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Zoom fatigue, social media burnout, and a lack of in-person interactions have taken a heavy toll on students in the past few years. But the effects of the pandemic could be impacting students’ motivation at school. Is it time to combine pastoral care and academic guidance in schools?
There’s no doubt that student mental health needs to be on schools’ radars. 20% of adolescents experience mental health issues each year, a number that is on the rise: 90% of school leaders have reported an increase in the students experiencing stress or anxiety.
And while some might say it isn’t the school’s place to become involved in students’ wellbeing, a whopping 81% of young people want their schools to teach them more about how to look after their mental health.
The reason for this is simple: student wellbeing doesn’t just impact their lives outside of the classroom. It has tangible effects on their motivation, their grades, and their university applications. In the past few years alone:
- Students have become increasingly reluctant to study abroad, with students prioritising local universities
- University deferral and drop-out rates have reached startling highs, with up to 26% of students choosing not to return for their second year of university, and deferral rates increasing by up to 300%
- The pandemic has created a “crisis of confidence” amongst today’s teenagers, by eroding their self-esteem and their trust in global stability, causing concern about their future career and work skills
So how can schools incorporate wellbeing guidance into their existing curricula as seamlessly as possible?
What is student well-being?
Before we jump in, it’s important to clarify what we mean when we say “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, which makes them feel good about themselves.
As mentioned, this will vary from school to school. But generally, a focus on student wellbeing involves developing students’:
- Social skills
- Ability to manage their feelings
How is student wellbeing linked to university and careers guidance?
At their core, both wellbeing and careers/university guidance are focused on helping students understand and unlock their underlying motivations and their limitless potential!
As you help them plan applications, you’re also teaching them to appreciate and champion their strengths, boosting their self-esteem.
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?
Identify your desired outcomes
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.
The difference between the two types of counselling has to do with desired outcomes.
As a counsellor, your primary concern is equipping your students with the knowledge, tools, and skills they need to successfully research, apply, and enrol at a university that is a great match for them.
But there’s one more thing students need in order to achieve this goal: they need to feel motivated. In other words, they need to believe that their efforts will be worth it.
That’s where the wellbeing piece of the puzzle comes into play. In order to identify what’s currently interfering with their progress, you need to compare where they currently stand with where you’d like them to get to. By comparing the two, you’ll begin to notice what underlying wellbeing issues might be at play.
For example, you might have students who aren’t currently interested in learning about university options. If they’re zoning out during university visits, perhaps it’s because they don’t think they’ll find a university degree that they’ll feel excited about. This could suggest that they’re harbouring deeper concerns about the state of the world or the possibilities of the future.
You might have other students who can’t seem to make a start on their university application essays. They might not know what to include, and are therefore worried they won’t get accepted. These students might be feeling paralysed by underlying self-esteem issues, and procrastinating because part of them thinks that they won’t fail if they don’t try.
Taking a holistic approach to university research
Once you’ve identified your desired outcomes – and what’s standing in the way – it’s time to incorporate wellbeing solutions into your existing guidance strategy.
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. 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.
Coping with stress
Alongside building up your students’ motivation and confidence, it’s important to factor in one core emotion that has a tendency to get in the way of even the best of intentions: stress.
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.
These normal sources of stress have only been exacerbated by the pandemic, with many teenagers feeling increasingly socially isolated, or those whose families are coping with loss and grief or increased financial instability.
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.
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.
For example, you might want to remind students that they’re not burdening their loved ones if they open up to friends or family. If that’s not an option, your school might have a wellbeing counsellor or nurse. Or, you might live in an area where trusted charities or healthcare organisations offer free support for teenagers.
You can also let them know some tips and tricks for managing stress. These can be really simple things, like closing their screen for five minutes every hour, spending more time outdoors, or incorporating more movement and exercise into their day.
If your students feel like they’re too stressed to find the time for any of these activities, here’s a simple exercise you can do in class with just a few minutes.
It’s called the 54321 grounding technique. A grounding technique is a strategy to interrupt buzzing thoughts by reconnecting to the present moment by paying attention to the 5 sense of the body. With the 54321 technique, students list:
- five things they can see
- four things they can touch
- three things they can hear
- two things they can smell
- one thing they can taste (or a food one of the scents they can smell reminds them of!)
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. 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!
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.
With levels of burnout on the rise since the start of the pandemic, it’s arguably more important than ever to keep an eye on your students’ mental health… and know which signs to look out for!
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