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Wellbeing and connectedness
Kiss: transforming schools
A simple approach that focuses on the basics of caring for each other and building healthy relationships is transforming schools across Australia and gaining interest overseas. Jacqueline Van Velsen reports.
MindMatters is a national mental health promotion resource for secondary schools. Trialled in the late nineties, it officially began reaching Australian schools in 2000. It is stimulating huge improvements in school culture and in relationships between students, staff and the broader community. Its success is the result of simple frameworks and resources that have basic values at the core. Teaching and learning are enhanced in schools where people feel they belong, are valued, safe, and are doing things that are relevant, fun and challenging.
The ‘keep it so simple’ approach (kiss) has been a major reason for the wildfire growth of MindMatters. Over 80 per cent of secondary schools in every Australian State and Territory have had someone trained in MindMatters. The main reason for this huge uptake of MindMatters is that it focuses on addressing human needs. Many schools had become so outcome driven, focused on producing students with high educational standards, that they had lost touch with what really matters—quality relationships.
Today, the traditional relationship connections provided by the tribe or village rarely exist. Many families are highly mobile, so the extended family of aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings and grandparents may be separated. Often, the family unit itself has undergone change with the addition of new step-parents or siblings, or with parents or siblings leaving. There are many single-parent families. Both primary caregivers often work. As a result, young people often come home to an empty house after school. Traditional family supports are no longer as prevalent.
Rather than spending time in the company of friends, many adolescents spend their time playing computer games, watching television, surfing the Internet or messaging friends. Is it surprising that loneliness and fewer opportunities for close, quality relationships result in a decline in social skills? Could this also be contributing to the rising rates of anxiety and depression in Australia? The World Health Organisation predicts that depression and anxiety will be the second leading global disease (after heart disease) by the year 2020.
As a result of the ever-expanding Internet and new media, young people are often exposed to vast amounts of information and emotional experiences beyond their maturity level. This level of stress can become unhealthy when it is prolonged or compounded by other stressful or traumatic events such as family breakv down, moving house, bushfire or bullying. In my previous role as the Victorian MindMatters project officer, I encountered large numbers of students in years 7 and 8 who believed they had few, if any, coping skills to manage stress.
The fast-food attitude to eating also impacts on adolescent health. A diet with high sugar and fat content, but little or no fresh fruit and vegetables, affects wellbeing. This, in turn, impacts negatively on schools and teachers. Have you ever tried to teach a group of adolescents or even a class with one or two students whose sugar and caffeine induced hyper-activity after their lunch or recess break means they cannot sit still or focus for any length of time? Or watched them suddenly droop and become lethargic because there is no sustaining nourishment in the food they consumed?
MindMatters has adopted two frameworks from the World Health Organisation. One is called ‘Health Promoting Schools’ (HPS) and the other ‘Comprehensive School Mental Health Program’. Again, the ‘kiss’ principle has succeeded.
The HPS model has three interconnecting circles that cover the core functions of any school. These are:
- School organisation, ethos, policies.
- Teaching and learning.
- Partnerships—for example, with parents, cultural groups, industry or specialist services.
The simplicity of this model is that any issue affecting the wellbeing of an individual or group in the school should be addressed by ensuring action is taken in each of the three areas—a whole school approach. Schools can also use this model to examine everything they currently do to promote wellbeing.
The second of these models combines a health promotion or prevention focus with an intervention and restorative approach. This is best described as a combination of a universal and a targeted approach. The universal approach means that everyone is equipped with social skills and the whole environment of the school is considered in relation to improving its health as an organisation. In the targeted approach, specific skills or interventions are targeted at people and structures where needs have been identified.
The health of the school, and the individuals and groups within it, is assessed via a range of audit or survey tools provided in the MindMatters resource. Other pre-existing information from research undertaken in the school can enrich the data. The data is then interpreted and existing strengths and challenges are noted. Strategic planning is then undertaken to incorporate the issues and strategies into action.
Three booklets (SchoolMatters, Educating for Life and CommunityMatters) and a DVD focus upon issues the school needs to consider to enhance its health and wellbeing as an organisation. These booklets bring together research from leading experts in health and education from across Australia and overseas. They combine suggested professional development training needs with suggested strategies and approaches.
A further five booklets provide curriculum materials focusing upon social skills and health promotion for all secondary students—Enhancing Resilience 1 & 2, Loss and Grief, Understanding Mental Illness, and A Whole School Approach to Dealing with Bullying and Harassment. The curriculum materials are linked to each key learning area and have been mapped to each State’s curriculum framework.
The ever-increasing complexity of needs of individuals in our schools must be addressed as a priority before we can get on with the work of education. To do this, we need support and resources that are inexpensive and easily accessible.
Healthier individuals and organisations achieve better results. A cycle of capacity building within school communities continues by identifying needs, implementing programs and reviewing the effects. The end result will be healthier schools that both students and teachers enjoy where teaching and learning are enhanced.
Visit MindMatters at
Ministerial Council on Education Employment Training & Youth Affairs (2000). Adelaide Declaration on National Goals for Schooling in Australia in the 21st Century, Curriculum Corporation, Melbourne.
World Health Organisation (1996). The Health Promoting Schools Framework, World Health Organisation, Geneva.
NSW Health (2001). A Framework for Building Capacity, Better Health Care Publications Warehouse, Gladesville, NSW.
Vincent, K (2005). ‘Social and Emotional Wellbeing: SEW what?’, Education Connect, Hunter Institute of Mental Health, New Castle, NSW.
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