Student Wellbeing: Hong Kong's Happiest Schools

After the stop-start nature of the return to school, months of online learning and all the challenges of Covid-19, how are Hong Kong's international schools rebuilding their communities and supporting student wellbeing?
Student Wellbeing: Hong Kong's Happiest Schools
By Carli Allan
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With mental health problems on the rise in classrooms worldwide, how are Hong Kong’s international schools focusing on student wellbeing and happiness? How are they putting emotional wellbeing at the heart of the school curriculum to ensure that your child is 'happy'?

Parents are looking for schools to focus on student wellbeing; 66% of admissions staff surveyed across Europe, the Middle East, East and South East Asia said that wellbeing support provided by a school is now considered a “very important” factor during school selection, according to a survey published by ISC Research in 2021.

It is clear that the pressures of the modern world are weighing heavily on the young shoulders of students today – and wellbeing initiatives are now an essential rather than optional aspect of any curriculum.

There's no one single way for schools to deliver an education with mental health at its heart, and it takes a combination of leadership, teachers, curriculum, support staff, training and parents to deliver a “whole-school” approach to wellbeing. Wellbeing needs to be more than a weekly yoga or mindfulness class, or the occasional wellbeing day, and we are seeing it at the top of the agenda within many international schools in Hong Kong.

As Kris Bumpus, Head of Counselling and Student Support at the American International School (AIS), says:

"Wellness is the foundation for success. To nurture students to be Global Citizens, Empowered Thinkers, Well-Rounded Individuals, and Effective Communicators, student wellness is essential. Given the incredible challenges presented by a lengthy and ongoing global pandemic, the current state of the world, and life’s daily challenges to maintaining a sense of balance, happiness and health, it is of particular importance to cultivate wellbeing.
"There are many challenges faced by students and families at this time that greatly impact daily life and our ability to maintain positive social connections. These are unprecedented times that require us to refocus on how we take care of ourselves and each other."

There are plenty of international schools in Hong Kong with a big heart, where wellbeing initiatives run through classrooms and corridors to promote student (and teacher) happiness. We've seen an increase in pastoral leaders and counsellors, homegrown wellbeing programmes, and annual events. 

WhichSchoolAdvisor looks at the variety of wellbeing programmes in Hong Kong international school, and we speak to Kris Bumpus, Head of Counselling and Student Support at AIS, about how schools should (and are) taking a whole-school approach to wellbeing that involves the teachers and parents, as well as students. 

Teachers: Faculty Self-Care 

Faculty wellness activities led by the AIS Counseling Department

Addressing the wellbeing of teachers is a vital first step to addressing the wellbeing of an entire  school and everyone within it. As Kris Bumpus at AIS explains:

"Nurturing faculty self-care is essential. In an article titled Connectedness & Health: The Science of Social Connection, Dr. Emma Seppala, explains that having a sense of social connection is developed internally and is directly linked to personal health. This sense of connection is developed first through self-care and second, through giving to others."

Schools are responding with different approaches. For example, at the Canadian International School (CDNIS), a group of teachers have been trained in mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), which uses mindfulness meditation, yoga and body scanning to reduce stress and increase wellbeing.

At AIS, its Counselling Department holds wellness sessions at every whole school meeting and all professional development days. Staff can attend Wellness Wednesday after-school yoga sessions, and have access to wellness resources on an as-needed basis.

A gratitude activity during a whole school faculty meeting at AIS

Ms Bumpus adds:

"AIS further fosters an open and supportive atmosphere through initiatives such as Let’s Have Lunch, hosted by our Curriculum, Instruction and Technology (CIT) team. These daily virtual lunch socials provide opportunities for faculty to connect with one another and offer regular drop-in sessions for questions about curriculum, instruction, or technology questions. Divisional Social Committee members also host Friday after school socials, such as Trivia Night. 

"To further develop the faculty’s sense of connection and to support and celebrate one another, AIS has embedded a gratitude practice into each faculty meeting. Introduced by our Head of School in 2019, this consistent practice provides a platform for faculty to publicly acknowledge gratitude and celebrate the many wonderful initiatives, actions, and accomplishments of our community."

Students: Wellness and Nurturing Student Connections

A morning yoga session at Stamford American International School, Hong Kong

Schools across Hong Kong are organising special events such as wellness days, fitness challenges and student-led team building activities to support the promotion of student wellness.

Kellett School has introduced Positively Kellett, a programme based on the Australian-based Positive Education model, which blends academic learning with character and wellbeing. The school also runs ‘Feel Good Fridays’ with themes including ‘Feeling Awake’ to highlight the importance of a good night’s sleep and ‘Feeling Relaxed’ to focus on yoga and meditation, and an eight-week mindfulness programme for all Year 6 students.

At International College Hong Kong (ICHK), Year 7 students complete a four-day Deep Learning unit where they explore the science of happiness, and Positive Psychology is built into the curriculum across all year groups. And, at AIS, teachers are designing learning experiences for students in all grades which focus on specific Socio-Emotional Learning (SEL) within their homeroom class.

Ms Bumpus explains:

"For example, in the Elementary School (ES), students engage with a weekly Student Support Zoom session that further develops the SEL curriculum. SEL lessons focus on topics such as identifying feelings, emotion recognition and management, conflict resolution, and character development. A wellness check-in protocol has recently been integrated into our SEL program to build community and provide an outlet for students to share and support one another in a safe and structured environment."

Schools are also adding regular events to their calendars to focus on student wellbeing and happiness. Stamford American School, Hong Kong switches the focus to student wellbeing every year for a day. The campus joins more than 70 other Cognita-owned schools to celebrate the group’s Global Be Well Day, as part of an ongoing campaign to improve young people’s mental health and wellbeing.

You can expect morning yoga, talks for staff and parents on wellbeing and resilience, non-invasive basic health checks, InBody scale machine tests and chiropractor assessments. Early years students make fruit salad and smoothies, and students in primary and secondary learn about a healthy balanced diet, hygiene, sleep and screen time.

With the ongoing school closures in Hong Kong, certain wellbeing programmes have been difficult to roll out. As students continue to spend weeks away from classrooms, teachers and friends, and return to online schooling at home, there is an even greater need to focus on their wellbeing. Once again, schools are responding in many different ways.

Elementary and Middle School students at AIS enjoy a visit from the dogs at Professor Paws 

Ms Bumpus explains:

"In addition to the learning that happens within the classroom, peer connections contribute heavily towards a child’s growth and development. Children learn a wide variety of social-emotional skills such as empathy, cooperation, and problem-solving through interacting with others. We recognise the difficulty in providing opportunities for students to remain connected during the ongoing pandemic and have addressed this constraint through our virtual playdate and recess programs. 

"The virtual playdate program, targeted towards our ES and Middle School (MS) students, provides a process for our students to connect. Parents are invited to complete a Playdate Request Google form to indicate the student(s) whom they would like to connect with their child. The Divisional Counsellor offers suggested playdate guidelines and serves as a liaison to connect families who can then make playdate arrangements for their children."

Schools are taking different approaches to reuniting their student community after months of fragmented education and online learning.

Last summer, for example, the English Schools Foundation (ESF) ran its first ‘Five Weeks of Wellbeing’ series of free online activities over the summer break to help students across its 17 primary and secondary schools "reconnect" after lengthy school closures. And Malvern College, Hong Kong embeds a boarding school ethos into its day-school setting to develop a tight-knit community; for example, all teachers and students in the same house eat lunch together daily.

Parents: Supporting Families


Student wellbeing and happiness does depend on a joint effort between the school and its parents,  and there many examples of schools hosting parent webinars and workshops.

The French International School (FIS), for example, has hosted stress management workshops for parents to help them understand the merits of mindfulness, as well as the need to balance their child’s academic achievements with their wellbeing. At AIS there are monthly webinars held for different age groups to keep families informed, provide them with further skills to support their child, and encourage family connections to the school and among each other.

Ms Bumpus at AIS explains:

"Webinars are facilitated by AIS faculty members or by community experts. A recent whole school webinar focused on Positive Parenting to Develop Healthy Children with Odette Umali, a positive parenting trainer. Parents engaged in discussions regarding emotional management, identifying responsibility within problems, communication roadblocks and effective interventions with children." 

The majority of international schools here will also have an active group of parent volunteers. Although the responsibilities of a Parent Teacher Association (PTA) or parent committee varies considerably between schools, it is key to building a close-knit school community – from giving new families a warm welcome at back-to-school events to thanking teachers at annual appreciation breakfast.

Kellett School, which was founded by a group of parents, has an active Parents Committee that co-ordinates social events, fundraising and day-to-day support of the school. The school says that “Even the busiest working parents eventually find themselves taking on a specific role”, and this ranges from helping in the libraries and taking cooking classes to being a Class Parent or helping out in the school shop.

At The ISF Academy, parents receive a PTA membership benefits program, including discounts at local businesses. And the Canadian International School of Hong Kong Parents’ Association is such a large organisation that it has its own website; here’s a PTA that goes above and beyond by organising a three-week festival of reading, mentoring a student-led Business Club, and forming an Outreach Committee that funds multiple charities and initiatives.

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