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Driving Positive Change in Adolescent Wellbeing in the UAE

Higher wellbeing in adolescence predicts better health, social, academic and economic outcomes later in life. This means that supporting adolescent wellbeing may have a strong positive impact in a variety of areas in the short term and from a lifetime perspective, benefiting not only individuals but society as a whole. The fact that adolescent wellbeing has worsened in many countries over the last two decades is concerning and highlights the need to make this a policy priority.

Initiatives to assess and promote adolescent wellbeing are growing worldwide. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has been implementing pioneering wellbeing agendas at the national and emirate levels for some years. However, these have barely been driven by local evidence, which remains almost non-existent in the area of adolescent wellbeing. In the absence of local evidence, schools and other decision-makers are forced to rely on evidence from studies conducted in very different sociocultural contexts. The unique characteristics of the nation demand evidence-based policymaking approaches that are sensitive to local issues and the diverse socio-demographic profile of its population.

In a research project funded by the Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research, I used data from the 2018 edition of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) study by the OECD to provide the first detailed overview of levels and drivers of adolescent wellbeing in the UAE. This baseline assessment provides valuable insights that schools, education authorities, and other stakeholders can use to inform decisions on how to support adolescent wellbeing. The policy paper resulting from this research makes specific recommendations, and calls for a change in the nation’s wellbeing policy approach to facilitate systematic data collection and analysis at the national, emirate, and school levels, and to ensure that emerging evidence is used to drive positive change.

This research identifies at-risk groups that should be targeted in efforts to promote adolescent wellbeing in the UAE. Adolescent wellbeing (life satisfaction, positive and negative affect, meaning and purpose in life) and mental health symptoms of internalizing difficulties differ substantially across gender, socio-economic status, national/expatriate status, emirate, and type of school. For instance, girls tend to report lower wellbeing and more mental health symptoms of internalizing difficulties than boys.

Schools were found to play a significant role in shaping adolescent wellbeing. Indeed, the impact of schools is much higher in the UAE than in any other country participating in PISA. Some types of schools exhibited particularly concerning wellbeing outcomes. For example, British schools presented the best academic outcomes in PISA 2018, and – interestingly  the lowest wellbeing. There is, however, no trade-off between academic and wellbeing outcomes in the UAE. Indeed, a positive association was found in some wellbeing outcomes, suggesting that – in line with findings from many countries happier students make better learners. In other words, schools should prioritize both wellbeing and academic outcomes.

The research also identifies some specific issues driving wellbeing. For example, adolescents in the UAE are highly dissatisfied with how they use their time. Some of the drivers of wellbeing identified are particularly relevant for policy and practice. The research suggests, first, the need to nurture a positive school climate by tackling bullying, helping integrate all students, promoting a culture of cooperation over a culture of competitiveness, creating inspiring lessons, homework and activities, providing additional support to students who struggle with school-related anxiety, and engaging parents in conversations on how to promote adolescent wellbeing. Secondly, the research suggests the need for tackling body image issues and promoting healthy habits (physical activity, a balanced diet, and ensuring that adolescents have time to rest). Thirdly, the research suggests that investing in teachers can help make a difference. This could be achieved by lowering the student/teacher ratio, giving teachers access to resources, knowledge and training opportunities, as well as promoting teacher wellbeing.

Notably, the policy paper argues that a policy change is needed in current wellbeing policy approaches in the UAE. Current approaches rely almost exclusively on interventions intended to build skills for wellbeing. This mainly involves positive education programs and interventions and their effectiveness in the UAE is rarely evaluated. The research recommends using only scientifically-validated positive education programs that are followed by rigorous evaluation of their effectiveness in the UAE context. More importantly, rather than focusing almost exclusively on building skills for wellbeing, wellbeing approaches in the UAE should put more emphasis on building context for wellbeing by identifying specific wellbeing issues and at-risk groups, in line with current state-of-the-art initiatives. This approach will require taking steps to conduct and facilitate data analyses by relevant bodies and organisations, including schools, which must receive adequate support and guidance from education authorities. To facilitate this, investment in local expertise and collaboration with foreign experts is essential.

School inspection can play a key role in driving positive change. It is vital to align school wellbeing agendas with inspection frameworks to ensure that school stakeholders are correctly incentivized and accountability is strengthened. Three specific actions may favour the adoption of evidence-based strategies to promote wellbeing in schools. First, all school inspectors should receive state-of-the-art training in wellbeing assessment and promotion. Second, school ratings should incorporate a rigorous assessment of their efforts to promote wellbeing following evidence-based criteria to ensure that school stakeholders are given the right incentives. Finally, parents should be adequately informed about the importance of wellbeing in adolescence and its capacity to predict better academic, health, social, and economic outcomes later in life.

Final recommendations include the need to empower adolescents by giving them a voice on matters affecting their wellbeing, and taking steps to make adolescent wellbeing everybody’s business. Schools, community agencies, non-profit groups, municipalities, other relevant government ministries, religious groups, and community mentors must be included, consulted, and brought to the same table to make a difference in young people’s wellbeing.

In sum, a local evidence base is essential to support adolescent wellbeing in the UAE. This research has provided the first detailed overview of levels and drivers of adolescent wellbeing in the nation. By doing so, it has shown the necessity of expanding the evidence base, as well as the need for a change in the nation’s policy approach to adolescent wellbeing promotion, particularly with respect to at-risk groups and specific wellbeing issues, which need to be more readily identified and responded to. The UAE has the potential to become a leading nation in wellbeing promotion thanks to its ambitious happiness and wellbeing agendas, but to achieve this the starting point must be a reliance on empirical data.


Jose Marquez is a Research Associate for the #Beewell project, a ground-breaking initiative aiming to collect and analyze data on multiple wellbeing domains and drivers and work with schools and communities towards promoting adolescent wellbeing in Greater Manchester, England.