UNESCO launches global ‘Happy Schools’ Initiative in times of crisis

By: Sara Bin Mahfooz and Juliette Norrmén-Smith, UNESCO

To young people today, the future may feel bleak. Faced with one crisis after another, from COVID 19 to climate change to climbing numbers of refugees, it is no surprise that pessimism pervades. Combined, these global crises have created another: a happiness crisis. Now, perhaps more than ever, schools should pitch positivity, which is why UNESCO has launched a scale-up of its Happy Schools Initiative.

Stress and socio-emotional distress are surging among the world’s youth. A school student today must navigate a digitally driven world of social media pressures and personas, high stakes testing, competitive job markets, divisive identity politics, stark income inequalities, and a near constant visual reporting of global trauma, warfare, and human suffering. On top of that, students have spent the past two years being told they will feel the social and academic effects of the pandemic for the rest of their lives. Learning is harder when you know you’ve lost so much of it, when it feels like you’re in a never-ending uphill battle.

Everyone at school—teachers, students, parents, school leaders, and staff—needs a little light, a sense of purpose and belonging. Schools should be sites to support social cohesion, creating communities across difference. Schools, too, should foster a lifelong love of learning through joy and engagement, rather than deter students from it by prioritizing academic performance over all else, to the detriment of personal well-being.

UNESCO has since decided a global scale-up of its Happy Schools Initiative. Begun in 2014 by UNESCO Regional Bureau for Education in Asia and the Pacific in Bangkok, the Happy Schools Initiative offers an alternative approach to improving learning experiences: prioritizing school happiness. By going global with the initiative, UNESCO is responding to the plea for support from students and schools around the world who are asking for a pause on the pressures for constant productivity to make space for play and positivity.

The initiative targets the happiness of the school rather than individual students because schools are sites of holistic, sustainable community development that includes teachers, staff, school leaders, and even parents. To Eszther Salamon, the Director of Parents International, fostering a love of learning is one of a school’s most important roles:

Children who enjoy learning at school will happily dive into further learning after graduation. The 21st century has required constant update of knowledge and aptitude to learning more. A happy learner will remain a learner, so this initiative is more than timely.”

The scale-up of the initiative begins by emphasizing the link between well-being and better learning. By prioritizing engaging, collaborative experiences at school, learning outcomes are likely to improve. Today, in troubling times of geopolitical turbulence tearing families apart, schools should spend their energy on what matters most: safety and support. Strengthening these foundations will combat the negativity that stunts both cognitive and non-cognitive lifelong learning.

Compassion, communication, and community-building should be cornerstones of the school building. We must make concerted efforts to ensure all schools are happy places. Only then can they be places of learning to know, to do, to be, and to live together.

It is with great pleasure that UNESCO announces the launch of its first global pilot project in Yemen. Interested countries or schools can request to join the global Happy School Framework pilot implementation by sending an email to HappySchools@unesco.org

To help build happy school environments around the world, please fill out this survey to share materials, stories, activities and experiences with our team. You can help us strengthen the global Happy Schools community.

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  1. What about teacher happiness?? I wonder about this. It’s great to propose more and more coverage, but what about the support.

  2. Wow. I’d love to know how different this is from Child-Friendly Schools and Joyful Learning.

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