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Wellbeing by acronym: Simplifying the complex?

Annie Gowing, University of Melbourne

Among the few shared understandings of the concept of wellbeing are that it is complex, multidimensional and eludes easy definition and measurement. As research and policy attention have gathered around young people’s wellbeing in general, and their wellbeing within the school setting in particular, efforts to better articulate the meaning of wellbeing have made halting progress (McLeod & Wright, 2016). Within education, Thomas, Graham, and Powell (2016) identify the mismatch between how wellbeing is understood by teachers and students and how it is understood in policy. Their analysis of national, state and local education frameworks in Australia reveals that ‘despite the increased attention to wellbeing, there is little specific wellbeing-focused education policy, a lack of conceptual clarity, and a fragmented approach to implementation’ (Thomas, Graham, & Powell, 2016, p. 507). Nevertheless, within this splintered and undertheorised policy landscape, there has been a proliferation of frameworks and programmes designed to address wellbeing outcomes in schools. The acronymic approach has been favoured with examples including PERMA, PERMAH, RULER, PROSPER, TREAT, YAP, PACES, YAM and PLAY to name a few.

What work are schools doing as they carry these alphabetised frameworks into the pedagogical, relational and spatial domains of their communities?

Shoehorning a complex construct such as wellbeing into a one-word title may strike the cynical as a clever marketing ploy, easily adopted in schools, and appealing in its apparent conceptual accessibility to students, staff and parents. As an example, the PERMA components of positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment are unlikely to cause controversy among school communities. What school does not want to nurture positive emotions and engagement; foster relationships; prioritise meaning and accomplishment in young people’s lives? There are more pertinent questions, however, to ask in the face of this acronymic colonisation of wellbeing. What practices underpin these concepts? What work are schools doing as they carry these alphabetised frameworks into the pedagogical, relational and spatial domains of their communities? How might a PERMA school differ from a school that has not badged itself in this way? Wellbeing has recently been described as ‘a wicked problem’ (Svane, Evans, & Carter, 2019), belying the apparent easy fit that frameworks can suggest. The alternative is not to default to the convenient disclaimer that one size doesn’t fit all; this stance can be a free pass to inaction, calling into service the differentness of each school and the resultant need for bespoke responses which can outstrip the resources of many schools. The way forward lies somewhere in between these two positions, as the uniqueness of schools does require local responses that take into account aspects such as the sociocultural factors within each community, but also most frameworks do address key wellbeing domains that if attended to are likely to yield some benefit to students.

Finding the balance has challenges. Wellbeing frameworks run the risk of leaching the complexity out of the concept, reducing it to a set of discrete factors which are the product of a gaze that has mapped the wellbeing terrain in a particular way. At the same time, frameworks, by their very nature, can isolate wellbeing from the rest of school business. This splintering can reinforce a view that teaching and learning, and wellbeing are separate endeavours with wellbeing often relegated to a position subordinate to the ‘real’ work of schools. This view is captured in a report from the Grattan Institute, an Australian public policy think tank, which observed that ‘We cannot expect teachers to lift our students to the world’s best while also insisting they spend time on yard duty, pastoral care, and supervising extra-curricular activities’ (Jensen, Hunter, Sonnemann, & Cooper, 2014, p. 3).

Wellbeing work in schools requires a broader and deeper conceptualisation and response than that provided by the contained parameters of most frameworks, which simply cannot capture the intricate crosshatching of teaching, learning and wellbeing experiences and opportunities in schools. So? Hello complexity, goodbye simplicity; or to put it another way welcome to IOWA – I’m over wellbeing acronyms.

References

Jensen, B., Hunter, J., Sonnemann, J., & Cooper, S. (2014). Making time for great teaching. Retrieved from https://grattan.edu.au/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/808-making-time-for-great-teaching.pdf.

McLeod, J., & Wright, K. (2016). What does wellbeing do? An approach to defamiliarize keywords in youth studies. Journal of Youth Studies, 19(6), 776–792. doi:10.1080/13676261.2015.1112887.

Svane, D., Evans, N., & Carter, M.-A. (2019). Wicked wellbeing: Examining the disconnect between the rhetoric and reality of wellbeing interventions in schools. Australian Journal of Education, 63(2), 209–231. doi:10.1177/0004944119843144.

Thomas, N., Graham, A., & Powell, M. A. (2016). Conceptualisations of children’s wellbeing at school: The contribution of recognition theory. Childhood, 23(4), 506–520. doi:10.1177/0907568215622802.