Towards a culture of wellbeing

In their book “Making Coaching Work” Clutterbuck and Megginson[1] propose four layers of organisational evolution. I suggest schools might find the same four ideas helpful in thinking about the layers of evolution towards a culture of wellbeing:

Nascent: “hit and miss”, sporadic, uncoordinated

Tactical: we probably should do this but we’re not sure what it really entails

Strategic: we have to do this and so we’re going to invest properly

Embedded: we really believe this is important and should inform all we do

So if a school is to move beyond just the tactical approach, it is essential for there to be wide-ranging discussions across the community as to what wellbeing really is for the school in its context.

Wellbeing is a concept founded in psychology and which has, over the last decade or so, moved beyond merely responding to the symptoms of psychological distress towards optimising human potential. Previously the wellbeing paradigm reflected a medical model with diagnosis and intervention the main modes of interaction. Seligman’s seminal work in what was then the new area of positive psychology, and particularly his concept of “flourishing”[2] changed all that. Positive psychology can be described as reframing “a strong tradition of helping people to deal with deficits and problems in life, to a more positive approach that is focused on building the necessary conditions, resources and skills that will enable people to flourish and reach their full potential.”[3]

Schools need to choose, therefore, whether to adopt the first model in which the focus is primarily on identifying students with mental health issues, bullying, obesity, depression etc. Alternatively, schools are increasingly embracing the second model based in positive psychology and focusing on creating the conditions in which students and staff can flourish. The difference between these two models is significant; it entirely changes the school’s world view and language.

In order to move further towards the development of an embedded wellbeing culture, one of the strategic levers for change is the implementation of a common language which helps define the wellbeing goals – finding a way to unpack the word “wellbeing”. A number of researchers have created conceptual frameworks for wellbeing[4] but in many ways the simplest to use is Seligman’s own with the mnemonic PARMA[5] – Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, Accomplishment. By adopting an agreed set of concepts and language, the school can keep a tight focus on the priority goals, can frame measures which track progress against the goals and can help translate the goals into behaviours and outcomes.

But understanding the concept of wellbeing isn’t enough on its own to ensure the organisational change necessary to develop a culture of wellbeing. It is also necessary to know what factors impact student wellbeing. Hart and his colleagues[6] argue that student wellbeing is strongly influenced by the teaching climate which in turn is strongly influenced by the organisational climate of the school. And the pillars of an effective organisational climate are Empathy, Clarity, Engagement and Learning. When these four pillars are applied to students’ schooling experience they might look something like this:

Empathy: Positive relationships with staff, approachability, understanding, mutual trust and respect;

Clarity:  Clear and explicit expectations and boundaries, a strong sense of purpose;

Engagement: Teamwork, agency, ownership, shared goals and values, cooperation and collaboration valued as much as competition;

Learning: Feedback, a growth mindset, effort and achievements are rewarded.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery of The Little Prince fame said:

“If you want to build a ship, don’t herd people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

If a school is serious about embedding a culture of wellbeing then it is the role of the leaders of the school to paint that vision in vibrant colours……….and to persuade and inspire the school community to embark on the journey together. Having spent time thinking with rigour about the models, frameworks and goals that best fit the school’s context, it is the leadership’s responsibility to persuade the community to invest time, resources, endeavour and courage and to start on the journey towards building a wellbeing culture.


[1] Clutterbuck, D and Megginson, D; “Making Coaching Work: Creating a coaching culture”; CIPD, 2005

[2] Seligman, M. “Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and wellbeing”; New York: Simon and Schuster, 2011

[3] Hart, P.M., Cotton, P and Scollay, C. E; “Flourishing at Work: Improving Wellbeing and Engagement to Foster Fulfilling and Successful Work Lives”; Melbourne, Deakin University & Insight SRC, 2014

[4] For example: Canadian Index of Wellbeing (CIW), Australian National Development Index (ANDI), OECD Wellbeing Conceptual Framework, UNESCO 5 pillars of learning

[5] Seligman op.cit

[6] Hart et al; “Flourishing at School: A Positive Psychology Approach to School Improvement”; AERA 2015