Should You Incorporate Student Wellbeing Into University Guidance?

Wellbeing, wellness and mental health have been at the forefront of conversations globally, particularly over the past year and particularly relating to students. So should we consider combining pastoral care and academic guidance in schools?

counsellor supporting student wellbeing over cups of tea

Student wellbeing and mental health have been gaining increasing attention both within schools and amongst the wider public. And after the challenges and changes that 2020 brought, this trend accelerated dramatically.

Not only were new circumstances causing additional difficulties and distress for students during 2020, but the effects of existing stressors (be they academic pressure or difficult living situations) were thrown into sharp relief.

There’s no doubt that student mental health needs to be on schools’ agendas: 20% of adolescents experience mental health issues each year. What’s more, the number seems to be growing all the time, with 90% of school leaders reporting an increase in the number of students experiencing stress or anxiety over the past five years.

And while some might say it isn’t the school’s place to become involved in students’ broader wellbeing, students themselves seem to disagree. In fact, a huge 81% of young people want their schools to teach them more about how to look after their mental health.

But how can schools incorporate wellbeing guidance into their existing curricula as helpfully and seamlessly as possible?

We’ve been looking into it, and there’s a very compelling case to be made for integrating it into university and careers counselling. If you want to know why it’s such a natural fit, and how you can infuse student wellbeing into your guidance strategy, read on!

Six Free Lesson Plans for a Wellbeing-Focused Strategy

Download these lesson plans to ensure your careers research process is both thorough and holistic. It will help students match their university and career plans to their skills, ambitions and broader needs!

What is student wellbeing?

The first thing to address is exactly what we mean by student wellbeing.

Your school’s definition will depend on many things - not least of all cultural factors. But as a general idea, you might want to think of it as something that captures students’ happiness, satisfaction, engagement and productivity. Students are doing things that they feel good about, and that make them feel good about themselves.

You'll also want to nail down the objectives you’re hoping to achieve. What will your new and improved guidance strategy teach students?

Again, this will vary from school to school. But generally, a focus on student wellbeing involves developing students’:

  1. Self-awareness
  2. Motivation
  3. Social skills
  4. Ability to manage their feelings
  5. Empathy

How is student wellbeing linked to university and careers guidance?

There’s actually a deeply rooted relationship between these two types of guidance. At their core, both are focused on helping students understand and unlock their underlying motivations and their limitless potential!

As you’ll see throughout this article, it’s not so much a case of adding pastoral care or wellbeing guidance into an admissions and careers curriculum. In fact, it’s a much more symbiotic relationship.

When you think about it, the connection between student wellbeing and careers and university guidance makes a lot of sense. After all, they have many shared methods and goals.

For example, your guidance strategy probably involves giving students one-to-one attention to talk about their hopes, fears and worries - much like counselling focused on wellbeing does.

And, as you help them plan applications, you’re also teaching them to appreciate and champion their strengths, boosting their self-esteem.

An intrinsic part of your job is to give students an optimistic and ambitious view of their futures, which is a key tenet of wellbeing. Crucially, you do this by setting achievable and quantifiable goals with them, which gives them a sense of purpose and - when they work towards or reach those goals - of pride.

These positive effects last long after students leave your tutelage, too. Degrees and careers which have been informed by careful guidance are built around students’ abilities, interests and values.

Plus, students have a better idea of how and why to perform well in these pursuits. That means that the work will be more rewarding for them, and they’ll be more engaged and productive. Overall, that translates to a happier work-life with frequent career progression!

How can you incorporate student wellbeing into your university and career guidance?

You doubtless know the value of combining social and emotional learning with the academic support you provide - and just how much the two are already linked. But what more could you do to ensure you’re improving students’ wellbeing as you work?

Taking a holistic approach to university research

When students start thinking about university research, sometimes academic (and often familial) pressures can take centre stage. Some students feel like they should apply for the most prestigious universities, or to the courses which will lead to a career their parents envision for them.

Part of incorporating student wellbeing into university guidance is steering them away from these paths and pressures. Student wellbeing encompasses a whole range of factors outside of academic and professional prestige or financial reward, and university guidance should take all of these into account!

So when you begin the university research journey with students, try to ensure they consider all the different characteristics of different universities, and how attending each one might shape their lives for the next few years. After all, finding students’ perfect university match isn’t just about applying to the universities whose grade requirements are their target grades!

Instead, encourage them to think about bigger questions, like whether they’d be happiest living in a city, a closed campus, or a rural location. Do they want to be with lots of other students, or in a smaller community? Does the proportion of international students matter to them? What about the accommodation options?

And because wellbeing means feeling fulfilled and productive, they should also take a look at the extracurricular offerings of different universities, and see if there are clubs and societies they’d like to join.

Of course, prioritising wellbeing doesn’t mean dismissing academic criteria altogether! In fact, to maximise students’ productivity and wellbeing you’ll want to help them find courses whose subject matter interests them, that align with their long-term goals, are delivered in line with their learning styles, and use the assessments they respond the best to.

So if you’re looking to add Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning and student wellbeing into your guidance strategy, make sure your university research process considers all the factors that their decisions will affect!

infographic of student wellbeing statistics

Building self-esteem and applications

One concept which you’re likely familiar with is the brag sheet. If you don’t know it by name, you’ll certainly know the practice. In its most basic definition, it’s a document that lists all the things a student is proud of themselves for.

Often a brag sheet can be quite a formal document, and is thought of as a student’s resumé or CV. On it, they’ll list their work experience, part-time jobs, internships, extracurricular activities and academic achievements.

You can also take a more holistic approach, asking students to add actions and characteristics from their lives outside school which they’re proud of.

This is a really effective way to build self-esteem. At the same time, it becomes an invaluable resource when students come to write university and job applications and for the teachers writing their references.

But the brag sheet can be even more powerful. It can help students to understand what they deem as being worthy of pride, and why. Not only do they come to better understand their core values, they’ll also learn to recognise how certain actions reflect desirable qualities - a useful skill for application writing and interviews.

Finally, they’ll see how every day and even the smallest moment can be a chance to do something they can add to their brag sheet - hopefully a chance they’ll take with the incentive of getting something new to add! This creates a sort of virtuous circle where students do more good things, get to feel even better about themselves and constantly strengthen their applications.

Note: To help them get started if their self-esteem is particularly low, you can also invite them to record things for which they received any external praise. That can also help them think outside the box, and brings the focus onto what they’re doing well and how much others value them.

Setting goals

Related to the brag sheet is the practice of setting goals. This is undoubtedly something you’re already doing with students, for example when they’re selecting universities they’d like to go to. But with some extra emphasis and a bit of tailoring, you can make this a key tool in safeguarding student wellbeing.

A good approach here is to have students begin the goal-setting process with their core beliefs and their strengths. From there, they can map out some long-term ambitions that will make them feel valued (because they build from their strengths) and rewarded (because they’re aligned with their beliefs).

Next, students can work backwards from those long-term goals and mark out some milestones they’ll need to hit to get there. As they keep working backwards, eventually they’ll likely come to the degree that will help them. Together, you can set some tasks which they’ll need to complete to get accepted onto that degree, like writing a Common App personal essay or creating a UCAS account.

Hitting each marker of progress, no matter how small, will boost students’ self-esteem and remind them of that bigger goal they’re working towards. The feeling of constant progress is a great way to keep them engaged and motivated.

Managing expectations

Of course, there’s also what can be the trickier side of goal setting, which is expectation management. Making sure the goals students set are realistic is vital for their wellbeing.

Often, we feel that the best way to foster wellbeing is to bolster students’ self-worth as much as possible, or to tell them that they can accomplish anything they set their minds to. This is certainly a popular phrase and a beautiful sentiment, but as much as we would like it to be true, it’s not so simple. All of your students can’t possibly be their generation’s Michael Jordan or the president of the United Nations. It’s simply - mathematically - not possible!

If students set unrealistic goals, it can lead to disappointment, and often frequent setbacks and rejections. Unsurprisingly, that isn’t going to have the best impact on their self-esteem.

Equally, you don’t want to dismiss their dreams altogether. That too can be really shattering!

Instead, try to hone in on the motivations and values underpinning the dream. The budding basketball player might find a rewarding career in sports journalism. Or maybe they’re destined to be an orthopedic surgeon specialising in sports injuries. Perhaps it’s the teamwork aspect that appeals to them, but could be channeled productively elsewhere. Conversely, maybe they saw Michael Jordan as an inspiring leader and want to find a similar role.

You get the idea! Try to break down students’ dreams into their component parts, and use these parts to create goals that might be more within their reach, but are still closely related to their interests and passions.

That’s not to say that you or your students should be hoping to avoid failure altogether. Quite the opposite, you should be building expectations of failure - it’s an inevitable part of life, and knowing that it’s coming and how to deal with it are vital to student wellbeing.

Coping with stress

Related to the work you do with students as they set goals and expectations is helping students manage the stress that surrounds them. Researching universities, sending out applications and taking tests and exams are all huge sources of stress in students’ lives. In fact, a huge 80% of young people have had their mental health significantly impacted by exam pressure.

It’s a good idea to spend some time talking to students about what a normal level of stress feels and looks like, and when it’s becoming too extreme. Learning to recognise anxiety in themselves and others can help identify and address problems before they become really destructive.

Of course, these can be tricky areas to talk about, particularly for somebody who hasn’t been trained as a mental health professional: many teachers feel they’re not qualified to teach students about disorders like anxiety and depression. But while you can’t provide therapy or counselling, you can certainly lay out the signs and symptoms and - crucially - let them know where they can seek help.

You can also let them know some tips and tricks for managing stress. These can be really simple things, like:

  • Get up and move around for five minutes for every hour spent studying
  • Spend at least half an hour each day outdoors
  • Be strict about screen-free time
  • Find a form of exercise they enjoy and do it regularly
  • Talk to someone they trust about how they’re feeling
  • Challenge their fears and irrational thoughts
  • Try out meditation (there are lots of approaches and even handy apps!)

You might even consider teaching them some basic techniques for managing their feelings. For example, there’s the popular 54321 grounding technique. All it means is that when they’re feeling overwhelmed, they take some time to notice their surroundings, and list five things they can see, four things they can touch, three things they can hear, two things they can smell and something they can taste (or would like to!).

This is an area where having something of an ‘open-door policy’ and letting students know they can talk to you one-on-one about anything that’s worrying them can be really important.

Note: As well as being available after you discuss mental health challenges, it’s also wise to let students know of any sensitive topics you might be discussing beforehand. For some students, hearing about things without any prior warning could be distressing, and might in itself cause anxiety or even a panic attack.

Gaining contacts and experience

Another interesting intersection of careers guidance and student wellbeing is in the value of socialising, networking and gaining hands-on experience.

For many students, a source of anxiety is their perceived lack of experience. Some have only had part-time jobs, often not in fields they’re interested in long-term. Lots haven’t even had any kind of job. And even those that have managed to secure some form of work experience often worry it wasn’t useful, relevant and/or in-depth enough.

There are two ways in which you can help.

The first is guiding students to see the value of experiences and skills they already have. Networking is a hugely important professional skill, so all the social skills which your SEAL approach can impart and highlight are already a trophy in their case! Encouraging them to socialise with a wide array of people in different contexts can be a good idea.

What’s more, transferable soft skills are fast becoming employers’ priorities. Help students see how many of these they already possess - not least a considerable digital and social media literacy that often gives them an edge over more experienced professionals! Highlighting these can also help reduce any excess importance they’re giving to academic grades, and help them see that scoring perfectly isn’t the be-all and end-all of their professional trajectory.

The second tactic you can use is helping students secure further experience. It’s a great way to increase their confidence and allay their anxieties, both of which will help their overall wellbeing. It will help them set more informed goals, and understand what they do and don’t enjoy in the workplace. Of course, it will also make a great addition to their applications!

Make student wellbeing a key ingredient of your careers guidance

Student wellbeing is increasingly a priority for schools all around the world, and for good reason. It’s something that should inform everything a school does, and that all your colleagues should be on board with.

But as we’ve seen, there are plenty of things you can do on an individual level to ensure your university and career guidance incorporates social and emotional learning and champions students’ wellbeing.

If you’re looking for some simple, holistic lesson plans to help you create wellbeing-focused careers guidance, look no further! We’ve created six free lesson plans that encourage students to explore their strengths, skills and interests, boosting their self-esteem and self-awareness and helping untap their motivation.

The lessons then help students link these to career pathways that will lead to fulfilling professional lives and long-lasting wellbeing.

Download your free lesson plans to help students make informed and well-rounded decisions for happy and healthy futures!

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