Unpacking well-being part one: the glittering gem
Unpacking well-being part one: the glittering gem
Unpacking well-being part one: the glittering gem
Leo Thompson CIS School Support & Evaluation Officer



By Leo Thompson, MA, MEd, CIS School Support and Evaluation Officer


What does well-being in education really mean? How can we give it a mandate and support it in our school communities?

The purpose of this post, the first in a series, is to move the well-being conversation forward and share some practical resources and stimuli. Let’s starts at cloud level by looking at concepts and theory. Later, we’ll switch to a more grounded approach by sharing practical strategies shared by surveyed and interviewed students and staff across diverse school contexts.  

If there was any doubt about the importance of valuing well-being in education before the arrival of Covid-19, there isn’t now!


A golden thread and a glittering gem

Well-being, wellness, happiness, prosperity, balance, psychological resilience, and mental health are an interconnected cluster of words and ideas that are under closer scrutiny than ever. They are deservedly gathering greater traction in our educational communities. The ideas need to weave through education like a golden thread because well-being is the bedrock of learning. When we reflect on life, is striving for intellectual brilliance and becoming highly qualified worth the risk of our mental health, happiness, and an overall feeling of being well?

For these reasons, well-being is purposefully one of the four drivers in our CIS International Accreditation framework and forms a cornerstone of our work with schools. Its inclusion in our standards not only gives well-being a mandate. It also provides schools with a useful template to move forward with this vital work.

But to truly make well-being the bedrock of our schools, we need to understand its many dimensions.

One can begin by trying to define it. It was made clear to me by Peter Williams, Superintendent at Kuwait American School, that well-being is a diamond, a glittering gem, with many facets.

As soon as my colleague and I entered his school, Peter greeted us with a small diamond-shaped crystal gift. It was a symbol and reminder of an important message: every person and unique identity in our community is precious and valued, and we should take care to look after them all. That impression stuck!

Building on Peter’s message, if we gather together a range of perspectives and research on well-being, it appears to include ideas as diverse as comfort and safety, nourishment, connection to nature and people, sense of purpose, and an acceptance of self and others. And of course, there’s your own ideas and values. People experience well-being differently and might also define it differently.

As individuals, we each enter well-being/being-well from our own conceptual inclination, culture, and perspectives. 


'Unless we address well-being nothing else matters.'

This was a provocation I heard from Jane Larsson, CIS Executive Director, at a January 2020 CIS global team meeting. She was quoting a prophetic statement that emerged in 2019 during the CIS Summit of University and School Leaders. This was the last time I saw my colleagues pre-Covid without a screen between us.

So why might this statement be true? What are the facets of this priceless glittering gem?

Just as it has featured in recent CIS Perspective blog posts—Redefining well-being and leadership by presence during the pandemic and This child is your number one priority—well-being is a trending concept valued within international education and in societies globally.


What Google searches tell us

The tool Google Trends demonstrates its popularity by showing how well-being has grown as a search term in their worldwide ‘Jobs & Education’ category searches over the last five years.

Global educators want to know more and do more concerning well-being.  


Graph Google search for well-being Leo Thompson

Fig 1: Chart showing a 5-year span of searches of well-being in the ‘jobs and education’ category on Google using Google Trends.


A palpable pulse

Though the trend graph above is no more than a superficial indicator, the fact that it resembles an accelerating cardiograph suggests that well-being has a palpable pulse in education.

Ironically, the dramatic dips in the chart (Fig. 1) may represent well-being in action as these coincide with holidays in cultures that celebrate Easter, Christmas, and New Year. Could the hits be lower because people are more focused on enjoying a good life than researching it in these festive periods?


So what is well-being?

Definitions can differ across sources and cultures. The common ground in various dictionaries and encyclopaedias is that it is defined as a mental state related to a satisfactory feeling of health, prosperity, and happiness. If we dig deeper, we can understand how much is tied to our mental state, and that we have fundamental needs and drives that we are constantly trying to satisfy and balance whilst overcoming life’s challenges. No less for our students, their parents, and our fellow educators.

Safety, security, health, belonging, acceptance, happiness, satisfaction, meaningfulness, motivation, purpose, and balance are all subconcepts strongly associated with the ‘umbrella concept’ of well-being.


Flipping well-being to being-well

Interestingly, when the word is flipped to being-well it gains more semantic sense for two reasons: 1) the verb ‘being’ becomes more active and certain, and 2) our individuality is put first.


Join us for a Mental Health & Well-being Workshop

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. 



Five major types of well-being

An article in Psychology Today recognises that well-being is a multifaceted concept and suggests five major types of well-being relating to many of the concepts in the previous paragraph:

  1. Emotional well-being: The ability to practice stress-management techniques, be resilient, and generate the emotions that lead to good feelings
  2. Physical well-being: The ability to improve the functioning of your body through healthy eating, sleep and good exercise habits
  3. Social well-being: The ability to communicate, develop meaningful relationships with others, and maintain a support network that helps you overcome loneliness
  4. Workplace well-being: The ability to pursue your interests, values, and purpose in order to gain meaning, happiness, and enrichment professionally
  5. Societal well-being: The ability to actively participate in a thriving community, culture, and environment. 

Arguably, well-being is felt when a significant number of one’s needs are met simultaneously to a satisfactory degree. If this is the case, one can ask what happens when we apply these five well-being types to the adapted Hierarchy of Needs (1954) model advanced by psychologist Abraham Maslow below?

Could there also be:

6. safety well-being,

7. purposeful well-being, agency or freedom well-being

8. transcendental well-being, a concept that Maslow added to his original model later in his life?


Maslows motivation model

Fig. 2: Maslow’s expanded 8 stage model taken from https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html

As an aside, during the various lockdowns, I’ve noted ‘Wi-Fi’ scribbled underneath Maslow’s diagram on Internet memes! On the other hand, I have seen “Offline is the new luxury!” in other memes.

The whole area is wide open to debate. 

Statistician George Box once opined, ’Essentially all models are wrong, but some are useful’. Though Maslow’s model has been much critiqued in academic circles for being too ethnocentric and rigid, all eight stages of the adapted and expanded model (Fig. 2) can be clearly linked to the needs of students and staff within our schools, regardless of their order in the pyramid.

If we go further and cross reference the model with the CIS International Accreditation framework (Revised 2019, republished July 2021), we find that ALL stages in Maslow’s enhanced model (Fig.3) are incorporated into our requirements for schools.

In practical terms, the loosely mapped model below demonstrates that CIS-accredited schools are taking a holistic approach to student, staff (increasingly), and even parental welfare. This also suggests the entire community and learning ecosystem is important and plays a role here. 

A table showing CIS International Accreditation Protocol 2019 standards loosely mapped onto Maslows Hierarchy of needs

Fig 3: CIS International Accreditation Protocol (2019, updated July 2021) standards loosely mapped onto Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (adapted version).


We’ll go deeper in my next post by taking a look at how well-being weaves through all four CIS’ four drivers that form the foundation of our accreditation standards.


Acknowledgements: Jane Larsson, Katie Rigg, Simon Camby, Chris Durbin, Chris Green, Rick Spradling, Sudha Govindswamy, Monica Greeley, Chris Maggio, Kate Taverner, Stuart McLay, Martha Ross, Peter Williams, Vanessa Reid, Leila Holmyard.


Related content:



Unpacking well-being part one: the glittering gem
  • International accreditation
  • Student well-being
Unpacking well-being part one: the glittering gem