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Guest post: Falling into the “program” trap

Guest post by Mali Bain from WellAhead; a lab focused on helping integrate wellbeing into school communities in British Columbia, Canada.

Perhaps you’ve heard the story about the person who falls into a hole in the street. He walks along the street, falls into a hole, and climbs out to the same spot where he started. He walks back along the street and falls into the hole again. In fact, he continues falling in the hole, climbing back out, and returning back to where he started, until finally someone shows him a parallel street, a different way to get where he’s going.

We had heard this story told in the context of addictions research, or when describing habits that are seemingly permanently fixed. It illustrates how habits and ways of being are deeply entrenched in certain ways of thinking. In reflecting on WellAhead’s past year of work, we have begun to see how we may have fallen into some of these habits ourselves.


In the research and design phase of WellAhead, one of the key challenges or ‘holes’ identified was that mental health and wellbeing was approached as a ‘program’ to be implemented in the school setting rather than as a way of being, a cultural shift. Such programs had a range of efficacy, and were costly and difficult to scale across all schools. In addition, because programs were often developed and delivered by people outside the school, they were not being integrated into school communities. There was a sense that districts and communities needed to be part of the visioning and action towards change rather than simply recipients of solutions. From this, it was hypothesized that engaging a range of stakeholders in an emergent, participatory process might be more effective than imposing a highly defined program.

Fast forward eight months: WellAhead has worked with six districts to support them through a social lab-like process focused on everyday practices to support social and emotional wellbeing. As we reflected on this past year, we started thinking:

  • This year wasn’t perfect: there were SO many learnings, and also some key elements that had impact: what can we keep and what can we remove from the ‘WellAhead process’?
  • How can we refine our tools and share them in a more final version – perhaps in a guidebook? How can we have more schools and districts ‘take on this process’?
  • How can we encourage this process to happen in more places, even without our support?

These are good and thoughtful questions, but they are all problematic in one way: they are program- thinking, replication-oriented questions. We were making the assumption that the process we had taken on must be repeated & refined, rather than asking what set of processes/collaborations/actions would lead to the most impact in the long term on social and emotional wellbeing.

Here we were: seeing ourselves as a program, as an intervention that had been piloted and soon ‘should’ be happening across districts.


We had fallen into the very trap that we had set out to avoid.

Rather than seeing ourselves as neutral conveners with a desire to learn more, alongside and from districts and programs, we were looking for ways to replicate our model and get more schools to adopt it.

So where does that leave us now?

  • We’ve developed a deeper empathy for the program mindset: when one has developed something that shows promise, it’s hard to let go and accept that perhaps the program itself isn’t crucial to achieving the end goal.
  • We’re more consistently asking whether our actions are building capacity, or whether they are actually establishing a reliance on us to provide a solution. This may require a greater focus on supporting the work of others rather than doing the work ourselves.
  • We’re looking more closely at provincial-level work and action that can help increase the integration of wellbeing in schools at a system level, and the best role we can play in that sphere.
  • We’re looking at ways to build upon the learnings from this past year to add value to existing efforts in this space – perhaps by convening with other school-based processes to identify the key elements of our respective approaches that seem to have impact. This would be a departure from the ‘fidelity’ mindset we had fallen into.

Stay tuned for more about what we’ve tried this past year, what worked and what didn’t, and what we can learn from all of this to further our shared overall goal: sustained integration of wellbeing into school communities. What do you think? Do you recognize elements of the story above in the work you’re doing? If you have your own reflections on falling into a trap you set out to avoid, we’d love to hear about it!

This post was originally published on the WellAhead blog.