How Are Your Students Feeling? Check-in and Find Out
By Julian Fagan and Ian Fagan
Editor’s Note: This is part two in a series written especially for edCircuit. You can read part one here.
Traditionally, school communities have relied primarily on infrequent large-scale surveys and teacher observations to effectively manage wellbeing. While these remain important support structures, it is now recognized that wellbeing can change rapidly from week to week and that very few students will communicate this, even if they are under severe psychological distress. Equally concerning is the fact that many of the threats we face to our wellbeing today take place ‘under the surface’ and are ever-present due to our increasingly advanced mechanisms for bullying, discriminating, spreading idealism and inducing anxiety. For students, these threats can manifest quickly, quietly and in many forms, which is why regular reporting on the part of the student, also known as student voice, has become an integral part of managing the increasingly complex wellbeing issues that our children and young people face.
Challenge 1 – Wellbeing fluctuates rapidly
Research out of UNICEF found that 1 in 4 adolescents reported 2 or more mental health symptoms more than once per week. Our systems for managing wellbeing must be reflective of the speed at which it can change. Observing trends from real-time wellbeing data allows for fast action and aids teachers in building strong relational connections.
Challenge 2 – Very few communicate
There remains considerable fear and a stigma associated with mental health and wellbeing. And despite its growing prevalence, very few students will seek help when they need it most. Our research has shown that this is not due to an unwillingness from children and young people to speak up but rather not having the right outlets in place. This willingness has been demonstrated by online activity on our social platforms, which we elaborate on further in our article ‘A Lesson From Social Media About Wellbeing Management’. In a busy school environment, however, students are afforded very few opportunities to speak about their wellbeing in a comfortable, safe and engaging manner.
Regular wellbeing check-in addresses these two challenges
The regular check-in has become a critical component of effective wellbeing management largely due to its ability to engage students’ voices in a quick and simple way, and provide real-time understanding of wellbeing for teachers and senior leaders. It starts the dialogue between students, staff and families for what can become life-changing conversations. These conversations are not just addressing immediate wellbeing issues but also sharing stories of gratitude and aspirations that help foster happy, safe and connected school communities.
For over 4 years our team has worked extensively on designing the student wellbeing check-in and arguably the most common question we get is, “How often should we check in?’”
Our research found that 53 percent of students want to be given the opportunity to check in once a week and almost all (97 percent) want to be checked in with at least once every three weeks. Typically, our schools start by checking in once a week or fortnight (14 days for our American friends) and adjust as required. That said, and this may be a somewhat disappointing answer, there is no clear science that suggests there is a ‘right’ frequency. Each school and each student is unique. There are also moments in the school schedule you might need to check in more frequently.
The ‘right’ frequency very much depends on your approach to checking in, particularly:
• How long is the check-in for the student? We have found 30-45 seconds is the sweet spot for student engagement (3-4 questions).
• What medium are you using to check-in? Digital is best for the purposes of checking in for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it makes it more manageable for your school. Secondly, students feel comfortable to start the dialogue online, remember though, the conversation should be taken offline where appropriate.
• How extensive and user friendly is the reporting? I.e. is it going to create a whole lot of work for your teachers each time you check-in? We recommend a layered approach wherein classroom teachers can get fast, easy to action feedback within 2 minutes, and senior leaders can dig deeper to inform future wellbeing planning.
Perhaps most important to the frequency question is ensuring that your students are checking-in frequently enough to meet two of the primary objectives of the regular check-in:
1. Early identification of at-risk students
Research out of UNICEF found that 1 in 4 adolescents reported 2 or more mental health symptoms more than once per week. This could be feeling sad, excessively worried, or other symptoms. So, wellbeing does fluctuate rapidly, and approaches to managing it should be reflective of that.
If you are checking in less frequently, you can account for this by empowering students in two ways:
• To check in on their own accord, on Skodel, this is known as a self-check-in and it allows a student to check-in unprompted by the teacher. A regular check-in should begin to break down the stigma and fear around having open and honest conversations about mental health. Normalizing it should in turn encourage students to reach out proactively.
• To open up in such a way that they are able to communicate whether they are doing well, simply having a bad day, or facing a greater struggle. Solely asking if someone is feeling sad or happy may only tell a small part of the story. A student may be worried due to exams, or they may be worried due to something that may be more concerning such as bullying or body image. Use age-appropriate illustrations and gifs to help students express what is going on, whether it be positive or negative, and allow free-text responses. This way you can quickly understand if further follow-up is required.
2. Collecting data over time to inform program planning
Checking-in as infrequently as once a month, schools are still able to map out key moments in their schedule and what to look for during these moments. Some of these may be instinctively known, others not so much. Schools can also compare across cohorts to identify which year groups bullying is most prevalent when social media starts to play a bigger role in young people’s lives and correlations in the drop-off or increase in positivity due to this.
For example, check-in data shows there is a disproportionate increase in friendships as a driver of positivity and negativity during the transition from year 6 to year 7 compared to other year groups. During this transition, students largely fall into one of three categories:
• Positive about making new friends
• Positive as they have their best friends coming with them
• Losing their friendships and feeling highly anxious about making new ones
Schools can use this data to shape their programs and target their resources more effectively. In this instance, friendships should be a focal point of your transition program, particularly in overcoming fears of meeting new people and how to make new friends. Checking in during this transition enables schools to identify which students fall into which category so that they can provide targeted support.
So, how often should you check-in?
Ultimately, you must work with your students through this and adjusting the frequency along the way is perfectly okay. The above highlights that checking in as infrequently as once a month for 30 seconds will still provide considerable insight into student wellbeing, both to assist in early identification and collecting data over time to inform program planning.
About the authors
Julian Fagan learned through personal reflection that academic success meant very little if students were unable to overcome the battle with themselves. In response to this, Julian, together with his twin brother Ian, founded wellbeing software company Skodel, which is driven by a mission to give every student a voice that is heard and acted on. It is now being used by schools across the globe to check-in with students every week.
Ian Fagan is a proven entrepreneur in the education industry. He founded his first business, HSC Study Buddy, straight out of high school in 2010. Ian then turned his attention to student mental health, given the increasing prevalence of youth wellbeing challenges as well as his own personal experience of mental illness. Together with his twin brother Julian, he launched the youth wellbeing software company, Skodel, which provides teachers and school professionals with up-to-date information on student wellbeing that can inform action for at-risk students.
Follow Skodel on Twitter @Skodelwellbeing