To understand how schools can support students achieve their potential, it is necessary to understand the evidence for successful wellbeing intervention programs in school settings and how they can be implemented in Australian schools. This research on student and staff wellbeing and mental health was commissioned by ISA and prepared by Telethon Kids Institute.
Student wellbeing is at the heart of positive learning outcomes and the development of a responsible and engaged citizenry.
The Australian Student Wellbeing Framework1 describes Australian schools as ‘learning communities that promote students’ wellbeing, safety and positive relationships so that students can reach their full potential’.
While most children and young people in Australia report good mental wellbeing, the research shows this is a slim majority.
The research shows that rates of psychological distress are rising. More than 2 in 5 children and young people in Australia reported feeling stressed most or all the time, suggesting many are struggling. One in five report high levels of psychological distress, and 14 per cent meet criteria for a psychiatric disorder, indicating they are unwell. Of particular concern is the increasing prevalence of psychological distress in younger age groups.
Student wellbeing is integral to ensuring students are ready and able to learn. Poor wellbeing affects school attendance, learning, and academic outcomes, threatening core education goals. For example, by early secondary school, students with a mental disorder lag academically by almost three years compared to their well peers.
In theory, schools are an ideal setting for children and adolescents to seek and receive the help they need. The reality is different and most students turn elsewhere for support. Unwell young people are often anxious and embarrassed about getting help, and often believe they can deal with their mental health themselves.
To understand how schools can meet their full potential in supporting students, it is necessary to understand the evidence for successful intervention programs in school settings and how this can be achieved in Australian schools.
Wellbeing is not evenly distributed across Australia and inequities arise from students’ backgrounds and circumstances. Different situations and school communities require different responses.
There is strong evidence for the effectiveness of school interventions for students’ mental health. Mental health interventions may be universal focused on whole of school/group prevention; targeted programs for those at risk of poor mental health; or one-to-one interventions for those experiencing poor mental health.
Universal intervention frameworks can provide the base for more targeted responses to be delivered without shame or stigma. Universal programs provide the capacity to screen students to determine who requires more tailored supports, by identifying features of mental health problems, poor wellbeing or known risk factors.
For Australian schools to be effective at these three levels, there are barriers to overcome. One necessary element for success, is to support the wellbeing of teachers, which is intertwined with the wellbeing of students. Teaching is a stressful profession at the best of times. With the added complexities associated with the pandemic, it is even more so.
Schools also experience challenges in identifying, implementing, managing and evaluating mental health programs.
They face a crowded space of competing programs offered by external providers, with little guidance as to which approaches have solid evidence of efficacy.
Under pressure of an already crowded curriculum, staff have limited capacity to dedicate time and skills to mental health interventions.
There are also gaps in the programs and services that are available which need to be better understood and addressed. For instance, interventions need to be age-appropriate and yet few exist for younger children.
As well, clinical support needs to be readily available. This is often not the case, especially for schools in regional and remote Australia, with long waiting periods, if indeed specialist support is available at all.
Finally, meaningful evaluation built on accurate measurement is essential, to identify needs, targets for improvement and to track progress. There are few school or school system evaluation systems in place
Schools can overcome these barriers if they have access to the right resources for their school’s particular needs and the capacity to invest and sustain their commitment. The following recommendations would enable schools to optimise their effectiveness;
- Establish a coherent policy and practice framework for monitoring and developing student and staff wellbeing
- Improve resourcing and training for student and staff wellbeing and inclusivity
- Prioritise a culture of trust and wellbeing
- Partner with the full diversity of families in the community.