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Mental Wellbeing

Education for Mental Health Toolkit - Sustainable Challenge

Encountering a degree of challenge and difficulty can help develop skills, self-belief and ability to manage future challenges (1).

Sustainable Challenge

Encountering a degree of challenge and difficulty can help develop skills, self-belief and ability to manage future challenges (1). A level of difficulty in education is also necessary for learning to take place – without some degree of stretch, new information will not be encoded into a student’s memory. Academic challenge can therefore help to build learning and contribute to student self-efficacy. 

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However, the level of challenge is important as it sits on a spectrum in which balance brings rewards and extremes can cause harm. Those who face the greatest challenges in life have poorer wellbeing than those who experience fewer challenges – even if the individuals facing challenge have greater ‘resilience skills.’ (2) It is also true that those who face high levels of challenge tend to have lower levels of resilience, than those who face less challenge (2).  

In an academic context, too high a level of challenge can drive students into avoidance or surface learning, survival behaviours. This can reduce potential learning, eliminate the possibility of positive wellbeing benefits accruing and cause anxiety, loss of self-belief and reduced motivation. 

In this context, we refer to the ideal level of challenge as “Sustainable Challenge.” When challenge is sustainable for a student, it can also be beneficial for wellbeing and learning. Challenge is most likely to be sustainable and beneficial when: 

  • it is within the scope of a student’s ability (in their proximal zone of development). 
  • they have access to necessary internal and external resources. 
  • it is experienced within a supportive social environment. 
  • they receive necessary practical support. 
  • the challenge allows time for the student to maintain behaviours which are good for their wellbeing, such as resting, sleeping, exercising etc. 
  • learning is sequenced appropriately, allowing time for students to absorb new information and develop their understanding
  • the student believes success is possible for them. 

In this section we address two components of sustainable challenge. The academic content of the challenge (desirable difficulty) and the organisational nature of the challenge (workload). 

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  1. Bjork, Elizabeth & Bjork, Robert. Making things hard on yourself, but in a good way: Creating desirable difficulties to enhance learning. Psychology and the Real World: Essays Illustrating Fundamental Contributions to Society. 2011:59-68. 
  2. Public Health England. Building children and young people’s resilience in schools [Internet]. 2014. Available from: