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Study examines what aspects of mental health are tied to doing well in math, English

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

One ongoing question in child psychology is what can help kids do better in school? For a long time, researchers have focused on happiness. The thinking goes, when kids feel happier, they tend to get better grades. But now a new study suggests that parents and schools should focus on another aspect of mental health. NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff has this report.

MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: Two years ago, Tania Clarke and her colleagues sent out a survey to teenagers asking about their well-being. She's a psychologist at the University of Cambridge.

TANIA CLARKE: Our study was conducted with just over 600 adolescents aged 14 to 15 across seven schools in England.

DOUCLEFF: She asked them questions about how confident they feel, and do they have a sense of purpose? The goal was to see what aspects of mental health are associated with doing well in math and English. One stuck out above the others.

CLARKE: Eudaimonia.

DOUCLEFF: Eudaimonia - what does that mean?

CLARKE: It's about having the opportunity to understand what purpose in life feels like for you and having opportunities to cultivate your unique personal strengths and talents.

DOUCLEFF: So feeling like you're competent, functioning well, and what you do matters to others. Clarke and her colleagues found that the kids who perform really well in math also had higher levels of eudaimonia, about 50% higher.

CLARKE: They have a higher sense of purpose, meaning, fulfillment and competence.

DOUCLEFF: The study, which was published in School Psychology Review, does have major limitations. It's relatively small, and it only shows a link to academic performance, not that it actually helps to improve grades. But the study supports a whole slew of other studies looking at how sense of purpose and competence can motivate kids.

DAVID YEAGER: I find the same thing in, like, huge studies.

DOUCLEFF: That's David Yeager. He's a psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin. He says despite all this evidence, many school systems haven't incorporated it into the classroom.

YEAGER: This study is the latest version of an important narrative that has been bubbling up in the scientific literature, but has been mostly ignored in the people who plan our education systems and our narratives about education.

DOUCLEFF: He and Tania Clarke say it's time for that to change. Clarke says it's time for schools to start cultivating eudaimonia in teenagers.

CLARKE: To actually help adolescents make connections between the learning and the wider world, what does this mean for them, their interests, their personal goals.

DOUCLEFF: And to help them make connections between what they're learning and what they want to do with their lives.

Michaeleen Doucleff, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michaeleen Doucleff, PhD, is a correspondent for NPR's Science Desk. For nearly a decade, she has been reporting for the radio and the web for NPR's global health outlet, Goats and Soda. Doucleff focuses on disease outbreaks, cross-cultural parenting, and women and children's health.