This week's column features an update on student mental health and happiness after a year of pandemic. New findings from a national survey of student happiness and resilience are astonishing in what they reveal about teaching and learning at Grauer over this past very difficult year.
If You’re Happy And You Know It…
A Research Study Measuring the Impact of One Year of Global Pandemic
By Tricia Valeski, Ph.D., Grauer School Center for Research and Evaluation
Someone (one of my elders) once said to me, “I don't know why kids think they are supposed to be happy all the time." Well, Aristotle thought that happiness was, “the meaning and purpose of life, the whole aim and the end of human existence”. As parents, of course we want our kids to be happy. And there are practical reasons for this. Researchers have consistently found that people who are happy have better health, stronger immune systems, combat stress better and live longer . Sounds like something we could use right about now, after a long year of living in a global pandemic.
And parents want their kids to be happy in school. In fact, it is their top priority (often ranking higher than academic achievement). Are schools delivering that? In school, happiness comes from feeling safe and comfortable, and having secure relationships with teachers and peers. Happiness in school is more than just an emotion, it is closely linked to positive outcomes like intrinsic motivation, meaningful achievements, and GPA. Sadly, a recent study from Yale University tells us that, in the United States, 75% of high school students’ feelings about school are negative. And, as many as 40-60 percent of high school students feel disconnected from school . When students were asked how they were feeling, the most common emotion they reported was tired (58%). When asked to rate their emotions, students report feeling stressed (79.83%) and bored (69.51%) the most.
This chart below is from the World Happiness Report 2019, which shows the correlation between time spent on the internet, sleeping more than seven hours per night, frequency of in-person social interaction, and general happiness among 8th and 10th graders in the United States.
Naturally, these trends only grew worse through the pandemic.
Despite the bad news nationally, there is very good news at our school, and we hope it will be instructional for educators everywhere. When we asked Grauer students in February how they were feeling, they said they felt happy (97%), safe (98%), and loved (97%), a stunning departure from the national norms and mood of stress, boredom, and exhaustion. In their responses in our recent, nationally normed Panorama survey , students scored in the 99th percentile in their perceptions of physical and psychological safety, connections with teachers and peers, and their perceptions of the social and learning climate.
We surveyed Grauer School parents at the same time, and they tended to agree with their children, citing beliefs regarding their own children’s levels of intrinsic motivation and liking school that radically depart from beliefs of parents nationwide. Specifically, Grauer parents reported overwhelmingly that teachers care about their kids, and their kids feel connected, like school, and are developing intrinsic motivation.
In what sounds like a case study, Grauer students seemed to be living through a global catastrophe in joy and connection while nationwide, student feelings about school were plummeting to concerning levels, all while our nation appeared handcuffed for well over a year by pandemic which seemed to be accompanied by a bitter and consuming level of political discord and contentiousness.
Adam Grant, in “Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don't Know”, provides important further thought as we attempt to understand happiness that sheds light on Grauer programs, which attempt to value relationships on par with school grades. Grant describes happiness not as peak moments of bliss, but rather a pattern of positive emotions. Too much focus on one’s own happiness per se, can even be a risk factor for depression, as opposed to people who are looking for contribution and connection, which both tend to bring happiness. In other words, “those are only happy who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness.” (John Stuart Mill). Studies have shown that acts of kindness and compassion can boost happiness . As Grant puts it, "Joy can wax and wane, but meaning is likely to last.”
And what greater time to develop compassion, empathy and resilience than during times of struggle?
Raising happy kids does not mean becoming “helicopter parents” who don’t let their children work through their own struggles or encourage them to develop compassion and empathy. At Grauer, our students are living and developing these qualities every day. As you can see in the chart below, Grauer parents surveyed express the strong belief that the school is developing strong, empathic, independent, resilient humans, that our students certainly need to be right now.
At school this year, similar to all schools, we probably heard mention of the concept “resiliency” more than in any other time in our 30-year history. Human beings are not born with resilience, it is developed through experience, education, and nurturing. Kids can develop resilience by being given independence and having confidence in their ability to get through adversity. Click here to listen to an interview with Dr. Ann Masten, Professor of Child Development in the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota, on resilience and independence that we recommend to our school parents and that should provide insights as to why the Grauer program is having extraordinary results related to happiness and resiliency. Of course, as parents our instinct is to protect our children. By trusting that we can give them some independence to work through difficult situations at school and elsewhere, we are helping them develop resilience.
This latest round of Grauer School research seems to confirm a large body of research saying that happiness is not attributable just to an absence of strife or challenge in our lives, but rather to a variety of practices that anchor us to our supporters and most meaningful values over time.
At Grauer, some of our core values, like resourcefulness, accountability and self-advocacy (and a wide variety of refined programs that promote those specific values) are not only given weight and substantial programming weekly, they appear perfectly aligned with the development of resiliency (so closely associated with happiness).
The Grauer School commends our school parents who make this extraordinary program possible, as well as, of course, the Grauer faculty that pursues these core values with constancy—in the face of any obstacles. Thank you to our students, parents, and teachers for participating in this year’s surveying, and for the trust you put in us which enables us to do our best work. We encourage you to stay resilient: get enough sleep, eat well, stay in touch with the people you care about, self-regulate, exercise, meditate, practice self-care, do things that are relaxing, pay attention to how you are feeling, and give yourself a break.
In the end, I agree with my elders, that we must not expect our children to be happy all the time. We just need to believe that, as individuals, they are up to attaining this ideal over time—and the independent school environment has a profound impact on this. We believe that students at schools that can create the conditions where they can find the independence, voice, and trust they need will continually develop themselves towards Aristotle’s ideal life purposes.
 6 Benefits of Happiness According to the Research, Elaine Mead, PositivePsychology.com, September 30, 2020.
 Yale Study: Vast Majority of High Schoolers Unhappy at School, Kerry McDonald, Foundation for Economic Education, February 10, 2020.
 The Panorama Student Survey is a nationwide survey that was developed by a team of researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education under the direction of Dr. Hunter Gehlbach.
 A range of kindness activities boost happiness, Lee Rowland and Oliver Scott Curry, National Library of Medicine, 2019.
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