Academics or Self Knowledge: Which is most important to mental health and well-being?

Our children are not well emotionally, psychologically, and physically, and those most responsible for their well-being – teachers and parents – have not been provided with a way to look at the problem. Well-being refers to your psychological and physical health, where health is not simply the absence of mental or physical illness, but the more positive connotation of how well your life is going; your well-being is what is good for you. Well-being includes emotional health, vitality and satisfaction, life direction and ability to make a difference, physical health and energy to function fully, healthy behaviors such as diet and exercise, quality of relationships, financial wealth, experiencing a high quality of life, and living a good life.

Young people are suffering in silence about their despair that life can be positive as indicated by a recent American Freshman Survey: “The emotional health of incoming freshmen is at its lowest point in at least three decades.” The American Freshman Survey, an annual report that is now entering its 50th year, collected responses from about 153,000 full-time, first-year students at 227 four-year public and private institutions in 2014. What has happened over the past “three decades” to bring us to this crisis? Well-being measures and outcomes have not been on the radar screens of our education leaders and policy makers, and parents have been led to believe that if children do well in school academically then they will also be happy, healthy, flourishing children. Maybe it is time that parents learn the truth.

Parents and teachers must come together to align their views, since our policy makers and leaders do not understand the extent of the problems or how to intervene. Parents should be asking their children’s colleges and universities for their well-being metrics. For instance, The Princeton Review reports that Rice University’s students are the second “happiest” for three years running. Additionally, they should ask their public school leaders why, in one example, the Pennsylvania Youth Survey (PAYS) Centre County 2013 survey results found that “the most commonly reported depressed thought was ‘at times I think I am no good at all,’” which was reported by 30.4% of students in this county, and where 27.1% of students actually felt depressed or sad most days.” And yet there are no methods advocated by school leaders for teachers, school counselors or parents to prevent these destructive thought patterns and associated feelings.

These personal, whole child, well-being metrics are just a few examples of the gaps between what schools are focusing upon – primarily academic outcomes – and the inner life of the young people in their care. Further, our mental health and education experts consider protective factors to be primarily external to the inner self of students and focus upon family, school, community with no inner psychological self-attributions considered. It is time to change this focus and lens that we use to educate our children toward what is the most important protective factor for a happy, healthy, flourishing life – self-knowledge.

In my book I describe in detail the extent of the emotional, psychological and physical well-being problems in our society and approaches to intervene. The Self in Schooling: Theory and Practice – How to Create Happy, Healthy, Flourishing Children in the 21st Century discusses research based programs such as: the Integrated Self Model (iSelf); Self Across the Curriculum (SAC); The Success Predictor; among other best practices used in K-16 schooling.

Schools are so locked into academic measurable outcomes; the most recent iteration is the Common Core standards in math and language arts. Recent updates to the reauthorization of the ESEA, called the Student Success Act, double down on this focus and emphasis upon testing and teaching to the test. The assumption is that if we can verify that our young people are proficient in math and language arts, then they will be equipped to thrive in life. I assert, and the research overwhelmingly supports, that this is a false assumption.

Parents and teachers have to arm themselves with the latest techniques and research about the importance of self-knowledge as the number one protective factor for a successful life. The amount of information available to humans is increasing at an exponential rate, and it is impossible for the education system to teach all of the information required in specific subject areas, such as STEM subjects. What is possible and essential is to teach about self-understanding and adaptability to think and feel in order to thrive in an increasingly complex modern life.

The data on whole child well-being is dismal, and we’re not even measuring what parents really want measured – those inner psychological attributions that will give children the tools for a happy, healthy, and successful life. Parents want to measure: what do our children know about themselves, do they know their strengths, do they have a sense of direction, do they have the self-confidence to be assertive and put forward their own ideas in the world?

Teachers want to become more skilled at empowering self-directed learning to their students. Teachers and parents need to stand up for what they want to see happening in their schools, because policies will lag behind what people really need for their children. To provide young people with hope for a better future during mental health month, shouldn’t we be taking more impactful action and doing more to create emotionally and psychologically well young people?

Parents and especially their children want and deserve more serious and committed actions and methods to improve well-being outcomes.

The occasional seminar or mental health event is simply not enough. Our schools need the teaching of self-understanding and well-being to be infused across the curriculum. At the very least, academic outcomes will go up, at the most, we have happier, healthy children.


Dr. Henry G. Brzycki’s is the author of The Self in Schooling: Theory and Practice—How to Create Happy, Healthy, Flourishing Children in the 21st Century, and President of The Brzycki Group and The Center for the Self in Schools based in State College, PA. He can be contacted at:

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