By Commissioner David Kelly
Children and young people are experiencing increasing levels of anxiety and depression and the COVID pandemic has exacerbated these issues.
Schools that are able to develop a whole of community approach to mental health and wellbeing are in the best position to provide a safe, connected and inclusive environment for all students. The Flexible Learning Options program which has traditionally supported many young people who are struggling with mental health challenges, is about to be decommissioned and the Department of Education is yet to reveal what will take its place.
While many young Australians live successful and fulfilling lives, there is a cohort of disadvantaged and vulnerable children and young people that are not faring as well. Mental health and wellbeing are socially determined, and in a country as rich as Australia it is a shameful reality that 18% of children and 14 % of young people are living in poverty. Poverty increases the range of stressors that children and young people experience in daily life and limits their access to the supports and services that foster wellbeing and positive mental health.
Our schools report increasing levels of anxiety and depression and greater complexity and diversity of mental health needs and behaviours amongst young people. These factors have a negative impact on participation, wellbeing and academic outcomes. The uncertainty and disruption associated with COVID have only served to exacerbate these issues and in June 2020 the national Headspace youth survey reported that 34% of respondents experienced high levels of psychological distress. At the very time when increasing numbers of young people need support from youth mental health services, these services are over-stretched, under-resourced and plagued with long wait lists.
Participation in school and education is a key protective factor for young people. While many schools are committed to building trauma-informed, wellbeing-responsive learning communities, this work is complex and challenging.
As students present at school with complex behaviours and needs, it is not uncommon for teachers to react to challenging behaviours rather than responding to the deeper wellbeing, trauma or growth needs that are driving these behaviours. Sometimes the solutions – in the form of multiple wellbeing and social emotional learning (SEL) packages – can become part of the problem, resulting in an over-crowded wellbeing and SEL curriculum that lacks integration and is not personalised to local needs and context.
So, what works to improve the mental health and wellbeing of children and young people in schools? The research in this area is clear and aptly summarised in the literature review conducted by Beyond Blue into Mentally Healthy Learning Communities. This rapid review identified six attributes that are found in mentally healthy schools:
- A consistent and aligned, whole of community approach to mental health and wellbeing;
- Multiple levels of mental health promotion and prevention within the school;
- Staff are equipped with skills and knowledge to support young people;
- Social and emotional competence is fostered;
- The learning community is safe and supportive for all; and
- The community is connected internally and externally.
In recent years, I have had the opportunity to work with many schools that understand that learning and wellbeing are inextricably linked. Their commitment to a whole of school approach to mental health and wellbeing always begins with staff training and there is support and resourcing from leadership for staff to embed skills and knowledge into professional practice and the culture of the school. By adopting a shared language and toolkit around mental health and wellbeing, teachers in these schools consistently use explicit and implicit teaching strategies to build wellbeing literacy amongst all students and the schools are able to provide additional support for students with more complex needs. The culture of the school normalises mental health activities and this reduces stigma and validates the experience of students and families who might be struggling. Staff are in a better position to respond to the wellbeing needs of students rather than simply reacting to difficult behaviours and as a result, there is more time and space for school systems and practices to shift from a behaviour management to a growth intent.
This discussion about whole of school approaches to mental health and wellbeing is timely given the release of the Graham Inquiry into Suspension, Exclusion and Expulsion Processes in South Australian Government Schools in late 2020. The Inquiry highlighted the fact that students with a disability, Aboriginal students, students in care and students attending disadvantaged Category 1–3 schools are three times more likely than other students to be sent home or excluded from school. The Inquiry recommends a raft of systemic and procedural changes to reduce both the frequency and impact of disciplinary exclusions. The Inquiry also calls for the de-commissioning of the Flexible Learning Options (FLO) program – an alternative education and support program for disengaged learners that has been operating in South Australian schools with input from non-government youth agencies, since 2006. It is no coincidence that the same groups of vulnerable young people that are most likely to be excluded from school are also over-represented in FLO programs across the state.
Many educators and researchers have questioned the value of FLO, citing poor academic outcomes for students and arguing that FLO serves to segregate and further disadvantage already disadvantaged students. Proponents of FLO speak of the personalised, wellbeing outcomes for students and the importance of ongoing, positive engagement with educational institutions. One FLO coordinator that I spoke to, puts it like this:
“When you talk to the Department of Education, or schools or even when you talk to parents about education, they expect numeracy and literacy and they expect outcomes. We take the perspective that education is about young people being engaged, that they are connected to community. We’re teaching them skills for life, we’re teaching them how to remain calm in terrible situations, how to engage their frontal lobe and reason and make good choices, how to be resilient and bounce back from adversity. And how to look at some of that adversity that’s gone on their lives – whether that’s bullying at school or a home life that’s not amazing. We take all of these issues into account and make sure that our program is trauma informed and that everything we do is underpinned by safety and reliability.”
It shouldn’t be an either/or situation. There are great teachers in great mainstream schools who are teaching and supporting vulnerable students with complex needs every working day, but it’s disingenuous to think that the young people who attend FLO programs will be lining up to return to the very institutions that excluded them in the first place. More work is required and researchers including Dr Andrew Bills and Dr David Armstrong from Flinders University and Nigel Howard from the University of South Australia are exploring these issues to understand the lessons from FLO and to re-imagine connected and inclusive learning communities that support the mental health and wellbeing of all.
The Department of Education is yet to determine what will replace the FLO program or how schools will be resourced to support the most vulnerable and disengaged students. It is hoped that the Department will be influenced by one of the key recommendations of the Graham Inquiry and will actively promote and fund the implementation of Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) as a whole-of-school framework to support students’ academic, social-emotional and behavioural development. MTSS is activated across three tiers in a continuum that increases in intensity with Tier 1 being universal academic, social/emotional and behavioural instruction and support and Tier 3 being intensive interventions that are provided to a few students who require individualised support.
This article is part of the May 2021 eNewsletter Edition by the Commissioners.