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Mental health and well-being in the learning environment

Key message
A sense of well-being at school begins with close relationships at home that consider the child’s autonomy, complemented by teachers’ caring attention and the togetherness of fellow students. In addition to good relationships, students’ well-being is supported by a contemporary approach to learning that stimulates learning motivation. Well-being is most at risk for children in lower secondary school and university students, as well as those who have experienced bullying or have a chronic illness or special educational needs. Participating in extracurricular education is an opportunity to improve one’s well-being.

In Estonia, people often ask why children lose interest in learning at school and what aspects of our school environment1 helps children learn and feel good about learning. According to self-determination theory (Ryan and Deci 2000)), one of the most influential theories in this field, (learning) motivation and well-being are supported by the satisfaction of three universal psychological needs: autonomy (the ability to act independently), competence or self-efficacy (the success of actions) and relatedness (the existence and quality of relationships). To support students’ autonomy, they must be able to take responsibility for their own learning, which requires information, meaningful choices and interesting tasks. The exercise of autonomy is hindered by a controlling environment (both marks and punishments can serve as a means of control), where the teacher cannot understand the student. Contributing to self-efficacy is the student’s desire to develop in a supportive environment where students can test themselves and receive constructive feedback on their performance. Positive relationships with fellow students and teachers help create and maintain a sense of relatedness at school.

Internationally, it has been estimated that 10–20% of students suffer from mental health problems and poor well-being (Kieling et al. 2011) and that one in two adult mental health problems started before the age of 14 (Choi 2018). The OECD Programme for International Student Assessment PISA has revealed that anxiety and depressiveness have increased, while bullying at school and suicides have decreased internationally among 15-year-olds in the past few decades (Burns and Gottschalk 2019).

Along with the home, the school environment plays a key role in children’s wellbeing, as well as mental health and performance.

Well-being at school is not just about having fun and feeling comfortable. It is a subjective experience that
comes with self-realisation and meaningful development and is related to learning motivation.

We proceed from the understanding of self-determination theory that there is a connection between learning motivation and wellbeing and that wellbeing at school is about more than just having fun and feeling comfortable. It is a subjectively perceived experience that comes with self-realisation and meaningful development. A learning environment that supports learning and wellbeing – described in Estonia as a modern approach to learning> – was among the goals of the lifelong learning strategy for 2020 and emphasised in the vision document for education Smart and Active Estonia 2035. >. Its implementation is monitored, among other ways, through the National Satisfaction and School Environment Survey (referred to below as the national satisfaction survey2).

1 The decline in Estonian lower-secondary-school students’ wellbeing is among the largest in Europe
2 The results presented here are based partly on analyses made by a TalTech research group (Kaja Lutsoja, Marit Rebane and Jelena Matina). We thank Merit Kangro for mediating and interpreting the data and results. In 2021, the survey was taken by 11,365 fourth-grade students, 9,460 eighth-grade students and 5,193 11th-grade students, as well as 937 adults studying in upper secondary school.

The decline in Estonian lower-secondary-school students’ wellbeing is among the largest in Europe

Children’s wellbeing as students reflects their perceived school experience, relationships and sense of wellbeing at school. According to the International Survey of Children’s wellbeing (ISCWeB)3 a majority (77%) of 10-year-old children in Europe are very satisfied with their life as a student (more than 8 points on a scale of 0–10, Figure 3.3.1). The wellbeing of 10-year-old Estonian children is close to the average of the studied European countries. As a general trend, children’s perceived wellbeing decreases with age: among 12-year-olds, about one-tenth fewer respondents are very satisfied with their life as a student than among 10-year-olds. Compared to other countries, Estonia’s decline in wellbeing ratings is one of the largest: nearly 20%. Twelve per cent of 10-year-olds and 19% of 12-year-olds are not satisfied with their life as a student in Estonia (ratings of 0–4 on the same scale).

Figure 3.3.1. Proportion of students in European countries who are very satisfied with their life as a student (8, 9 or 10 points on a scale of 0–10)


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Source: graph by the authors, based on ISCWeB survey data from 2017/18

In Estonia, one of the reasons for the decline in school-related wellbeing may be that children in this age range are moving to a higher school level. There, instead of one class teacher, the student has several different subject teachers, and the contact (relatedness) between the student and the teacher decreases. Furthermore, the formative assessment that was used in primary school is not being used at higher school levels, but marks are becoming important, and many students find this stressful. The amount of homework is also changing. According to the national satisfaction survey, this is a problem for almost every third student in the 8th and 11th grades but only for 13% in the 4th grade. Perception of the amount of homework is related to wellbeing at school.

The change in students’ school-related well-being, when mapped out, is U-shaped: subjective well-being is
higher in the fourth grade, bottoms out in the eighth grade, increases in upper secondary school, and is again higher among adult students in upper secondary school.

The results of the national satisfaction survey in 2021 (Figure 3.3.2) reveal that the change in students’ school-related wellbeing, when mapped out, is U-shaped: perceived wellbeing is the highest in the fourth grade, bottoms out in the eighth grade, increases again in upper secondary school, and is again the highest among adult students in upper secondary school. The increase in perceived wellbeing at the upper secondary school level can be explained by an increase in conscious learning and appreciation for learning by that time. Moreover, significantly less bullying has been observed at the upper secondary school level.

4 Based on the responses of 10- and 12-year-old students from the 2018 survey. This work was supported by the Estonian Research Council grant (PRG700)..
Figure 3.3.2. Estonian students’ average assessments (on a scale of 0–4) of their wellbeing at school and aspects that support and hinder wellbeing