Teaching emotional wellbeing skills

Author: Val Payne and Peter Harper
Published: 09/10/2019

Action For Happiness

The importance of teaching emotional wellbeing skills in schools

Conversations about children, young people and schools often focus with concern on the growing prevalence of mental health issues. Diagnosable conditions such as anxiety and depression have increased, as have rates of self-harm and risky behaviours. This, combined with a pre-occupation with body image, issues around sexuality and safe relationships, and the growing pressures in the lives of children and young people resulting from loneliness, social media, cyberbullying and a focus on exams and achievement, come at considerable cost. Whilst not diminishing the need to provide for those in difficulty, we contend that promoting the wellbeing of all our children should be at least an equal national priority.

Research evidence (Layard, 2015) indicates that the highest determinant of adult life satisfaction is emotional health in childhood, not the highest qualification achieved! Emotional wellbeing is an indicator of academic success and the recent YoungMinds ‘Wise Up’ campaign called on the government to rebalance educational priorities so that emotional wellbeing and academic achievement were regarded as equally important. Schools are ideal environments in which to promote emotional wellbeing, as well as identifying early signs (often behavioural) of mental distress. Children spend a significant proportion of their lives in school, and emotional wellbeing skills learned in school can become lifelong frameworks for managing health and wellbeing. By definition, happier children will become happier (and more productive) adults.

Recent pronouncements suggest that schools will no longer only be judged on academic results, and there is increasing policy support for teaching wellbeing skills:

  • As early as 2013, NICE guidance highlighted that social and emotional wellbeing creates the foundations for healthy behaviours and educational attainment.
  • A priority highlighted in the Mental Health Commission’s Pursuit of Happiness report (2014) was ‘the promotion and protection of the wellbeing and mental and societal capital of the nation’ (page 9), and it recommended that schools be required to teach children and young people how to look after their mental health and build resilience.
  • In The Link between Pupil Health and Wellbeing and Attainment (2014), Public Health England noted that ‘an 11% boost in results in standardised achievement has been linked to school programmes that directly improve pupil social and emotional learning’ (page 6).

Initiatives such as Transforming Children and Young People’s Mental Health Provision will need to provide directly for emotional wellbeing of all children if it is to be truly effective. It is hoped that changes to the statutory requirement to formally include PSHE in schools, combined with a ‘whole-school approach’ to promoting emotional wellbeing, will go some way to building on current evidence.

Against this background, a number of people have developed resources that promote and provide evidence for the teaching of emotional wellbeing and happier living skills. This includes our very own toolkit for primary schools aged 7–11 and the children' s book 50 Ways to Feel Happy.

The Action for Happiness website provides details of lots of wonderful organisations working to promote the mental health and wellbeing of children and young people in schools and beyond.

Using the 'Ten Keys to Happier Living' as a framework for the teaching of emotional wellbeing and happier living skills

Download the resource, in which we share some strategies for applying the ‘Ten Keys to Happier Living’, which are central to the Action for Happiness movement. They are based on a review of the latest research from psychology and related fields. Everyone's path to happiness is different, but the evidence suggests these Ten Keys consistently tend to have a positive impact on people's happiness and wellbeing.

The first five keys (GREAT) are about how we interact with the outside world in our daily activities. They are based on the ‘Five Ways to Wellbeing’ developed by the New Economics Foundation. The second five keys (DREAM) come from inside us and focus on our attitude to life.

When we were first introduced to the ‘Ten Keys to Happier Living’ GREAT DREAM model, we were struck by its simplicity and its potential application in the lives of adults, young people and children. Historically, attention has focused on difficulties rather than on what is going well. Whilst difficulties are part of life, we now have the evidence and frameworks to underpin actions we can take to strengthen our psychological immunity and build our emotional wellbeing and happier living skills. The good news is that research shows that these skills can be taught, and that by practising them regularly we can have a significant impact on our happiness. The ‘Ten Keys to Happier Living’ provide a framework for teaching and embedding these skills, both in the lives of children and young people, and school staff.


Department for Education (December 2014) ‘The national curriculum in England Framework Document’.

King, V. (2016) 10 Keys to Happier Living: A Practical Handbook for Happiness. Headline. London.

King, V., Payne V. and Harper P. (2018) 50 Ways to Feel Happy. QED Publishing. London.

Layard, R. (2015) ‘Why schools should teach character as well as competence’.

Mental Health Commission (July 2014) The Pursuit of Happiness: A New Ambition for our Mental Health. Centre Forum Commission.

NICE (2013) ‘Social and emotional wellbeing for children and young people’. Local Government Briefing (LGB12).

Public Health England (2014) ‘The Link between Pupil Health and Wellbeing and Attainment’.

Val Payne and Peter Harper

Val Payne and Peter Harper