As an adult, it is hard not to make comparisons between what school life was like for ourselves as children versus today’s students. I’m of a vintage where I still have vivid memories of the smell of freshly printed copies of worksheets (albeit, I was inhaling toxic spirit fumes that had lingered on our purple-printed papers, but that’s beside the point!). However, there are aspects of our school days that stay with us into adulthood, and beyond. Some good, some great, and even some that may be downright awful. One thing I don’t ever remember being taught about in primary school was the importance of my own emotional and psychological wellbeing. We certainly covered general physical health to some degree (e.g. exercise, nutrition), but I can’t recall anything extending beyond that, even in my high school years.
So, what has changed to make this become necessary today? Firstly, I am a huge advocate for explicit teaching and discussion about wellbeing. I am of the firm belief that children who feel secure, calm, (and ideally happy) are much better suited to be engaged in their learning versus children who are not. The current Victorian Curriculum has numerous links to student wellbeing, both physically and emotionally. Many include topics that we as teachers will be covering include things such as analysing our own emotions and how they can influence our decision making with friends and family. Many schools now have Wellbeing Programs in place, along with Wellbeing Staff members.
Concerns about our students’ mental health today is real. The statistics are alarming. The 2015 Australian report of The Mental Health of Children and Adolescents states that in Australia approximately one in every seven children and/or young person has experienced a mental health disorder in the last year. Rates for depression, self-harm and thoughts of suicide among teenagers is particularly worrying, with approximately one in ten indicating they have engaged in self-harming behaviour, with three quarters doing so in the past 12 months.
In a class of 30 grade 5/6 students I taught last week, we discussed the everyday pressures they face. Extra tuition outside of school, extra-curricular sporting/artistic/music/language classes, scholarship tutoring. In this Grade 5/6 class alone, we ran a survey and more than 70% of students had some kind of activity scheduled for every weekday after school. Furthermore, there was no child with less than three weekday outside-of-school commitments, whether that be before or after school care, sports, tutoring, or tuition. On top of that, the days they had off were often spent rushing around for their siblings’ activities. (As a parent of four kids, I know this feeling all too well – “Quick! We don’t want to be late!”, “Hurry up! It’s time to go!”).
Our children today lead busy lives, which isn’t to say that we didn’t when we were children, but with the onslaught of constant online connectedness, I think we have failed to pass on the gift of being switched off and just being a kid. I am not trying to romanticise the olden days of my youth – there were plenty of times I would complain of being so bored with nothing to do! But, I had an opportunity to be bored, to not be rushed somewhere every day, to slow my pace and to just be. How many of our students today can say the same?
With the Australian Government committed to provide strategies to focus on prevention and early intervention of mental health issues, it is no wonder that we now see it filtering into our curriculum. And although some of the statistics are for children who will have left the primary school system, I feel it is important that we equip them with knowledge and strategies (and even support services) before that point.
Since I am not a therapist, psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, or the like, it is highly unlikely that I am going to be directly involved in the ongoing counselling of my students, other than to offer immediate crisis support if and when necessary. However, there are things that I can do to empower my students, and that is where learning spaces fit in. We are aware that children have different preferred learning styles, but they also have preferences for the spaces in which they learn. These spaces can vary from day to day, and from task to task. The important thing is to ensure you provide options. Allow students a little bit of independence to make responsible choices about where they are choosing to learn. Of course there are consequences if they misuse your trust, but a student who is already under pressure and possibly trying their hardest just to get through the day is going to be more inclined to do so when provided with an activity that matches their learning style along with a learning space that innately appeals to them.
As an educator, part of our role is getting to know and understand the children in our care. We need to be able to support them with guidance and boundaries in order to prepare them for the real world, but it is possible to do that while still honouring them as individuals. Offer spaces where they can learn somewhere other than at their desks. Provide tasks where they can choose how to convey their learning. Develop scaffolding so that working as part of a group doesn’t become the sole responsibility of one child. Plan for lessons that provide interaction with people within their community and beyond to broaden their understanding and their horizons. But most of all, create a safe, welcoming, and nurturing learning space where they can be themselves and where they will be supported while they learn the skills to look after themselves as well as others.