by Ian Holden
Good teachers see education in terms of providing for the needs of the whole child. Whist academic outcomes tend to grab headlines, especially when NAPLAN results are reported, and invariably are jumped on by interested parties keen to score a political point or two, we all know that there is so much more to schools than this.
How students feel about themselves, for example, their self-confidence, self-esteem, self -worth and their resilience are intrinsically linked to their ability to perform and thrive at school. Now more than ever teachers play a pivotal role in supporting their students’ wellbeing and mental health. This at a time when there has been an overall decline in those areas.
The 2020 Headspace National Youth Mental Health Survey found that one in three young people reported high or very high levels of distress (34%) compared to 32% in 2018. In addition, they reported that the wellbeing of certain groups of students had declined, especially for those at the start of their secondary school journey.
Whilst the survey was undertaken at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, and hence the results would no doubt have been impacted by various restrictions, including home schooling, the reality that many schools face today is a picture of declining mental health and poorer wellbeing in their student population.
At the same time the teaching workforce in Australia is experiencing a similar pattern as evidenced by data from an OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey, (collected before the pandemic) which found that 58% of Australian teachers were feeling “quite a bit” or “a lot” of stress in their jobs. Clearly such alarming levels of workplace stress are having a detrimental effect on teachers’ wellbeing.
Adding to the pressure is that many Australian teachers report that they do not receive enough support to carry out their responsibilities at school. In a recent Tes survey, more than half of Australian teachers said that they don’t have the right training resources to grow in their current role. The apparent shortfall of professional development which is fit for purpose is clearly an issue that needs to be addressed.
There is an expectation that teachers will intervene, assist or “resolve” their students’ mental health and wellbeing issues. Some of this is self-imposed as teachers care deeply about their students and are hard wired to empathise and find solutions. However, in many school settings teachers are placed in the invidious position of being ‘experts’ in mental health matters without the means or appropriate profession development to fulfil this responsibility. Schools are quite rightly keen to improve and support their students’ wellbeing. However, programs are often hastily implemented without the required training and support to make them effective. An example of this is the growing trend of mindfulness in schools. Whist it’s relatively straight forward to find a place for mindfulness sessions on a school’s timetable, asking busy staff to run mindfulness lessons without the required training, skills and expertise is not reasonable.
To implement this approach effectively teachers really do need expert professional development and specialist training. There is an emerging bank of evidence suggesting that when practised well, mindfulness has numerous benefits such as enhancing positive emotions and lowering stress. However Canadian psychologist, Dr Jamie Gruman argues that “the popularity of mindfulness may have outstripped the science”. He goes on to argue that without a strong understanding of the theory underpinning it, mindfulness can be bad for you and especially for those who have pre-existing mental health issues. There will be numerous examples of other well-intended but poorly implemented wellbeing initiatives in many schools.
Effective professional development for teachers has been identified by Hattie (2008) as one of the most significant influences on student achievement. When it comes to wellbeing and mental health matters the stakes are even higher as poorly implemented programs risk doing more harm than good. Teachers need high quality, targeted and expert led professional development which is fit for purpose in order to equip them with relevant knowledge to support their students.
It is encouraging to see several organisations providing this type of professional development to support such a critical area of school life. For example, in 2023 TES will be rolling out a suite of targeted online wellbeing courses across Australia as part of their Develop platform. These have been built with input from leading mental health practitioners and educational experts. Courses such as “Understanding Anxiety for Australian Schools”, “Understanding Self-Harm for Australian Schools” and “Low Mood and Depression for Australian Schools” as well as others, will provide teachers with contemporary, informed, and targeted information as well as practical examples of how they can support students’ wellbeing and mental health.
Ian has 30 years of senior leadership experience gained working in Australian and UK schools. His experiences range from being School Principal of one of Australia’s leading primary schools to providing expert advice, consultancy, and support to leaders across all schooling sectors as an Advisory School Principal. Ian is currently working with Tes on their Professional Development courses. He is committed to using his knowledge and experience of contemporary issues and solutions to support leaders and their teams to bring about sustainable improvements for students.
Youth Mental Health and Wellbeing Over Time. Headspace National Youth Mental Health Survey 2020
Jamie Gruman Ph.D, (2020) Psychology Today - The Times When Mindfulness Could Be Bad for You
Hattie, J. (2008). Visible Learning - A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement. London: Routledge