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Study calls for new approach to understanding children’s wellbeing

Dr Debbie Watson, Senior Lecturer in Childhood Studies in the School for Policy Studies, is one of the authors of a new study that argues that wellbeing for children should be understood at the level of the individual child.

The UK coalition government has a stated commitment to measuring the wellbeing and happiness of society which draws on pre-formulated lists of wellbeing indicators and measurements. After the recent publication of the ONS National Wellbeing Survey, many commentators have pointed out that this survey relies on an objective list of things that are needed to live well (known as the OLT model), such as 'How satisfied are you with your husband or wife?', which is not a good way to assess wellbeing and can in fact alienate participants.

Children's social and emotional wellbeing by Debbie Watson, Carl Emery and Phillip Bayliss, with Margaret Boushel and Karen McInnes, published by The Policy Press, looks at the social and emotional wellbeing (SEWB) for children, particularly in a school-based context. The key vehicle for the delivery of SEWB in England is through the Every Child Matters outcomes framework, which has operated as an Objective List Theory. 

In the book, the authors deconstruct the concept of wellbeing as it is applied to children and challenge its uncritical acceptance. Taking a post-structural approach, they suggest that wellbeing should be understood, and experiences revealed, at the level of the subjective child. They explore three key propositions: that SEWB is subjectively experienced, situated and contextual , and located in children’s relationships with others.

Through a critical deconstructive analysis of social and emotional wellbeing (SEWB) policies and programmes across the UK, the authors conclude that SEWB for children and young people is poorly articulated and operated a conceptual and practical level. In particular, the complexity and the multi-dimensionality of children's experiences are neglected and it does not reflect their voices.

In this timely critique, the authors argue that SEWB should be seen as subjectively experienced, contextual, embedded and relational and that any policy or programmes aimed at improving wellbeing should address these aspects. They propose how SEWB with, and for, children could be approached differently in respect of policy and practice and the implications for theorising child wellbeing.

Speaking about the book, Mick Waters, Professor of Education, at Wolverhampton University said: ‘This is an in-depth analysis of terms that we all use, brilliantly explained. The reader is helped to understand the bigger picture of what we need to do to address children's social and emotional well being in our schools.’

Children's social and emotional wellbeing by Debbie Watson, Carl Emery, Phillip Bayliss, with Margaret Boushel and Karen McInnes, is published on 18 January, price £19.99 paperback (ISBN 9781847425133) It is available from The Policy Press at 20 per cent discount, or from Marston Book Services, P O Box 269, Abingdon, Oxon OX14 4YN, tel 01235 465577 plus £2.75 postage and packing.

The book is also mentioned in this week's Guardian Education supplement.