By Leo Thompson, MA, MEd, CIS School Support and Evaluation Officer
In part three of my blog series to unpack well-being in international education (here’s part 1 and part 2), we welcome student voice and perspective as a mini-case study to shine a light on what’s truly important when it comes to their well-being.
Through a profoundly insightful conversation with students at a school group in Vietnam, we learn how it’s essential to include students in discussions around the impact of their well-being and mental health programmes and services at our schools and universities.
Without their input, how do we monitor impact and potentially improve them?
Demonstrating the value of student ‘voice’
The following mini case study aims to demonstrate the value of including student voice in a community approach to well-being and mental health.
Thank you to the Vinschools group in Vietnam for permitting me to interview their student representatives on this topic and amplify the student voice over our own.
They were interviewed via Zoom, and their responses were scaffolded by a follow-up survey.
If your school is not already doing so, I encourage you to take a similar consultative route with focused questions relevant to their context.
The big picture context for this student conversation:
- Our profession has direct and daily contact with the very people we are here to serve: our students. We are in the position to create an environment and opportunities for students to represent themselves and be heard. Do we do it enough?
- New findings from the International Taskforce for Child Protection underpin the importance of involving student voice in well-being and safeguarding.
- Using student voice is an expectation in core standards (E1, I2 (boarding) for CIS International Accreditation
Who were the focus group students, and what is their context?
Seven secondary age Vietnamese students (three boys, four girls) from a school within the Vinschools group in Vietnam.
Three questions were asked:
- What is well-being?
- How is your school supporting your well-being?
- How could your well-being be supported even more?
It is important to note that the school was learning online due to pandemic restrictions at the time of interview.
I had never met these students, had little experience with Vietnam, and had no previous relationship with the school.
I am a middle-aged British male living in mainland Europe. Before talking to students in and from Vietnam, at a school, a country, and a culture I was unfamiliar with … I had to actively suppress my ethnocentric assumptions.
Leaving my assumptions at the door made the interaction a particularly culturally insightful and personally fulfilling experience.
I hope you find their responses as illuminating as I did.
What is well-being?
Ha (she/her): For me, well-being is the state of being happy and believing that you deserve that happiness. I really hope people know they deserve happiness no matter what.
Shin (she/her): Well-being is a state where a person feels comfortable both physically and mentally. The main factors are safety, a supportive academic environment, and social interactions.
Khanh Minh (he/him): Emotional and physical health. Materialistic needs are adequately, or rather more than adequately, provided for comfort and being surrounded by supportive and caring individuals.
Rice (he/him): A person’s well-being can only be fulfilled when they feel safe, happy, and healthy (both physically and mentally). The dimensions are physical, mental and social.
Minh Ngoc (she/her): Well-being is like a term to describe the state of feeling happy to me. I believe that school well-being can start with small factors like food, relationships, or schoolwork.”
Tram (she/her): Well-being, for me, is inclusion and equality. I want to be included, and I want to be heard. It's important for everyone to respect the diversity of the world and acknowledge each person's identity, be it one's culture or one's preferred pronouns.
Duy Anh (he/him): Well-being is being comfortable at school or workplace, rate of happiness, caring about an individual's personal life, seeing if anyone needs help, having everyone in the conversation, celebrating uniqueness, individuality and valuing opinions.
Join us for a Mental Health & Well-being Workshop
22–24 November 2022 | Virtual
Learn how to embed a positive culture and create psychological safety for your community of students, staff, and faculty. You’ll be guided by experts in the field as you explore ways to empower and actively engage your community as they face everyday and emerging challenges. The sessions will be available on-demand in the weeks following so you can catch up or view again at your own convenience.
We'll keep our events page up to date with new dates and registration information for this workshop.
How is your school supporting your well-being?
Duy Anh (he/him):
- Having Google check-in forms.
- Having mental health advice rooms.
- Personal assistance from homeroom teachers, which I appreciate a lot.
- Having workshops and programs about well-being.
- Ensuring students who share their voices are heard.
- Vinschool inbox—you can email the school when you need help.
- The school allows me to choose my subjects when I'm in junior and senior year.
- As a girl who was born into a traditional family, I'm extremely grateful that I'm supported by the school because I've been given full access to any fields I want to pursue.
- Also, the teachers are very accessible and supportive. I feel that they really do care for my satisfaction at school.
- An up-to-the-mark physical education program.
- Promotes healthy eating habits by feeding students nutritious and healthy food,
- Mental health counselling room where students can come and seek professional help.
- Student mental health is checked up upon quite regularly.
- Mental well-being is also a prominent addition to our curriculum.
- In every class activity or project, teachers always encourage students to work in small groups or large teams as a catalyst for closer bonding.
- Extracurricular activities also encourage students to work with each other and maintain each other’s social well-being. This could be in the form of class competitions, sporting events, field trips.
Minh Ngoc (she/her):
- At Vinschool, we are able to study in a 'personalized learning' environment, which makes a huge difference.
- We learn how to focus on ourselves.
- We learn how to develop and improve ourselves without having peer pressure or jealousy from friends.
Kanh Minh (he/him):
- Our school has reliable places and individuals to help with well-being related issues.
- Conducts regular well-being surveys.
- Our school interacts with and listen to students’ voices.
- One of the most important things that the school has done to ensure our well-being is to create an environment where everyone has the right to speak. Moreover, when somebody speaks, the others stay quiet and respectful, according to the ’one person speaking’ rule. Therefore, students feel like what they are expressing is valid, that they are worthy of attention and respect despite their backgrounds. This boosts ‘Vinsers' confidence in their performance at school, particularly public speaking skills.
- In addition to that, Vinschool provides us with top-notch facilities, which really makes us feel comfortable and secure in our daily activities. Therefore, we can unlock our full potential without worrying about, say, power outages.
One of the most important things that the school has done to ensure our well-being is to create an environment where everyone has the right to speak. Moreover, when somebody speaks, the others stay quiet and respectful, according to the ‘one person speaking’ rule.
- Safety: The school is very careful with who appears inside our campus.
- We have written procedures and conducted stimulations for emergency situations.
- Supportive academic environment.
- Students can choose their own courses; the school doesn’t only focus on natural or social sciences but also the arts and developing students' soft (human) skills.
How could your well-being be supported even more?
Further food for thought.
The students interviewed suggest that Vinschools are demonstrating excellent practice in many areas and indicated some further opportunities to do more by:
- Further promoting well-being materials and resources.
- Encouraging hesitant students to reach out for support.
- Continuing to train teachers on well-being and how to spot a mental health issue.
- Having more events like Mental Health Day and Well-being Week to create further opportunities for students to take part in physical activities, socialize and practice mindfulness.
- Enhancing the physical environment by adding more furniture (for comfort) and using easy-on-the-eyes colour schemes (paint).
- Creating more areas for recreation and cool down and reducing grade-related anxiety through less stressful forms of assessments (for example peer assessments.
School should continue to train teachers on well-being and how to spot a mental health issue.
Five takeaways from these student discussions
- This school group is working hard to support student well-being in very challenging circumstances.
- Well-being is like a multifaceted precious jewel and can mean different things to different students.
- By gathering community perspective on what well-being is and how it is best supported, we can work towards a more inclusive approach to community well-being.
- It was a privilege to speak with these incredibly articulate students, demonstrating what a remarkable and humbling opportunity it is to be an educator.
- Students, namely their development and well-being, are not just the ambition of our profession; they are a terrific resource to improve it: we must find ways to hear their voices and include them in decision making.
Observations and insights
The responses from these Vinschools’ students echo other student conversations that I have held in more than 30 school visits for support and evaluation across Europe and the Middle East in the last few years.
Similar themes about safety, care, comfort, agency, self-expression and belonging emerged when I’ve asked similar questions to students from many other cultures.
It is revealing how their responses can readily be connected to Maslow’s expanded and often critiqued Hierarchy of Needs model discussed in part one.
Maslow may well come before Bloom in the classroom, but there are also many other models we can explore with students to help them become more self-aware of their own individual needs and why they may be struggling mentally.
Fig. 1: Maslow’s expanded 8 stage model taken from https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html
Sharing and discussing such models may equip students with a stimulus to acquire valuable introspective knowledge. Still, it is not the toolkit itself that will help them: this should be the programmes, curriculum, support structures, and coaching and mentoring we offer students to give them the resources, skills and mindset to live a healthy and happy life.
Limitations and caveats
This is no more than a mini case study, and it obviously has its limitations.
The approach is not scientific, and both the validity and reliability are questionable due to being small scale and conducted and filtered by just one person.
However, it felt important for me not to objectify these students by number crunching or ‘dialling down’ their voices and ideas.
Most schools have the resources to scale up and take this consultation work to a more rigorous, deeper and broader (e.g., include primary students) level to find patterns of responses, and I encourage them to do so.
Using student data to gauge, support and improve well-being and mental health can take many complementary forms, as demonstrated in this excellent article on using student data for well-being by education consultant Mathew Savage. Student ’voice’ is just one powerful form.
I would like to end this post with a simple provocation:
Unlike some professions and industries, we have direct and daily contact with the very people we are here to serve, who can provide feedback on what we do to help us evaluate and improve what we do. Are we doing enough to include students in conversations around their well-being and mental health?
Student safeguarding and inclusion: All participating students were invited to choose how they would like to represent themselves, as well as withdraw any content they did not want shared. Parent permission to participate has been given and personal, identifying details (age, surname, specific school name, photo) have not been included. A school counsellor was invited to participate in the meeting.
Acknowledgements: My gratitude and appreciation to Vinschools for being so open and supportive in this process, highlighting some excellent practices around how to care for young people. Thank you to Stuart McLay, John Zermani, Mi My Nguyễn, Minh Yen, Thanh Thuy, Jane Larsson, Simon Camby, Katie Rigg, Leila Holmyard, Chris Green, Monica Greeley, Mathew Savage, and Kate Taverner for their support with this post.
- Unpacking well-being part two: Driving change
- Unpacking well-being part one: the glittering gem
- In Focus: How to use data to solve the student well-being puzzle
- A school staff guide for supporting students impacted by the crisis in Ukraine
- How international schools can safeguard LGBTQ+ students and faculty
- How to support students and staff when cultural norms may prevent them from asking for help
- Members can log into the CIS Community portal and visit the Webinar & Video library for updates from the CIS Summit of University & School Leaders' Well-being Committee. The committee set out to understand what a ‘whole-school’ or ‘whole-university’ approach to well-being looks like in practice, and how leaders can implement this approach in their institutions, so that well-being becomes part of the fabric of the institution. Committee members spoke to five leading experts from the UK, the US, Australia, and the Netherlands, all of whom have dedicated their careers to this topic. These conversations were recorded so that CIS members can learn directly from these experts and have access to key resources that each expert highlights.
- Child protection
- Student well-being