Wellbeing and success

by Andy Hargreaves, Dennis Shirley

An argument for why student wellbeing should be part of the education agenda, based on research in Ontario.

Ontario made wellbeing a policy priority in 2014. Hargreaves and Shirley describe the ways Ontario educators responded to that policy over the following four years. The approaches observed will be familiar to New Zealand educators.

Wellbeing and achievement

The authors found that Ontario educators saw three relationships between wellbeing and achievement:

  • Wellbeing is a crucial prerequisite for achievement.
  • Achievement is essential for wellbeing. Failure leads to "ill-being".
  • Wellbeing has its own value. It complements academic achievement.

The authors argue that:

  • learning and wellbeing require more than just the absence of ill-being 
  • wellbeing and achievement shouldn’t exist in two different worlds, with different specialists populating them 
  • an emphasis on wellbeing "has to find its proper relationship to the learning mission of schools". 

In their report (2018a) for the Council of Ontario Directors of Education, on which their article is based, they also make the point that "no credible strategy on student wellbeing can ignore teacher or principal wellbeing" (p52).

Wellbeing critiques

In that same report (2018a), they go on to look at how wellbeing initiatives might go wrong. For instance, by:

  • misunderstanding wellbeing – for example equating it with happiness
  • oversimplifying emotions and ignoring cultural differences in them
  • taking our attention away from the real systemic issues
  • turning us inwards and away from the causes of our problems.

    "If wellbeing is perceived as not connected to learning or achievement, if it seen as self-indulgence, or if the ways of being it promotes do not fit with some of the cultures to which children belong, this will attract criticism and undermine public confidence." (2018a, p55)

Their research concludes with a recommendation that Ontario now needs to develop an evidence base about which strategies are proving more successful in practice than others.

Socio-emotional learning (SEL)

Several schools in the Ontario research had introduced socio-emotional learning programs for students.

In a commentary on social and emotional learning, Schonert-Reichl (2019) observes that:

  • social and emotional competencies predict success in school and in life
  • social and emotional competencies can be taught and assessed
  • explicit attention to context is foundational.

She states that there is a consensus from research that SEL programmes in schools:

  • are an effective and cost-effective way to promote children's positive development and mental health
  • positively influence behavioural and academic outcomes 
  • must be integrated into the entire institution and functioning of the school.

On the other hand, there is currently little research on SEL programmes in relation to:

  • whether all groups of children benefit equally
  • achieving educational equity.

Reflective questions

  • What do we know about the relationship between noncognitive factors and academic performance?
  • What do we know about the relationship between teacher and student wellbeing?
  • How do our teachers, students, and families feel about how we do things at our school? How do we know this?


Wellbeing@school – NZCER

Wellbeing for success – ERO


Andy Hargreaves, A., Shirley, D. (2018b). Well-being and success–Opposites that need to attract. EdCan Network magazine, Winter 2018. 

Andy Hargreaves, A., Shirley, D. (2018a). Wellbeing. Leading from the middle: Spreading learning, wellbeing, and identity across Ontario. Chapter 4, pp37-58. Council of Ontario Directors of Education. 

Mahoney, J. L., Durlak, J. A., & Weisberg, R. P. (2018). An update on social and emotional learning outcome research. Phi Delta Kappan, 100(4), 18–23. doi:10.1177/0031721718815668 

Schonert-Reichl, K. A. (2019). Advancements in the landscape of social and emotional learning and emerging topics on the horizon. Educational Psychologist, 54(3), 222–232.

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