Promoting flourishing in schools

By Helen Hampson, research and development manager at Sevenoaks School, Dr Christina Hinton, CEO at Research Schools International and Ben Hill, researcher at Research Schools International

Over the past year Sevenoaks School have worked with researchers from Research Schools International (RSI) and Harvard on a project to explore student flourishing. The Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University defines flourishing as a state of complete well-being, characterised by happiness and life satisfaction, a sense of meaning and purpose, good character and virtue, physical and mental health, and close social relationships (VanderWeele, 2017).

The research focused on the extent to which the school is already leading activities known from research to enhance flourishing, and further support the school might provide. An exciting part of the project has been the involvement of school student and teacher research fellows, who have worked with the researchers to develop their research skills and enhance evidence informed practice.

The team worked together to design a student survey measuring student flourishing and the occurrence of activities that research has shown promote flourishing. The fellows helped to tailor the survey to ensure it was appropriate to the context of the school and for different year groups. The survey was administered across all year groups, with 886 students completing the survey in spring 2021.

Research findings

Figure A.

The research findings (figure A.) revealed which research-based activities known to enhance flourishing are encouraged at Sevenoaks, and the relative strengths and areas for growth.

Highest ranked: exercise, volunteering and humour

Exercise, humour and volunteering rank on the higher end in terms of how often they are being practiced. Approximately 1 in every 3 students wrote about exercise. Students enjoy sports, find it helpful to de-stress, and for developing deeper bonds with peers and teachers who also serve as coaches and mentors.

Volunteering, another research-based activity for flourishing, was also reported as an activity students engage in regularly throughout school. Students described how their involvement in service projects helped them to find fulfilment.

Teachers also appear to use humour effectively. There were many examples of how students are engaged when teachers present information in a humorous way, enhancing their enjoyment of lessons and helping them to focus on tasks.

Lowest ranked: gratitude, social support and mindfulness

Opportunities to express gratitude, receive social support and practise mindfulness were ranked lowest in terms of how often students are encouraged to engage in these activities at school.

Some students have salient memories connected to gratitude, though on average this was rated as an activity undertaken occasionally. Examples included teachers modelling gratitude and providing inspiration to students. Tutors were also mentioned as helping students to reflect on gratitude, and some students had been encouraged to keep gratitude journals during the pandemic. Gratitude is understood by the students to be important, but it seems like an area where more activities and explicit instruction would help students to further flourish.

Students have positive relationships with their teachers and are keen for more interactions with them and would like more social support. Whilst acknowledging the challenge for overtasked teachers to find time during the school day for more one-to-one time with students, those who have meaningful interactions with their teachers shared how valuable this was in encouraging them to persevere and in building their resilience.

Finally, mindfulness and activities associated with supporting students to slow down and focus on the present were ranked as the least likely to be encouraged in school. Mindfulness is promoted in some of the boarding houses, and by some teachers offering opportunities for students through meditation, painting, yoga etc. But mindfulness does not seem to be viewed as part of school culture, and it could be more widely promoted as a means of supporting flourishing.

Next steps

At the beginning of the 2021 school year a CPD day was held in which staff were presented with the research findings and invited to reflect on ways that individual teaching practice could attend to the above areas for growth.

All teachers were asked to propose a small-scale intervention that would address one of these areas. Some of these teachers plan to develop their ideas into action research projects, and with the help of RSI will evaluate the impact of their interventions.

More information on this study, together with other articles, can be found in Innovate Vol III, the annual academic journal from the Institute for Teaching and Learning

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