Social and emotional learning (SEL) is just as critical and essential as literacy and numeracy in a child’s education, according to a leading Australian expert in child mental health and wellbeing.
Professor Donna Cross recently addressed more than 100 Queensland independent school leaders and teachers on this topic at a recent wellbeing forum hosted by Independent Schools Queensland (ISQ).
“If a child can’t maintain attention or persevere when things get difficult, how are they going to listen to a theory lesson or complete challenging maths equations?” Professor Cross told the educators gathered at the event.
Professor Cross, who heads Health Promotion and Education Research at the Telethon Kids Institute in Western Australia, said the imperative to equip students with these core skills is supported by research that shows high levels of self-reported mental health problems in the previous 12 months.
“The community, and therefore education systems and schools, have a duty of care to act on evidence that conclusively shows students with good mental health and wellbeing do better at school,” she said.
According to national analysis of the education outcomes of young people who took part in a national youth mental health survey, students with mental difficulties not only score lower than students with no mental health issues in all NAPLAN test domains and year levels, but they also continue to fall further behind in their learning outcomes each year.
The Child and Adolescent Mental Health and Educational Outcomes report concluded: “Improving the mental health and wellbeing of students at the population level is likely to be one of the most important prerequisites to improving the academic performance of Australian students”.
“We’ve always known that student wellbeing is critical,” Professor Cross said.
“However, we now have better research that enables us to understand what we could and should be doing, as well as who is most at risk.”
Student wellbeing is a key area of national action and policy focus with the Australian Government recently launching a new Australian Student Wellbeing Framework and national school-based mental health program called Be You.
The government has also tasked the Productivity Commission with conducting an inquiry into the role of mental health in the Australian economy and the best ways to support and improve national mental wellbeing.
Professor Cross said schools needed to take a whole-school approach to enhancing student wellbeing. This should comprise a balance of prevention, early intervention and targeted support and referral.
ISQ executive director, David Robertson, said schools had an important role to play, alongside community health organisations, to identify and support students who were at risk of or had been diagnosed with a mental health issue.
“While schools are often on the frontline identifying vulnerable children, clinical diagnoses and treatment is the responsibility of trained medical and mental health experts,” Robertson said.
“The role of schools is to provide the optimal conditions, curriculum and support for students to learn and complete their education.”