Young people’s well-being takes a hit between the ages of 11 and 14, probably linked to the transition to high school, according to a new study.
Attitudes towards school are one of the major factors in this slump, which affects children regardless of their circumstances or family background.
But the decline was less pronounced among children who had high self-esteem at age 11, indicating that boosting self-esteem during early adolescence could help mitigate the impact of going to high school.
The study, using data collected on more than 11,000 young people from across the U.K., comes amid concern at the long-term impact of school closures during the pandemic, and fears that the effect on mental health could prove more damaging than the loss in education.
The new research, carried out by academics at Cambridge and Manchester universities and published in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology, found that subjective well-being dropped significantly in the transition to the first few years of high school.
“Even though this was a large, diverse group of adolescents, we saw a consistent fall in well-being,” said Ioannis Katsantonis, doctoral researcher at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, who led the study.
“One of the most striking aspects was the clear association with changes at school. It suggests we urgently need to do more to support students’ well-being at secondary schools across the U.K.”
The young people were asked at ages 11 and 14 to rate their level of satisfaction with different areas of their life, with those relating to school and peer relationships taking the biggest hit.
Young people generally start high school in the U.K. at age 11, usually moving to a much larger school, with a new or substantially changed peer group and with new routines and structures.
The data, collected pre-pandemic, found that while most adolescents were satisfied with life at the age of 11, the majority said they were extremely dissatisfied at the age of 14, with well-being scores of eight in 10 young people falling below the average for the group three years earlier.
The study also looked at data about levels of satisfaction with particular areas of young people’s lives, such as schoolwork, personal appearance, family and friends. The most dramatic downturns were related to school and relationships with peers.
But young people who had higher levels of self-esteem at age 11 tended to have better well-being at 14, although this did not apply in reverse: better well-being at 11 was not associated with higher self-esteem at 14.
“The link between self-esteem and well-being seems especially important,” said Ros McLellan, Associate Professor at the University of Cambridge, specialist in student well-being, and co-author of the study.
“Supporting students’ capacity to feel positive about themselves during early adolescence is not a fix-all solution, but it could be highly beneficial, given that we know their well-being is vulnerable.”
Celebrating students’ achievements, underlining the value of things they had done well, and avoiding negative comparisons with other students, could all help support self-esteem, Katsantonis said.
At a more fundamental level, incorporating features promoting self-esteem – such as positive psychology initiatives teaching adolescents to set achievable goals – could have an impact.
“Supporting self-esteem is not the only thing we need to do to improve young people’s well-being,” he said. “It should never, for example, become an excuse not to tackle poverty or address bullying – but it can be used to improve young people’s life satisfaction at this critical stage.”
These efforts also need to be sustained, rather than one-off interventions, McLellan added.
“A concerted effort to improve students’ sense of self-worth could have really positive results,” she said. “Many good teachers are doing this already, but it is perhaps even more important than we thought.”
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