There is a growing body of evidence and practice that speaks to the importance of learner wellbeing in schools – not only in how it impacts academic performance but in terms of optimal youth development.
One of the legacies of the #FeesMustFall movement that gripped South African higher education from 2015 is the significant and seemingly pervasive mental health challenges they created or emphasised for student activists.
Taking on hefty issues like decolonisation, racism and various interlinked structural oppressions came at a cost. Students, as well as academics, carry that cost still – academics report higher incidences of mental health challenges presenting in their teaching and supervision, and university student affairs departments have had to come to grips with caring for students who have become vulnerable challenging the status quo.
The emergence of a community of care has become a theme which Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) in South Africa need to more deliberately and considerably focus on, with many issues around identity, belonging, mental health, gender and racism and more, implicitly mixed therein. But what about learner wellbeing – schoolgoing youth and their psychosocial wellbeing?
This is often overlooked, especially in the larger zeitgeist around what we as South Africans say and perceive and assume about South African schooling. We know the system needs massive improvement, that some say schooling in this country is broken. We know our academic scores in maths and literacy don’t fare well compared to other nations. But there is oftentimes not enough attention given to the mental and community health aspect as a factor influencing our basic education system.
There is a growing body of evidence and practice that speaks to the importance of learner wellbeing in schools – not only in how it impacts academic performance but in terms of optimal youth development. According to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, children have a right not only to survive but to thrive.
To reach their full potential they need nurturing care at all stages of development. This is particularly critical in a country such as ours, with our post-colonial, post-apartheid, demographically young and wealth-race inequality. Learners in the majority of South African schools, primary and secondary, carry heavy psychosocial burdens as a factor of our unequal and burdened landscape, from macro issues as highlighted above to micro and meso issues like community health, low levels of school performance, domestic violence, and gangsterism and many more. Often these issues manifest in poor academic performance with the schooling system mostly unable (not necessarily unwilling) to help young kids address underlying issues of depression and anxiety. We know first-hand via the Schools Wellbeing Centre, an initiative of the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Schools Improvement Initiative.
As the first of its kind, the Schools Wellbeing Centre, which operates in four schools in Khayelitsha, through involvement and buy-in from the Metropole East Education District, helps learners address some of these issues by building resilience, enhancing self-esteem and deepening their understanding of themselves and others. These objectives represent the overarching aim of the centre which is to strengthen learners’ personal and interpersonal development and in so doing to reduce socio-behavioural risks.
The focus on “wellbeing” rather than “wellness” offers an approach that is integrated and holistic, addressing systemic barriers that threaten to undermine the development of the whole being within the system of the family, the school and community. Because parents/guardians are regarded as key to the emotional health and wellbeing of the child, bringing them into the wellbeing model is critical in helping them understand the difficulties their children face, and in the type of support their child might need. Ongoing psychological support, group interventions, topic-based classroom discussions and family reconstruction sessions are provided by a full-time social worker together with third and fourth-year UCT social work students.
In addition to individual, group and family counselling, programmes are implemented in collaboration with Metropole East Education District and community-based partner organisations to address a range of issues from gender-based violence, addiction and substance abuse, depression and anxiety, suicide ideation, pregnancy and sexual health, HIV/AIDS – to youth leadership development and post-matric career choice options. Metropole East social workers work closely with the Schools Wellbeing Centre team.
The importance of good health and wellbeing represents the third goal for sustainable development. Given the absence of psychosocial support for the majority of South African youth, the school becomes a critical site for learner wellbeing. Investing in evidence-based programmes that promote psychosocial support through initiatives that provide nurturing care can be introduced – and integrated into the fabric of the school.
This is critical in addressing equity gaps, in helping youth reach their full potential and moreover in minimising the risk of mental health issues at tertiary level and beyond. Over and above focusing on academic performance, it is our responsibility as educationists to develop integrated, self-aware young adults who will become active, fully engaged members of their community and the broader South African society.
Patti Silbert (PhD) is project manager of the Schools Improvement Initiative in the Schools Development Unit, UCT. She specialises in university-school-community partnerships and school organisational development. Tembeka Mzozoyana is a social worker in the Schools Improvement Initiative. As coordinator of the Schools Wellbeing Centre, her focus is psychosocial, developmental and physical wellbeing.