The effects of adolescence, high education standards and westernisation are linked to the trend.
Research conducted by experts at the Flinders University in South Australia and the Beijing Academy of Educational Sciences (BAES) compared student responses to a wellbeing questionnaire conducted in China to similar studies in Australia.
The wellbeing questionnaire in simplified Chinese characters was used in 16 state schools in four Beijing districts and analysed responses from 2,756 students aged from 10 to 15 years old.
Most participants reported that they had positive social and emotional wellbeing, with significantly more of the Chinese students less likely to be ‘languishing’ compared to a similar sample of Australian students. But across the teenage years, there was a trend towards decreasing wellbeing scores in line with comparable western studies.
Compared to similar surveys in Australia, younger Chinese school children are reporting generally positive wellbeing with only small proportions of students indicating languishing mental health.
What does this mean to teachers, parents and guardians in mainland China?
“In contemporary China, a harmonised society and people’s wellbeing have been highlighted among the key goals of the Chinese Communist Party,” says Associate Professor Helen Askell-Williams, Associate Dean (Research) at Flinders University’s School of Education.
“The research aimed to capture the voices of students themselves about their life at school and their mental health are relatively under-reported.
“This large-sample study was the first of its kind to highlight similarities and differences between eastern and western cultures and has the potential to inform the design and evaluation of future intervention programs, based on the western experience,” Associate Professor Askell-Williams says.
Social media, school bullying, China’s one-child policy, rising consumerism, English language education and international exchanges are playing a part in westernising students and exposing them to global cultures, says Flinders PhD candidate Yan Jin.
“The Ministry of Education in China is formulating guidelines to prevent bullying and violence and support mental health issues,” Ms Jin says. “There are some positive consequences of western cultural influences, including a widened information repertoire for teenage students who need support.”
“As well as reflecting cultural differences, and influences of adolescent-related development and increasing academic pressure in higher grades, the importance of mental health programs in schools should not be overlooked,” says Flinders University Emeritus Professor Larry Owens, a visiting professor at the East China Normal University in Shanghai.
“We have several collaborative research studies between Flinders and China relating to social status and popularity among teenagers; drug taking policies and interventions; and rural left-behind elderly people,” he says, adding there is potential to expand the program in future.
The World Health Organisation reports that around 20% of the world’s children and adolescents are estimated to have mental difficulties, with about half beginning before the age of 14.
“This means that a sizeable proportion of students attending school might be suffering mental health difficulties at any one time,” Associate Professor Askell-Williams says.
“Over the past decade or so, Australian governments, school leaders and teachers have increasingly recognised the need for prevention and early intervention programs to support students with mental health difficulties. Some excellent programs have been trialled, evaluated and sustained, such as MindMatters for secondary schools, KidsMatter for Primary schools and KidsMatter Early Childhood.
“Typically, school-based mental health promotion and early intervention initiatives are designed by experts from the fields of psychology and education. These have included programs to build positive school communities; develop students’ social and emotional capabilities; build resilience and grit; prevent bullying; liaise more strongly with students’ parents/carers; and improve referral pathways from schools to specialised professional resources.
Associate Professor Askell-Williams says future studies could usefully investigate broader sample of Chinese students from different ages and socio-economic backgrounds and geographical districts.
Askell-Williams, H., Skrzypiec, G., Jin, Y., Owens, L. Zhao, X., Du, W., Cao, F., & Xing, L. (2016). Mainland Chinese primary and middle school students’ social and emotional wellbeing International Journal of Emotional Education, 8(2), 88-104.
Since 2014, the Flinders Educational Futures Research Institute (FEFRI) collaborative research has been undertaken with three Chinese research institutions – the Beijing Academy of Educational Sciences (BAES), the National Institute of Educational Sciences (NIES) and the Department of Applied Psychology in the School of Psychology and Cognitive Science at East China Normal University (ECNU) in Shanghai. The Flinders School of Education Student Wellbeing and Prevention of Violence (SWAPv) program is producing anti-bullying and wellbeing programs for schools around Australia as well as in various North American, European and Asian countries.
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