‘Commuting only from bed to desk had a deep impact on wellbeing’

Mark Samways reveals what his own research revealed about student wellbeing during lockdown

teenager working on laptop in bed, student wellbeing

Mental health and wellbeing are finally getting the spotlight that many of us have been crying out for. The statistics around youth mental health pre-pandemic were bad, and now they are terrifying. 

Mentalhealth.org reports that 70 per cent of children and adolescents who experience mental health difficulties have not had interventions at a sufficiently early stage. We also know that 50 per cent of mental health problems are established by age 14. The earlier we can address this, both in terms of life cycle and early prevention, the better. 

Whilst unfortunately the pandemic hasn’t come to an end yet, one of the reflections we are making is that not enough is being done to support young people with their wellbeing and mental health. Rightly or wrongly, the onus is now on schools to plug that gap.

Consistency is key

Wherever your school starts, whenever your school starts, consistency is key. The research on this is compelling: unless wellbeing is placed at the heart of the school and becomes a culture and not an add on, its impact is limited. 

This was certainly the experience I had when implementing a whole school approach. We introduced Positive Psychology Interventions (PPI) on a weekly basis; the form tutor delivered the programme for twenty minutes during tutor time. 

“We started pre-lockdown, and both the programme and data collection continued during online learning.”

During the first year of teaching the programme, the time was fairly well protected on the timetable, and teaching remained as consistent as it could throughout the year. The results were pretty good. We took a baseline measure on five scales: school kindness, mental toughness, positive and negative affect scales, mental health continuum and life satisfaction. We yielded 9/15 significant results and were really pleased with the outcomes. What was really interesting about the data was that we started pre-lockdown, and both the programme and data collection continued during online learning. 

When students only had to commute from their bed to their desk, some often not even making that journey, they were able to sleep longer. We found this had a profound impact on their wellbeing.

Compared to those who did not report sleeping more hours during the lockdown, those who did were three times more likely to report greater agreement with the statement, “My life is going well” compared to the pre-lockdown situation.

They were three times more likely to report more positive affect, more than twice less likely to report more negative affect and nearly four and a half times more likely to report greater hedonic, emotional wellbeing. We also found no correlation between increased screen time and decreasing levels of wellbeing, something also reported in a study by The British Psychological Society.

The following year, I ran the same study again with a cohort that had not experienced it previously. This formed my dissertation in Applied Positive Psychology and Coaching through The University of East London. This was the second year we faced Covid restrictions, blended learning was taking its toll, and the decision was made to make it optional. 

“The programme that had worked so well the previous year did not yield the same results.”

Staff were understandably struggling. Come the end of the academic year, the results highlighted the need for consistency, most staff dibbed in and out, and one significant result was yielded, which was most likely an anomaly. The programme that had worked so well the previous year did not yield the same results. For me, this really highlighted the need to stay consistent. When it is applied inconsistently, you actually run the risk of doing more damage than good by opening students up and not providing regular follow ups and check ins. 

Where to start

The task is overwhelming; where on earth do you start? It is a question posed by schools I’ve worked with. Here are four suggestions:

  1. Start with relationships. Look at building the community, not only among the staff, but with the pupils and parents too. Pupils and parents are a tremendous resource; utilise them, student voice and agency is powerful. Wellbeing certainly shouldn’t be done to but done with. 
  2. Give wellbeing a protected timetable. Time is just about the most valuable resource we have on this planet; it truly is one of the most special gifts we can bestow – ask a school. It is one of the main challenges they face when wanting to implement any new initiative or programme. This is certainly a challenge that schools are facing; generally there is good intention but the obstacle of time is a tough one to overcome.
  3. If you can, it’s always good to assess the actual need and have a plan for your community, rather than a scattergun approach. It also needs a team; it can’t be reliant on one person to drive it all. It’s too much work. We need to go far with this, not fast, and as we know to go far, we need to go together. 
  4. I run a monthly support group for school wellbeing leads, this is a space for like-minded individuals to come together and discuss challenges and gain support. Please email me on to join. We meet on the second Tuesday of every month at 8pm Gulf standard time (GST).

The mental health crisis facing us is certainly a daunting one, and the stigma surrounding it is certainly moving in the right direction. However, if we want things to change, we have to look toward early prevention, which is a well-structured wellbeing programme that is given protected time in the week. You wouldn’t give any other mainstream lesson 10 minutes a week and expect results; don’t do it to wellbeing!

This article and complete academic references first appeared in the latest edition of Wellbeing in International Schools magazine, out now.