Support student wellbeing with scientific evidence

Imagine you are at school, taking a test on that one subject that you always struggled with. You studied a lot but you still have the lingering fear that, like many times before, you are going to fail. You start answering the questions but they seem complicated and you can’t shake the feeling that you are not doing a good job. All of a sudden, you see other students are handing in their test; they are done already? You still have a lot to go. You can feel your heart pounding in your chest.  You are sweating.  You can’t concentrate. Your memory is falling.  You reflect back to all the times this similar situation happened to you during class and… times up. You turn in an exam that does not reflect how much you studied or how much you learned. As you leave the classroom, you feel those symptoms of anxiety, that just wouldn’t go away, disappear in a matter of seconds.

Everyone has experienced a situation like this while they were students. Even in a regular class without the stress of an exam, our emotions can betray us and hinder our learning. Emotions have a substantial influence on the cognitive processes in humans, including perception, learning, memory, reasoning, and problem solving. They have a particularly strong influence on attention, especially modulating the selectivity of attention as well as motivating action and behavior.1

There are a few different processes involved in the generation and regulation of emotions, including biological, social, and psychological. When we experience anxiety, cortisol (also known as the stress hormone) is released in the blood system, triggering the “fight or flight” response. In the short term, this response is purposeful and positive, as it enables us to recognize potentially dangerous situations and react quickly to them. However, long-term activation of the body’s stress response system is associated with numerous health problems, including anxiety, depression, headaches, digestive problems, sleep problems, and memory and concentration impairment.

As a result, it is clear that emotions and well-being can have a huge impact in learning. Emotional well-being influences educational performance, learning, and development. Newberry2 explains that emotions are actually neutral and that their value (positive or negative) depends on the context in which they occur. Positive and negative emotional experiences impact brain development differently. Pekrun and colleagues3 suggests that while positive emotions enhance grades and test scores over a span of years, negative emotions actually hinder achievement.

Negative emotions are those that are experienced as unpleasant, including anxiety, anger, embarrassment, hopelessness, and boredom. They can be distracting and limit a student’s ability to maintain the level of attention they need to get things done. As a result, students may become distracted and even discouraged by things like seeing other students finish before them and become frustrated by how angry, hopeless, or anxious they feel. Negative emotions can also hinder students’ motivation; for example, persistent feelings of anxiety and embarrassment are associated with decreased interest and intrinsic motivation. Furthermore, negative emotions reduce a student’s ability to self-regulate and utilize certain skills, such as reasoning and acting flexibly. 

So how can educators support and improve student well-being? Research has provided a diverse set of tools and practices that can help achieve this goal.


Positive Education

Positive education is the result of integrating the principles of positive psychology to the classroom. It views school as a place where students not only cultivate their intellectual minds, but also develop a broad set of character strengths, virtues, and competencies, which together support their well-being.4 Schools around the world have an obligation to teach the science of well-being so that they can equip students as best they can to deal with the inevitable stresses of life. Excitingly, research is showing that positive education has an impact in preparing kids to handle these stresses in a more effective way.

Trauma-informed teaching

Sadly, trauma is more common among children than we think and it has been proven that it impacts their achievement at school. This is true across geographies, and it does not discriminate based on socioeconomic standing. In fact, an estimated 1 out of 2 children globally (2-17 years old) suffers some form of violence each year.5 This is why educators should know about Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE), as of the students with an ACE score of 4 or higher 51% will have a behavior disorder or learning disability. In contrast, out of the students who have an ACE score of 0, only 3% will have a behavior disorder or learning disability. In response to these statistics, trauma-sensitive or trauma-informed education has emerged as a need for educators who are often in the front lines of teaching children who are survivors of trauma.


Student mindset

It has been thoroughly documented that a student’s beliefs about their own abilities can evoke emotions that may ultimately impact and influence the student’s success in the classroom. Students’ mindsets and their beliefs or perceptions about intelligence and ability affect their cognitive functions and learning.6,7 For example, while many students overcome obstacles with an inherent appetite for challenge, others view challenges and setbacks as personal threats and do whatever they can to remove themselves from this discomfort. Research has identified four key mindsets:8

  • Growth Mindset.
  • Belonging Mindset.
  • Purpose and Relevance Mindset.
  • A sense of self-efficacy and the ability to succeed.
Social-emotional learning (SEL)

Similar to cognitive skills, social and emotional skills can be taught and, with practice, can positively impact an individual’s academic journey. Educators can shape the intellectual, social, emotional, and physical aspects of classroom climate and incorporate academic mindsets, perseverance, and social skills into their teaching in developmentally appropriate ways. Studies have shown that the classroom climate has implications for students. While a negative climate can hinder learning and performance, a positive climate can foster student learning. Thus, explicitly teaching students how to manage their emotions alongside academic content is recommended. Social-emotional learning has been gaining much traction in modern education, given its focus on five core competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.


  1. Tyng, C. M., Amin, H. U., Saad, M. N., & Malik, A. S. (2017). The influences of emotion on learning and memory. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, Article 1454. p. 1.
  2. Newberry, M. (2010). Identified phases in the building and maintaining of positive teacher–student relationships. Teaching and Teacher Education, 26(8), 1695-1703.
  3. Pekrun, R., Goetz, T., Titz, W., & Perry, R. P. (2002). Academic emotions in students’ self-regulated learning and achievement: A program of qualitative and quantitative research. Educational Psychologist, 37(2), 91-105.
  4. Bott, D., Escamilia, H., Kaufman, S., Barry, K., Margaret L., Krekel, C., Schlicht-Schmälzle, R., Seldon, A., Seligman, M., & White, M. (2017). The state of positive education. World Government Summit, Dubai, UAE.
  5. World Health Organization. (n.d.) Violence against children.
  6. Dweck, C. S. (2008). Mindsets and math/science achievement. Carnegie Corp. of New York–Institute for Advanced Study Commission on Mathematics and Science Education.
  7. American Psychological Association (2015). Top 20 principles from psychology for preK–12 teaching and learning.
  8. Darling-Hammond, L., & Cook-Harvey, C. M. (2018). Educating the whole child: Improving school climate to support student success. Learning Policy Institute.
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