and most strongly associated with students’ life satisfaction. And it seems to matter for performance too: Students whose parents reported ‘spending time just talking’ were two-thirds of a school-year ahead in science learning, and even after accounting for social background the advantage remains at one-third of a school year. The results are similar for eating meals with the children. The strength of this relationship is well beyond the impact of most school resources and school factors measured by PISA.
Students’ perceptions of how interested their parents are in them and in their school life is also related to their own attitudes towards education and their motivation to study, and those relationships are particularly strong among low-performing students.
Parents can also help children manage test anxiety by encouraging them to trust in their ability to accomplish various academic tasks. PISA results show that, even after accounting for differences in performance and socio-economic status, girls who perceive that their parents encourage them to be confident in their abilities were 21 per cent less likely to report that they feel tense when they study, on average across OECD countries.
Most parents also want their children to be motivated at school, and motivated students tend to do better at school: On average, students who are among the most motivated score more than a school year higher in PISA than the least motivated students. Achievement motivation is also related to life satisfaction in a mutually reinforcing way. Students who are highly satisfied with their life tend to have greater resiliency and are more tenacious in the face of academic challenges. A greater motivation to achieve, paired with realised achievements, may give students a sense of purpose in life. That may explain why students with greater motivation to achieve reported higher satisfaction with life.
But, there can also be downsides to achievement motivation, particularly when this motivation is a response to external pressure. PISA results show that countries where students are highly motivated to achieve also tend to be the countries where many students feel anxious about a test, even if they are well prepared for it. Both teachers and parents need to find ways to encourage students’ motivation to learn and achieve without generating an excessive fear of failure.
All in all, a clear way to promote students’ wellbeing is to encourage all parents to be more involved with their children’s interests and concerns, show interest in their school life, and be more aware of the challenges children face at school.
Schools and parents in partnership
Schools can create an environment of co-operation with parents and communities. Teachers can be given better tools to enlist parents’ support, and schools can address some critical deficiencies of disadvantaged children, such as the lack of a quiet space for studying. If parents and teachers establish relationships based on trust, schools can rely on parents as valuable partners in the cognitive and socio-emotional education of their students.
For many parents, spending time just talking to their child is a rare occurrence; others find it difficult to participate in their children’s school life. These difficulties may be related to inflexible work schedules, lack of childcare services, or language barriers. But schools can do a lot to help parents overcome these barriers. They can first try to identify those parents who may be unable to participate in school activities. They can open flexible channels of communication, such as scheduled phone or video calls, which are simple, but effective, solutions to accommodate busy parents who cannot easily leave work to attend school meetings. Governments can also take action by providing incentives to employers who adopt policies to improve the work-life balance.
Data on bullying
Perhaps the most distressing threat to student wellbeing is bullying, and it can have serious consequences for the victim, the bully and the bystanders.
Bullying can be inflicted directly, through physical (hitting, punching or kicking) and verbal (name-calling or mocking) abuse. And then there is relational bullying, where some children are ignored, excluded from games or parties, rejected by peers, or are the victims of gossip and other forms of public humiliation and shaming. PISA highlights a significant prevalence of all these forms, and Australia is among the countries with the highest prevalence of bullying.
On average across OECD countries: around 11 per cent of students reported that they are frequently (at least a few times per month) made fun of, and in Australia this is 15 percent; 7 per cent reported that they are frequently left out of things and this is close to 13 per cent in Australia, and 8 per cent reported that they are frequently the object of nasty rumours in school. And around 4 per cent of students – roughly one per class – reported that they are hit or pushed at least a few times per month, a percentage that varies from 1 per cent to 9.5 per cent across countries, with Australian students (at 6 per cent) at the high end as well.
Students who are frequently bullied may feel constantly insecure and on guard, and have clear difficulties finding their place at school. They tend to feel unaccepted and isolated and, as a result, are often withdrawn: On average across OECD countries, 42 per cent of students who reported that they are frequently bullied – but only 15 per cent of students who reported that they are not frequently bullied – reported feeling like an outsider at school.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to preventing bullying. What emerges clearly from the PISA data, however, is that schools must do more to foster an environment of safety, tolerance and respect for children. A coordinated, international analysis of existing strategies and support mechanisms can shed light on what schools can do in the difficult struggle to assure students’ safety at school, and what national and local authorities can do to support schools in this effort.
Involving the whole school community
Schools must work for more effective anti-bullying programmes, follow a whole-of-school approach that includes training for teachers on bullying behaviour and how to handle it, and develop strategies to provide information to and engage with parents. Teachers need to communicate to students that they will not tolerate any form of bullying; and parents need to be involved in school planning and responses to bullying. In fact, victimisation of bullying is less frequently reported by students who said that their parents support them when they face difficulties at school. And yet, only 44 per cent of the parents of frequently bullied students reported that they had exchanged ideas on parenting, family support, or the child’s development with teachers over the previous academic year.
The challenges to the wellbeing of students are many, and there are no simple solutions. But the findings from PISA show how teachers, schools and parents can make a real difference. Together they can attend to students' psychological and social needs and help them develop a sense of control over their life and the resilience they need to be successful in life.
OECD (2017), PISA 2015 Results (Volume III): Students’ Well-Being, PISA, OECD Publishing, Paris. http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264273856-en