The challenge of complexity, context, correlations, and data collection - and a proposed solution (Switch4Schools)
People are complex, with different contexts, self perceptions, cultures, environments, life experiences, and abilities to process and handle stressful experiences. This makes measuring, tracking and improving wellbeing in a school context extremely challenging. Switch4Schools does not shy away from this challenge, it meets it head on. Not only have we developed new ways of capturing wellbeing data, but we ensure that insight is linked to the ‘so what’, to improve wellbeing and help all people become more successful in life. After all, this is the reason we are tracking wellbeing in the first place. Stronger relationships, more connected societies, more financially successful and more satisfied overall with our lives.
There is no doubt that individual wellbeing is extremely hard to effectively track and measure. People are complex, with different contexts, self-perceptions, cultures, environments, life experiences, and abilities to process and handle stressful experiences. This makes measuring, tracking and improving wellbeing in a school context extremely challenging. Switch4Schools does not shy away from this challenge, it meets it head on. Not only have we developed new ways of capturing wellbeing data, but we ensure that insight is linked to the ‘so what’, to improve wellbeing and help all people become more successful in life. After all, this is the reason we are tracking wellbeing in the first place. Stronger relationships, more connected societies, more financially successful and more satisfied overall with our lives.
When starting to address wellbeing in a meaningful way, it is natural to identify any factors that might be causal, and then assess whether you can track and measure these causal factors. Fortunately, there is already a large and growing body of research that focuses on identifying things that show strong correlations with poor wellbeing. Much of this research has highlighted common aspects, which when combined, can often lead to an increased instance of poor wellbeing. Some of these factors include a history of mental health issues, social isolation, poverty or financial insecurity, physical health issues, traumatic life experiences, safety of the home and other environmental factors, stress levels and cultural factors (discrimination, generational issues, etc.).
While this is very helpful to know to in order to plan and direct energy in a broader social context, in a school environment it can be harder to control for many of these factors. You can help some of them, for example school breakfasts and free after school care are good examples of effective initiatives, but the sustainable impact is somewhat limited.
Furthermore, these factors are only correlative, not causal. They simply indicate the likelihood of poor wellbeing, pointing toward individuals who might have an increased susceptibility to poor wellbeing. What it doesn’t do is point you to the students who are struggling, or to strategies, interventions, or actions that might be best for that child within that context in that moment.
You can have a child who grows up in a poor, broken family with a history of depression in an isolated and disadvantaged community who will end up succeeding in life. At the same time, another child with privilege and social advantage might end up struggling. The child in the first scenario is far more likely to slip into a state of poor wellbeing, but it is not a sure thing. It’s simply not fait accompli that where there are several flagged factors, wellbeing will be poor, or in the absence of any factors, it will be good. They are only correlational, not causal. As a school, it can be very difficult to identify the ‘good kids’ who don’t tick any of the boxes seen as correlative with poor wellbeing.
Many times I have found myself in the unfortunate situation where I am counselling or speaking with educators in the wake of a serious incident, like a student suicide or a public mental breakdown. In almost all cases I hear words similar to “they were just a good, quiet kid. I had no idea they were struggling, no one did”. With the growing mental health epidemic, this is something that is of great concern for all of us.
So, if you can have two people with identical contexts but different levels of wellbeing, this would suggest that there must be a third factor that is dictating terms. Something else that is determining the outcome, or that mediates the impact of these correlational factors on psychological health and wellbeing. As it turns out there is such a factor. Emotions. Specifically, the extent to which an individual can perceive, understand, manage, and use their emotions. This is more commonly termed emotional intelligence. Improve an individual’s emotional intelligence, and their wellbeing improves – irrespective of the hand that life has dealt them. People are not simply helpless victims of their environment - if they can master their emotions they can start to mould their world for their own betterment.
It all starts with emotion.
Pick beneath any relational or behavioural issue and you’ll most likely find some emotional dysregulation. People overreact to stimuli because of their own trauma (trauma being any experience that has taught you that the world is not safe). As soon as you can learn to address to the emotional reactivity, you take all of the energy out of the system, and solutions become simpler and clearer.
A similar thing happens when looking at the broader issue of wellbeing.
Yes, there are some obvious things that need to be addressed in order to create an environment more conducive to nurturing wellbeing. Poverty, malnutrition, abusive parents, bullying, loneliness, drug dependency and stereotypes are all necessary things to address as they do increase the likelihood of poor individual wellbeing. However, to really improve wellbeing we need to address how people emotionally deal with the uglier side of life. If we improve someone’s emotional intelligence, their wellbeing improves irrespective of what life throws at them. The ugliness becomes less ugly, and the impact less traumatic.
One thing that is incredibly helpful to understand is the difference between triggers, lead indicators, and lag indicators. Particularly when thinking about what data to measure.
Triggers, lead and lag indicators
Imagine for a moment that a child comes to school after learning that her parents are splitting up, probably after witnessing months of highly intense arguments and abusive behaviour between her parents. Subsequently, her performance at school over the next couple of weeks drops. The teachers, not knowing the full extent of the situation, naturally look at the performance (the lag indicator) and try to incentivise better performance through discipline, working harder or some other intervention designed to increase performance.
In the case that the teacher knows a little of the child's home situation, they might think that talking with the parents to see if they can make the transition as smooth for the child as possible might be the answer. Remove the trigger and that will improve wellbeing. And yes, while this might help, it may not. The reality is there could be multiple triggers, and this is just a really obvious one. Even the child may not know what all the triggers are. Trying to create a trigger free environment is not only impossible, but also unhelpful when looking at how people cope when another life trigger presents itself.
Focusing on the trigger (the divorce) or the lag indicator (the student’s performance) will only get you so far. And as an educator you are unlikely to be able to know the true nature of the triggers. We need to find something that indicates how the student is reacting to the trigger. We need to find ways to see the mediating factors, in this case the student's emotional state. Things that give us insight into mediators are termed lead indicators. They are the things that occur prior to, and determine the nature of the outcomes (the lag indicators). If the teacher can see that the student is intensely scared, sad or angry (without relying on facial or social cues which children can be very good at masking), then we can deal with these high emotions before their performance drops too much and wellbeing sinks further. We don’t necessarily need to know what the trigger is (although it is often helpful), we just need to help the student regulate so they can see the world with more clarity and less angst.
Of course, I’m not at all suggesting that creating the best environment for people to flourish in is not critical, it is. What we are talking about, however, is improving the agency of the individual to address triggers, even when they are in the safe environment you have built for them. This is how people increase their wellbeing. When we learn to influence our beliefs and control our emotional reactivity, then we can direct the outcomes irrespective of the trigger experiences that interrupt our life story.
We have little control over life events and triggers, but we have a lot of control over how we react to them. This is at the heart of the power of emotional intelligence. If the outcome or consequence we desire is improved wellbeing, performance, and overall life satisfaction, then we need to know what is going on at the emotional level. Emotions are a window into the one thing that will direct their wellbeing irrespective of what life has to throw at them. Emotion is the lead indicator, the key to unlocking individual potential, and better life outcomes.
This is why Switch4Schools focuses on measuring emotion, along with building individual emotional regulation capabilities. Switch enables the ability to see, track and measure emotions and arousal levels, and know what to do about it at an individual and class level. Address the emotional dysregulation, and the other interpersonal and behavioural issues will lessen. This is true of any human, not just school students.
But there is one point that we still need to address, and that is regarding self reported survey data. How can we be sure that the data we are collecting is a reliable indicator of someone’s emotional state?
Self reported data
The Switch program has been carefully designed to solve for some of the commonly cited issues with wellbeing surveys, specifically:
Data collection is private and is limited to the teachers and nominated educators within the student's immediate trust circle. This mitigates many of the social influences and fears that drive response bias (where participants may provide inaccurate responses to conform to societal norms and expectations or to be more liked by those around them).
Regular check-ins that are short, engaging and ‘habit stacked’ onto an already established classroom ritual such as taking attendance. This mitigates the impact of recall bias which is when participants struggle to accurately recall and report past events, experiences, or feelings. Memory limitations, the passage of time, and emotional influences can contribute to distorted or incomplete recollections.
Intuitive design, universal language, and data presented in an easy to interpret way that discourages the comparison of emotion related data for individuals against other individuals, classes or schools reduces potential generalisations and misunderstandings.
Combining regular, private self reported measures with action-based suggestions that are relevant in the moment is the most powerful way to increase emotional intelligence, resilience, self regulation, performance and overall wellbeing.
Measuring progress over time
Looking at daily individual self reported data and proactively directing users to improve their emotional capability is one thing, but how do we know that things are getting better over the course of six months, a year, or even three years?
The first thing to do is look at some of the lag indicators we mentioned earlier. Examples where we would expect to see significant improvement would include:
Academic results and any other performance metrics;
Behavioural incidents and reports of physical misconduct (overall numbers and recurring incidents of individuals);
Student and parent satisfaction;
Staff morale and engagement;
Student self reported connectedness and support.
Acknowledging that we feel different emotions every day, what we want is honesty and vulnerability. Therefore, simply a decrease in unpleasant feelings (sad, scared, anxious and angry) is not a reliable indicator. Switch4Schools helps to track these lead indicators. Really interesting statistics include:
Overall decrease in intensity levels and time spent reporting consecutive high levels of arousal;
Speed of emotional recovery from high unpleasant emotions to personal baseline.
One thing to remember is that emotional resilience is two things: a) how well one can buffer against the negative impacts of significant events, and b) the speed at which they can bounce back after a significant event that has caused emotional stress. Switch4Schools can track both aspects in the emotional data captured during the regular check-ins.
While much time and resources have been invested into tracking, measuring and improving student wellbeing, many challenges remain. Based on research and best practice psychology we suggest a focus on measuring individual emotional health and emotional intelligence as significant and key factors in determining wellbeing. Based on the observation that emotional dysregulation is a significant aspect affecting wellbeing, we suggest that emotional intelligence is the mediating variable that influences outcomes.
Additionally, we need to harness the power of simplicity and emotional intelligence to improve overall life outcomes. And while there will always be limitations to self reported data, we recommended regular, daily collection of emotional data that is only shared within the participant's trust circle to provide a more accurate and nuanced understanding of wellbeing. Of course, measuring progress over time at a group level is also important, and being able to track and measure both lag indicators (academic results, behavioural incidents) and lead indicators (emotional recovery, intensity levels) is critical to accurately assessing impact and informing strategy.
Switch4Schools harnesses all this insight into one, simple, easy to use and cost-effective digital tool that works in with the modern rhythms of school classrooms. Together, we can shift the dial on mental health and wellbeing for a more successful and brighter tomorrow.
A final word regarding Switch4Schools…
As parents and educators, practically improving student mental health and wellbeing in today's society is a massive concern, and not something we have traditionally focused on in schools. By focusing on emotional health, via regular check-ins and paths to practical resources and strategies, Switch4Schools is a cost effective, simple, comprehensive digital solution that combines best practice psychology and real time data to track, measure and build emotional intelligence to improve performance, behaviour, and wellbeing.
Switch4Schools is not only proven to be a valid and reliable indicator of emotional health, it goes the extra step of proactively building emotional capability and improving wellbeing within the whole community. Switch4Schools becomes a vital tool to support your efforts in creating a stronger, more resilient, more successful school community.