Schools are not just places where students acquire academic skills; they also help students become more resilient in the face of adversity, feel more connected with the people around them, and aim higher in their aspirations for their future. Not least, schools are the first place where children experience society in all its facets, and those experiences can have a profound influence on students’ attitudes and behaviour in life.
PISA is best known for its data on learning outcomes, but it’s 2015 edition also studied students’ satisfaction with life, their relationships with peers, teachers and parents, and how they spend their time outside of school. The results show that students differ greatly, both between and within countries, in how satisfied they are with their life, their motivation to achieve, how anxious they feel about their schoolwork, their expectations for the future, and their perceptions of being bullied at school or treated unfairly by their teachers. Students in some of the countries that top the PISA league tables in science and mathematics reported comparatively low satisfaction with life; but Estonia, Finland, the Netherlands and Switzerland seem able to combine good learning outcomes with highly satisfied students.
It is tempting to equate low levels of life satisfaction among students in East Asia or elsewhere to long study hours, but the data show no relationship between the time students spend studying, whether in or outside of school, and their satisfaction with life. And while educators often argue that anxiety is the natural consequence of testing overload, the frequency of tests is also unrelated to students’ level of schoolwork-related anxiety.
There are other factors that make a difference to student well-being, and much comes down to teachers, parents and schools.
For a start, PISA finds that one major threat to students’ sense of belonging at school is their perception of negative relationships with their teachers. Happier students tended to report positive relations with their teachers. Students in “happy” schools reported much greater support from their teachers than did students in “unhappy” schools.
This is important. Teenagers look for strong social ties and value acceptance, care and support from others. Adolescents who feel that they are part of a school community are more likely to perform better academically and be more motivated in school.
Of course, most teachers care about having positive relationships with their students; but some teachers may be insufficiently prepared to deal with difficult students and classroom environments. A stronger focus on classroom and relationship management in professional development may give teachers better means to connect with their students. Teachers should also be better supported to collaborate and exchange information about students’ difficulties, character and strengths with their colleagues.
On average across OECD countries, 59% of students reported that they often worry that taking a test will be difficult, and 66% reported that they worry about poor grades. Some 55% of students say they are very anxious for a test even if they are well prepared. In all countries, girls reported greater schoolwork-related anxiety than boys; and anxiety about schoolwork, homework and tests is negatively related to performance. PISA suggests that there is much teachers can do about this too. Students were less likely to report anxiety if the science teacher provides individual help when they are struggling. Teachers need to know how to help students develop a good understanding of their strengths and weaknesses, and an awareness of what they can do to mitigate those weaknesses.
Parents can make a big difference too. Students whose parents reported “spending time just talking to my child”, “eating the main meal with my child around a table” or “discussing how well my child is doing at school” regularly were between 22% and 39% more likely to report high levels of life satisfaction. “Spending time just talking” is the parental activity most frequently and most strongly associated with students’ life satisfaction. And it seems to matter for performance too: students whose parents reported “spending time just talking” were two-thirds of a school year ahead in science learning; and even after accounting for socio-economic status, the advantage remains at one-third of a school year.
Students’ perceptions of how interested their parents are in them and in their school life is also related to their own attitudes towards education and their motivation to study. Those relationships are particularly strong among low-performing students – and stronger than the impact of most school resources and other factors measured by PISA.
Parents can help children manage anxiety by encouraging them to trust in their ability to accomplish various academic tasks. PISA results show that girls who perceive that their parents encourage them to be confident in their abilities were less likely to report that they feel tense when they study.
All in all, a clear way to promote students’ well-being is for schools to encourage all parents to be more involved with their child’s school life. If parents and teachers establish relationships based on trust, schools can rely on parents as valuable partners in the cognitive and socio-emotional education of their students. Schools can also do a lot to help parents overcome barriers to participation in school activities related to inflexible work schedules, lack of childcare services or language. They can open flexible channels of communication, such as scheduled phone or video calls. Governments can also take action by promoting work-life balance policies.
The challenges to students’ well-being are many, and there are no simple solutions. But the findings from PISA show how teachers, schools and parents can make a real difference. Together they can attend to students’ psychological and social needs and help them develop a sense of control over their future and the resilience they need to be successful in life.