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Ambiguous but gaining momentum


March 5, 2020 Phil McRae, Associate Co-ordinator of Research, ATA


ATA research delves into wellness and well-being in schools


“What is generally agreed is that well-being is a holistic concept and that achieving healthy school communities should rely on a multifaceted, wholeschool approach known as comprehensive school health (CSH).”

School Wellness and Well-Being Initiatives Across Canada 

CONSIDERATIONS OF WELLNESS AND WELL-BEING in schools and communities have gained momentum due to a large body of data that points to a dramatic rise in the reported cases of anxiety and depression in children and youth, including increases in suicide ideation. Concerns about the wellness and well-being of our students is also creating even greater stressors among the teaching profession and others who care for children and youth on a daily basis. As such, across Canada we are also seeing a renewed focus on understanding and supporting teacher wellness and well-being.

However, the primary focus for wellness programming and policy centers on the significant role public education plays in the lives of Canadian children, where our schools are seen as major influencers and levers of change to improve both individual and societal wellness. The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, one of Canada’s largest philanthropic foundations, is funding the development of a national program called WellAhead with the rationale that: “Given the amount of time young people spend in school, this setting presents a unique opportunity to support and promote well-being” (WellAhead 2020).

Finding boundaries within the definition of “wellness” and “well-being” has become difficult. Within educational discourse, every organization that uses these terms seems to define them a bit differently, and each seems to have reasons for preferring one over the other. Overall, these terms appear to be on an evolutionary track similar to that of other usefully ambiguous notions like “21st century learning,” “personalization” or “inclusion,” in that they now span the many dimensions of social, emotional, mental, physical, cognitive and workplace wellness.


Report Conclusion

As wellness and/or well-being have become focal points of conversations across Alberta for teachers working in inclusive K–12 classrooms, the Alberta Teachers’ Association wanted to better understand how this concept was being defined in academic literature and which organizations are working to support schools in this area. To this end, the Association partnered with Ever Active Schools to conduct an extensive review of the current research, and an environmental scan to identify the key initiatives, organizations or groups being funded to support wellness and well-being in Alberta and across Canada.

Our review found that there is no universally agreed upon definition for wellness or well-being related to school-based health; it is an ambiguous notion. While many wellness and well-being conversations are primarily centred on the social, physiological and emotional outcomes for students, various dimensions of wellness are increasingly being added to the discourse, for example, financial literacy, healthy eating, physical fitness, aggression, technology addiction and vocal hygiene. What we did find, however, was that there is a generally agreed upon concept in the K–12 research that achieving healthy school communities should rely on a multifaceted, whole-school approach known as comprehensive school health (CSH).


What is the scope of activities being undertaken and how are they measured?

Organizations undertake many different activities to advance well-being in schools, such as developing policy, providing professional development, creating and sharing resources and operating school-level programs. Some organizations have a strong focus on research and evaluation, and regularly measure their impact. Others focus on counting program outputs, citing their capacity to undertake in-depth measurement as a barrier to comprehensive measurement.

Future priorities include aiming for sustainability, improving engagement, providing more professional development, working across systems and enhancing government relations.


Cause for concern

There is growing concern that nongovernmental and private interests around the world are rushing to both define and fill the ambiguous space related to wellness and well-being in schools. For example, the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a nongovernmental organization that helps governments design and implement strategic policies, has two new initiatives focused on measuring and responding to childhood well-being.

The first is the OECD International Early Learning and Child Well-being Study, which intends to use tablet computers to test five-year-olds for literacy, numeracy, executive function, empathy and trust. The other initiative is a future focused competency framework known as OECD 2030 that plans to assess different cultural value orientations around the world to support individual and societal well-being.

While both of these initiatives appear on the surface to have laudable goals, careful consideration must be taken before Canadian schools adopt either of these benchmarking tests.

Academic and early learning organizations across many nations are heavily criticizing the International Early Learning and Child Well-being Study. As Wasmuth (2017) states: “Don’t even get me started on the collection of child-based data on a global scale without the consent of children, parents or practitioners. Or with assessing five year olds on a tablet. How flawed and meaningless are the results? How do you assess trust and empathy, or the complexities of learning and development?”

In terms of OECD 2030, there is concern that this will be making culturally and contextually sensitive comparisons on different national values as they relate to well-being. 

In the private sector, technology companies have also been racing to capture a market for the monitoring, managing and real-time reporting of student behaviour, with a specific goal of altering class well-being through digitally tracked behaviour modification tools. One particular behaviour management tool, ClassDojo, is used in 95 per cent of K–8 schools in the United States and 180 other countries (ClassDojo 2020). This company sells, maintains and monitors software that tracks students' behaviour in the classroom and allocates negative or positive points (i.e. dojos), based on the observed behaviour.

Among the critics of Class Dojo was the renowned blogger and teacher Joe Bower (2014), who pointed out that, “ClassDojo reduces children to punitive measures where the misbehaviour is seen as nothing more than an inconvenience to the teacher that needs to be snuffed out. ClassDojo judges and labels students by ranking and sorting them and distracts even well-intentioned adults from providing children with the feedback and the guidance they need to learn.”

If we are to truly take stock of the wellness of our students, in all its manifest forms, certainly the human dimension of positive teacher–student relationships will become central to the practice, as opposed to the application of mechanistic or Pavlovian behaviourist software programs. This is a cautionary tale for digital assessments writ large. As educational psychologist Gerald W. Bracey, research columnist for the Phi Delta Kappan education journal, points out, there “is a growing technology of testing that permits us now to do in nanoseconds things that we shouldn't be doing at all" (Matthews 2004).

The wellness of children, youth and, indeed, adults requires many sustained, resourced, thoughtful and strategic actions if we are to collectively address individual and societal well-being. Now that we know more about the initiatives in Alberta and across the country that are currently addressing well-being in all of its growing complexity, we need to begin considering how we can work together in new and hopeful ways to enhance comprehensive school health and the lives of our students, teachers and school leaders. 



Alberta Teachers’ Association. 2019. School Wellness and Well-being Initiatives Across Canada: Environmental Scan and Literature Review. Edmonton, Alta: ATA. Also available at (accessed December 11, 2019).

Bower, J. 2014. “6 Reasons to Reject ClassDojo.” For the Love of Learning (blog), November 21, 2014. (accessed December 11, 2019).

ClassDojo. 2020. “About ClassDojo: Fast Facts.” ClassDojo website. (accessed February 10, 2020).

Matthews, J. 2006. “Just Whose Idea Was All This Testing?” Washington Post, November 14. (accessed December 11, 2019).

Wasmuth, H. 2017. “Baby PISA Is Just Around The Corner: So Why Is No One Talking About It?” Early Childhood Education (ECE) PolicyWorks website. (accessed December 11, 2019).

WellAhead. 2020. “Helping Integrate Social and Emotional Well-being into K–12 Education.” WellAhead website. (accessed February 10, 2020).


Wellness and well-being defined in the literature

While healthy eating, physical activity and mental health were the most commonly reported elements of well-being, other elements noted included those shown in the graphic below. 


To learn more about comprehensive school health, check out the Joint Consortium for School Health website



The full research  monograph is available  digitally on the ATA website under Public Education > Education Research > Research Publications.

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