How Do We Measure Wellbeing in Children?

Updated: Oct 1, 2018

For too long we’ve evaluated children’s success and health through the “big life events”: the yearly checkup of height and weight, the quarterly report cards, the basketball team playoff win. But new discussion on wellbeing has us looking at the here-and-now of daily healthy habits and life satisfaction. We now know that wellbeing is evidenced in small ways, and that even kids who appear to be well can be anything but: that straight A student may be experiencing debilitating anxiety; the 100 meter champ could be experiencing trauma in his home environment; and the LBGTQ student may be quietly absorbing taunts and discrimination from classmates.

Interestingly, most studies on children’s wellbeing don’t ask kids what they think; researchers instead look at quantitative factors like graduation rates, health data, and poverty indicators. While these are all important aspects of wellbeing, we also need to meet kids exactly where they are right now, as Gina Crivello did in her 2009 study on wellbeing that used child-focused, qualitative methods to involve kids as participants in the research. Kids are always hearing that they need to do things to “get ready” for the next stage in their lives. Instead, let’s work on giving them what they need developmentally in the moment, which is the best way to prepare them for the future anyway.

So here are five things we can do to assess children’s wellbeing:

1. Ask them! Taking the time to find out how kids think and feel about their lives is important. Allowing kids to describe how they are resilient in the face of adversity can support them in feeling like experts in their own lives. There are creative tools that Crivello utilized to do this successfully: draw-and-tell asks to kids draw a specific scene at school or home and then describe it; a life-course timeline allows kids to share important events in their lives; and a body map helps them discuss feelings and perceptions.

2. Provide varied services and supports at transitions, and look at data (such as grades, discipline, attendance) as well as talk with kids to figure out who needs what. Tiering interventions will keep gaps small for students who have difficulties. For example, if a 6th grader is struggling with the organizational demands of middle school, give instruction in the form of a small group, extra tools, a mentor, or a different system (folders rather than binders). Successfully navigating turning points is key to wellbeing, and all kids can manage transitions well if given the right support.

3. Focus on strengths. Kids won’t tell you how they’re feeling or what they’re really thinking if they feel shame or judgement. Wellbeing is about using what’s already working to get through difficulties. Capitalize on kids’ ability to creatively problem solve, and they will often be able to come up with a plan that the adults can support at home or at school.

4. Trust kids to be the experts on their own lives, but don’t leave all of the choices up to them. Eating, sleeping, exercise, and technology habits are important aspects of wellbeing and need to be set and modeled by parents, giving kids increasing autonomy as they learn how to make healthy choices and find balance in their lives. The most effective method I’ve found for getting my middle schoolers at home and at school to self-monitor their technology habits is to share and discuss the research without lecturing or nagging. Allow some flexibility within reason, and help them identify the things that make them feel healthy and satisfied with life.

5. Assess your organization or family to find out if there are systemic issues that need to be addressed. Racism, sexism, and other types of discrimination have a negative effect on wellbeing, according to a 2013 study by Naomi Priest. Be brave enough to have difficult conversations and ask kids about their experiences with discrimination, then work with your school or family to figure out what the adults need to do to intervene.

Any time you’re assessing children’s wellbeing, one piece of advice shines through: put relationships first. Always. Crivello’s research found that, around the world, children’s wellbeing is most closely related to the strength of the connections between kids and their families and peer groups. While research on wellbeing that’s conducted on adults cannot automatically be applied to children and adolescents, our humanity continually reveals this truth from the cradle to the grave: we cannot flourish without each other!

Crivello, G., Camfield, L., & Woodhead, M. (2009). How Can Children Tell Us about Their Wellbeing? Exploring the Potential of Participatory Research Approaches within Young Lives. Social Indicators Research, 90, (1), 51-72.

Priest, N., Paradies, Y., Trenerry, B., Truong, M., Karlsen, S., & Kelly, Y. (2013). A systematic review of studies examining the relationship between reported racism and health and wellbeing for children and young people. Social Science & Medicine, 95(C), 115–127.

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