This section presents the Centre’s evolving view on young people’s well-being. We have formed this as a result of the extensive research. This should be read as our current position which may change in light of new research and findings.
The Centre for Confidence and Well-being carried out considerable research in the last year which provided the basis of our book Creating Confidence: A Handbook for professionals working with young people. We also published a paper critiquing a systematic, taught approach to social and emotional skills.
Here we set out some of the reasons why young people’s mental health and well-being is becoming such an issue, the potential pitfalls of some types of government action, and what the alternative courses of action may be for us in Scotland.
Young people’s mental health and well-being is increasingly a cause for concern. Internationally there is a rise in depression, anxiety and other mental health problems. The UNICEF paper (2007) on child well-being in rich nations put young people in the UK at the bottom of the league table.
These mental health/well-being problems are occurring at a time when there is also a concern over young people’s behaviour and attitudes (eg, use of alcohol and drugs, vandalism and gangs). Many commentators blame parents for these behavioural problems, as many appear to be abdicating responsibility. In Scotland the Violence Reduction Unit and Alan Sinclair are arguing that problems of criminality and poor employment skills can be traced back to children’s poor experiences in the first few years of life.
Concerns over young people’s behaviour and development are also surfacing at a time when there is a growing interest in psychology and emotions. Educators are beginning to pay more attention to self-esteem and emotional intelligence, for example. Some are arguing that some of the recent brain research suggests that pursuing an emotional agenda will lead to better academic results as well as improved well-being.
Against this back-drop it is easy to see why there is an interest in government in the UK in tackling these problems through psychological based interventions aimed at pre-school and school aged children.
The SEAL approach
In response to these types of issues, in England the DfES have adopted SEAL (Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning). SEAL has now been endorsed by the new department for Children, Schools and Families. This initiative is designed to get schools to teach children and young people social and emotional skills on a whole-school, taught basis. This means that children could be taught these skills on an annual basis from 3-18 years of age.
The Centre for Confidence and Well-being has researched this topic and has come to the view that this approach has little research to support it and is based on dubious psychology. Our views are attracting support from a growing number of psychologists and educationalists.
So what are the problems with SEAL?
It is a diversionary short-cut.
The idea of a systematic, taught approach to these skills is essentially a short cut, or a band-aid, when what is required is a range of much deeper-seated changes. The UNICEF report indicates that the main barrier in the UK to child well-being is family breakdown. The report’s editor also talks about the UK having a ‘dog eat dog’ culture. The SEAL approach could easily be a time-consuming, and costly, distraction from the real issues.
Non-psychological interventions may be better
Psychology may be in vogue, but it is not helpful to put too much emphasis on psychology or fixing individuals. For example, it appears that much of teen violence is fuelled by drink. Some commentators argue that the issue here is the cost and availability of alcohol. It may be far better to deal with this than to attempt to effect a change in young people’s psychology. Psychology matters but it is often affected by culture and structures and changing these may be less risky than targeting individuals’ psychology.
Too direct/ will cause resistance
The formal teaching of these types of skills may be too direct. As the economist John Kay argues in his influential paper ‘Obliquity’, often oblique methods provide better ways to solve problems. One reason is that oblique approaches are less likely to cause resistance. Young people, especially in today’s world, do not like being told what to do by adults. Is there not a danger with SEAL that they will become more rebellious and object to being measured against a checklist? Rebelliousness was indeed reported as an unwanted side effect for some young people in the SEAL pilot. This is likely to be a particular problem for boys since even the SEAL guidance notes admits that they are encouraging a way of behaving which is more feminine than masculine.
We have to be careful about the messages we give out in tackling problems through interventions, as these messages may be counterproductive and could make the problem worse. For example, with SEAL:
Do we want to encourage parents to believe that schools are responsible for the development of young people’s social and emotional skills? Will this not exacerbate the problem? Young people under the age of 16 only spend 15 per cent of their time at school. Schools can never take the place of parents in helping young people to develop good social and emotional skills.
Do we want to give young people the message that feelings/relationships are something which we need to learn formally from experts in a professional setting? Does this not encourage help-seeking behaviour and a view of emotions and relationships which will fuel mental health problems (and overload state services) in the long run? (See Frank Furedi, Therapy Culture)
Do we want to encourage people to be overly concerned with how they feel? Is this not likely to encourage individualism, narcissism and an obsession with how one feels in the moment? Who says that expressing feelings is inevitably good? This is contradicted by a growing body of research. Again can we be sure that this approach will actually benefit, as opposed to undermine, long term mental health?
The dangers of mass psychological interventions
Human psychology is extremely complex. It is difficult enough to target interventions at individuals, let alone design a psychological intervention targeted at millions of children at the same time. The specific dangers we need to be aware of are:
Ironic effects: Research shows that when individuals deliberately try to do something like fall asleep or relax their intention often produces the opposite effect. This means that telling people to be tense can have a more relaxing effect than encouraging them to relax. This means that SEAL’s emphasis on calming techniques could induce anxiety.
Dosage issues: In psychology, as in physical health, we cannot assume that more is better. One vitamin pill might be good for you but taking the whole bottle isn’t more beneficial. However, ‘more is better’ is exactly the assumption which underlies SEAL. A related problem is that every child, irrespective of personality and skills will be treated to SEAL. This means that children who are already expressing their feelings a lot may unwittingly be encouraged to do more of this.
Social control/conformity: SEAL is based on a checklist of desirable characteristics/behaviours against which children and young people are to be evaluated. This is in effect a form of social control/compliance. In the SEAL case the template is of a ‘nice girl’. We must remember that young people at school are a captive audience. They will be given no choice in whether they participate or whether this approach reflects their personality or their values.
Staff training: Psychology is complex but SEAL inevitably will be delivered by under-trained staff.
The Curriculum for Excellence
In Scotland there is some interest in the SEAL type of approach at local authority level and amongst some agencies (eg the Health Promoting Schools Unit). The more important focal point for work involving psychology in Scotland is confidence as creating ‘confident individuals’ is now one of the four purposes of education. As yet this does not have the overly centralised feel of the SEAL approach but this could happen and it could suffer from some of the same difficulties outlined above. For example, ironic effects could mean that the more teachers lecture young people about confidence, the more underconfident they may feel. What’s more if the education system decides to measure young people’s individual confidence against a template, this could have very negative effects.
The problems with a systematic approach
In essence many of the dangers involved in using psychological approaches in the classroom are likely to result when the intervention is being carried out as part of a systematic approach through entire schools, local authorities or indeed an education system. In other words, an individual, well-meaning, well-briefed teacher may do something which is opposite and helpful for her class in helping them to develop social and emotional skills and we can be fairly relaxed about this. However, as soon as a system adopts psychological interventions, and grafts this on to its usual ways of operating, there are real dangers. The danger is that it will be used by inadequately trained teachers; be part of profiling, assessment and targets; and generally have a crass/controlling feel to it. We must never forget that emotions, feelings and relationships are the most intimate part of ourselves and our lives. If schools adopt methods to direct all young people’s emotional development (or confidence) this may not simply be intrusive but constitute social engineering of the most oppressive kind.
Evidence from the US
Since the 1970s and the impact of the self-esteem movement, the US has been attempting to affect young people’s psychology (their self-esteem) through various practices such as unwarranted praise and grades, restriction of competition and classroom based activities to bolster and focus on the individual child. Some researchers now say these activities have increased young people’s self-esteem but also their depression, anxiety and narcissism. Locus of control has also shifted away from internal to external. Some say this is why there is a feeling of powerlessness and a tendency to blame others. What’s more, American education is in crisis because of falling educational standards and employers are now complaining about the skills and attitudes of their young employees.
The American self-esteem movement’s impact on American schools and parenting styles is probably the best example we can find of a mass intervention to change young people’s psychology. It should warn us of the dangers of ironic effects.
(Note the UK came bottom of the UNICEF league and the USA was second bottom. However, data for young people’s depression, anxiety etc in the US was absent from the UNICEF approach as it was unavailable. If it had been included it is likely that the USA would have been last.)
In Scotland if we do not go down the route of formal, systematic teaching of social and emotional skills in the classroom what can we do to improve young people’s well-being?
The Scottish Government
Government needs to be more realistic about what it can change and influence and what it cannot. This will lessen the chances that it will launch interventions which could be pointless. Problems with young people’s well-being are the result of an enormous number of social and cultural changes. We could list these as –
Rise in drug and alcohol abuse
Pressure to achieve (exams etc)
Decline in religion
Lack of exercise
Poor diet/eating habits
Pessimism of the age (eg ecological disasters).
For reasons outlined above, direct attempts to change young people’s psychology could back-fire and make matters worse. What the Scottish Government could do, however, is realise that government plays an important part in shaping the ethos of the times. Much of the materialism of contemporary Britain appears to have emanated from Thatcherism as such values have had less impact on our European neighbours. The Blair Government did not attempt to counteract these values but encouraged them.
What this means is that the new Scottish Government could play an important part in communicating a new set of values to the Scottish population. These values should be about the importance of children and young people. These values should also make young people’s welfare a major focal point, not just for Government, but for all Scots. They should also articulate values about volunteering, community, giving, the work ethic, and the importance of having some meaning in life. These are all very much in tune with strong traditional Scottish values and the views of Scottish Enlightenment scholars like Adam Smith.
The Scottish Government should also seek to restore the ethic of public service across public sector organisations in Scotland.
Schools and education
We must recognise that schools have a part to play in improving young people’s well-being but only a part, and not the main one. Parents are much more important here. Schools could play a part, however, by
There is little doubt that many teachers could benefit from more investment of time in their personal development.
There are specific non-psychological activities which could be helpful:
- more opportunities for PE/sports
- martial arts training (teaches self-control, exposes young people to positive role-models and is about fitness)
- more opportunities for volunteering/community activities
- more exposure to third world countries/more exchanges.
Where schools want to undertake interventions which address psychology these should be more about thinking styles, beliefs and cognitions than emotions or emotional expression. So, for example, Carol Dweck’s work on mindsets could be helpful as this is about views of intelligence and achievement. Optimism and explanatory style may be useful as this is about how people view the world. Teaching young people about flow, and its rewards, could also be useful in encouraging young people to seek fulfilment through activities.
In any work undertaken in schools in this agenda we must eschew individual profiling and targets and avoid checklists of desirable characteristics for measurement and evaluation.
Instead of the language of feelings, introspection, fragility and vulnerability any work we encourage in this area should be about flourishing, human strengths and capacity, taking action and doing things in the world. Positive Psychology has much to offer here for professional development as it will help teachers and others understand the dangers of taking too emotional an approach. In many respects PP is attempting to antidote the potentially dangerous effects of traditional psychology with its emphasis on individuals (rather than organisations, structures or cultures) and weaknesses (rather than strengths).
The Centre has been greatly influenced by the work of Alan Sinclair on what he calls ‘early engagement’. Alan is now one of a growing number of people, from different professional backgrounds who are convinced of the need to channel more and more resources into early years. Alan explains in his report 0-5: How Small Children Can Make a Big Difference ‘the most important six years in a person’s life are up to the age of five’. He summarises research which shows how important the early years of life are to the development of the child’s cognitive, social and emotional skills. According to Alan’s research, CT scans show that that ‘the average three-year-old has a larger and different-shaped brain’ from that of a child who has ‘suffered severe sensory deprivation and neglect’. It is not just the first few years of life that are particularly important but also the months preceding birth when the developing foetus can be adversely affected by the mother’s stress. Research indicates that pre-natal stress can increase the chance of behavioural and social problems as well as impair language and cognitive development.
Alan argues passionately for the need for ‘early years enrichment’ and engagement. The models he advances for this type of work mainly come from Scandinavia where considerable sums are invested in good quality day care and parenting support. This ensures that parents, who may fail their children by not providing enough attention and stimulation, are supported by what the Scandinavians call ‘pedagogues’. When this involves supporting parents in the home, this does not have a punitive feel to it as it can in the UK. What’s more, this support is offered long before a problem has been detected and there is talk of removing children from the family home.
Alan is a trained economist and supports his argument for early engagement with data which show that the investment made in early years will save the state money in the longer term. Various studies have shown that this type of investment can cut crime, improve health and educational attainment and help produce young people who are likely to be productive members of society.
If we examine the data on the rise of alcohol and drug use and the number of children being brought up with parents with these problems, it is impossible to deny that there is a growing number of children who are neglected and abused. This is further compounded by the decline in the extended family and the rise in single parents, many of them teenage mothers who have themselves been inadequately parented. Many schools report that a growing number of children are attending P1 without the necessary skills to be in a classroom and some are setting up ‘nurture units’.
In England and Wales the government has responded to these problems by investing in a project called Sure Start and devising a complimentary 10-year childcare strategy. Sure Start childcare centres have been set up and provision made for the development of a childcare workforce. Much of this is welcome, though more intensive provision is needed, particularly for parents. It is certainly a significant step beyond what has happened in Scotland.
In England the SEAL curriculum is part of this Sure Start initiative. When we pose the problems in terms of the need for early years enrichment and parental support for children who are neglected and abused and seriously at risk of missing out, we see how redundant SEAL is. Some of its proponents argue that it is about cultivating ‘herd immunity’ but in reality it is like sticking a plaster on every school age child whether they need it or not. For the children who have a problem to be addressed it will do little good as it is too little too late. What’s more, as we have argued consistently in this paper, treating children to a year on year curriculum based approach to social and emotional skills could provoke a reaction which could worsen, rather than alleviate the problem.
Facilitating children’s social and emotional development has to be done through sensitive provision for pregnant women who are at risk of stress and through various schemes which provide high quality day care and parental support in the first five years of life – particularly the first three.
In order to ensure that the children who need most support with their cognitive, emotional and social development resources get good provision, we need to target the groups most at risk. Alan Sinclair argues that the ‘logic’ of addressing the problem means that -
To get the most out of our public spending, expenditure on parenting and enriched day care should be skewed to households most likely to struggle. That means targeting the children of workless households, single parents, and the working poor and, in an age creating more alcohol and drug casualties, elderly carers of infants.
There’s little doubt that the biggest improvement in children’s well-being in the UK will only come about through improvement in parenting or family stability. The SEAL pilot study reports having little success in involving parents in that initiative.
In conclusion then we must not get the problems with young people out of perspective. Many live flourishing lives and report being happy and satisfied with their lives. However, while there may be a rise in mental health problems we must be careful not to exacerbate the problem with mass psychological interventions in schools.