Understanding student wellbeing in the educational setting

Recently the Ministry of Education published Student Engagement: Understanding student wellbeing in the educational setting external URL . We have looked at what the report tells us about the experiences of disabled students in their education settings.

The report covers student wellbeing in from Year 7 to Year 13 in the context of decreasing attendance and engagement rates, and increasing bullying behaviour and mental distress across the country. Student voices were heard using a co-design approach that aligns with te ao Māori concepts of wellbeing.

A total of 9,820 ākonga (students) participated in the in-class and online engagements with almost 300,000 responses to questions received (each question has a response). Disability voices were sought out, with a small group of responses from the disability community (84 out of 15,308 responses collected from whānau). Over 40% of responses were from Year 7 or Year 8 students. While there was some overlap between themes discussed by ākonga and whānau, it was only about one-third, which highlights the importance of taking an ākonga-centred approach to understanding wellbeing at school.

Of the questions asked, all were relevant for disabled ākonga and would enable them to express concerns or highlight areas of importance to them:

  1. How would you want your school to show that it cares for you?
  2. What does a safe school look like for you?
  3. What is important for you to have to successfully learn at school?
  4. What does it mean to you to belong to your school community?
  5. How would you want your school to support you to achieve your best possible health?
  6. What does school need to be to make you feel positive and happy about going there?
  7. What do you need to continue to grow, develop and reach your learning potential?
  8. What would make you feel accepted and respected at school?
  9. What would make you feel you are empowered and have mana in the school context?
  10. Is there anything else you think was missed, or any other ideas of student wellbeing that you would like to add?


About 20% of ākonga self-identified as having additional learning support needs. Of the 21 themes identified in the analysis, most aligned with their peers such as Safe, Teacher, Include and Friends. Three themes were unique to disabled ākonga: Independence, Routine and Skills. The study found:

  • Classroom accessibility or toileting support is important for disabled students to attend school in a way that upholds their mana.
  • Routine is important for wellbeing, with unplanned changes requiring additional time and effort to adjust.
  • A strong connection between the themes of independence and skills.
  • Being able to do certain tasks on their own or regulate their emotions is key to their sense of achievement and mana.
  • Performing some activities, for example, cooking for friends enabled wellbeing.

Many parents emphasised the importance of their children feeling safe at school and the impact on their learning:

“Schools are not safe for LGBT or disabled students to be themselves, only very rarely are they able to and this affects their learning in more ways than non-LGBT or non-disabled people can understand.”

“My daughter suffers with ‘anxiety with avoidance’. It has held her back with so many aspects of school life. And on top of this with the growing fight culture in high schools, feeling safe in school is not a reality for her. When she does not feel safe, her ability to be open to learning disappears and she falls behind.”

The research did not focus on intersectionality of gender, the Rainbow community, ethnicity, migrants, and disability.

The themes aligned with Te Kura Tapa Whā model of student wellbeing in an educational setting – incorporating community (runga), school history & background (raro), inside the classroom (roto), and physical environment of the school (waho).

Next steps

The aim of this project is for the voices of ākonga and whānau to help design a measure of wellbeing for ākonga to independently record at regular intervals, and to enable schools, whānau and community to respond to their needs in a timely and proactive manner. Ākonga, whānau and communities will discuss how they want to use and share data, and design the tool that will contain links to support services or strategies for ākonga to reach out and get support. Whaikaha will continue to provide feedback to the project.