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The Concept of Wellbeing

Wellbeing discourses related to children and young people are on the rise in research but also in policy and practice. Often, the construct is used as a measure of quality of life referring to a wide range of phenomena, social dynamics, socioeconomic indicators and subjective experiences. These draw upon different disciplines - from education, psychology and philosophy, to youth studies, economics, social welfare and political studies. The popularity of the concept and the taken-for-granted, self-evident reference to health, happiness and prosperity that it denotes however, does not mean that the concept is uncontested. On the contrary, critical theoretically and empirically sound examinations of the concept of wellbeing related to children and young people are surprisingly rare, particularly in relation to schooling.  

On the surface and in the everyday use, ‘wellbeing’ is a relatively undisputed concept; it refers to being-well, that is, an optimal psychological experience and functioning. Not many (dare to) contest its importance and value, also for schools. It is also a relatively uncontested perception that wellbeing is closely intertwined with children and young people’s learning, school achievement, test scores, and motivation related to schooling. It is only natural that research-based school practices and policies attempt to endorse the transformative potential of the concept – that is, its’ potential to stimulate analytical and empirical work related to school development and improvement. At the same time, it is also natural that such (over)use of the concept can easily swing from being ‘transformative’ to being ‘tyrannical’, suggesting, for example, the dominance of a simplified ‘feel good’ agenda in schools.

The ‘feel good’ emphasis is one of ambiguities related to the concept of wellbeing in schools. There are more. The latest years have shown proliferation of research, theory development and empirical conceptualizations related to wellbeing of children and young people which, more often than not, assume an instrumental character and are based on deficit and/or monitoring and measurement approaches – focusing on, for example, preventing mental illness, school anger, alienation and disengagement, diminishing bullying and exclusion, or assisting pupils diagnosed with learning or other difficulties in the psychological or social domains. Along these lines various social technologies have been developed aimed at measurement, monitoring and comparison of wellbeing within and across countries (e.g. OECD, 2014).

In Denmark, a relatively new measurement framework has been created by the National Research Centre for Welfare on the basis of a number of existing national, municipal and international tests (SFI, 2014). The survey is established as a monitoring tool related to the Danish school reform (Danish Ministry of Education, 2014); all the pupils in primary and lower secondary public schools (age 6-16) in Denmark need to fill out the survey once a year, and schools/local authorities are obligated to follow up with educational developments and interventions promoting wellbeing and addressing eventual problems in this respect. Thus, with the school reform in Denmark, wellbeing, along with school achievement in the core subjects and the other strategies has entered the pool of neoliberal governing mechanisms in educational policy and practice, which has an avowed ambition, or intention, to be transformative (i.e. contribute to bettering the schools), but, arguably, also carries the risk of becoming hegemonic through the attempts to regulate children and young people’s schooling lives and embodied experiences.

While acknowledging that in some instances measurement and monitoring of wellbeing at schools can be useful, I argue that its value is limited if not informed by analytical/theoretical examination and refinement of the concept; this line of research, although existing (e.g. Soutter et al, 2012; Mcleod and Wright, 2016; Fattore et al, 2016), is scarce. Especially limited is research related to the perspectives, dreams, desires and premises of children and young people themselves, the ways in which these interact and are entangled with their lived experiences at school, as well as research that does not focus solely on individuals, or on the school environment, but aims to transcend the individual-context binaries and layer complexity in this respect. Some of the questions such research asks include: how is the concept of wellbeing in relation to educational experiences of children framed and what are the ontological, epistemological and methodological as well as ethical consequences of these framings? Whose definitions count – and whose do not (in terms of socioeconomic background, culture, religion, gender, ethnicity) when it comes to theorizing wellbeing, but also in enacting school policy and practices related to wellbeing? Who are the school organizational frames, strategies and interventions aimed to promote wellbeing good for? What are the interactions between and across the subjective domains of being, belonging and becoming, the social dynamics entangled with these domains in the everyday life of school and the situated experiences of children and young people?

Along with other scholars within this line of thought, I argue that the concept of wellbeing in schools needs to be considered in a socio-ecological perspective which treats wellbeing but also schools as complex systems which are emergent, adaptive, growth- minded, often surprising, and irreducible to its many parts (see also Soutter, Gilmore & O’Steen, 2011; Johnson, 2007), and embedded in socio-historical, cultural, political, discursive and physical-material contexts (Davis and Sumara, 2006; McLeod & Wright, 2016).

One of the consequences of this argument for educational research is the need to reconnect the wellbeing discourses with the features of the school environment and with educational purposes in more comprehensive ways, and ask different kinds of research questions. Rather than asking solely whether students thrive in school or not, it would be beneficial to engage in inquiring whether the whole-school environment and the totality of children’s experience at the school afford opportunities for students to critically reflect what wellbeing means to them, to navigate through and negotiate within the environments in which they live, play and learn with a view to realising, challenging and enacting their potentials, ambiguities and desires - and to do all this in a constant dialogue with others, in the context of plurality and difference.

The working model of school wellbeing within this perspective is presented in Figure 1. Rooted in the ‘Eudaimonic’ philosophical tradition (Aristotle) referring to life of meaning, purpose and virtue, it draws on the discussions of wellbeing as quality of life and mental health within the paradigm of health promotion (Raeburn and Rootman 1998; WHO, 1998; 2014) [see also the Health (Wellbeing) Promoting Schools] and Biesta’s (2014) theorizing on subjectification as one of the purposes of education. School wellbeing is conceptualized as a subjective sense of agency intertwined with the domains of being, belonging and becoming as they move along their schooling trajectories, becoming subjects of action and responsibility in the face of the unknown futures and through the meeting with others different from themselves.