A team approach to building resilience


08 September 2021

Social and emotional learning is not new to educators, but the need for it across all areas, and all age groups, has risen to unprecedented levels.

For the last 18 months, students and educators across the country have been forced to deal with the social disruption cause by COVID-19. Many communities have also faced natural disasters such as bushfires and floods, and families are under increased financial and emotional stress.

Teachers are at the forefront of the battle to help students maintain resilience and keep them engaged in learning, but they need tools, programs, resources – and each other – to do the job effectively.

“Research has shown that kids need a more sustained approach to social and emotional learning, not only for the everyday challenges of normal life, but to help them to readjust after they have experienced trauma,” says Professor Helen Cahill from the Melbourne Graduate School of Education at Melbourne University.

Cahill is the author of Resilience, Rights and Respectful Relationships, a national, free, online social and emotional learning program provided by the Victorian Department of Education for students from foundation to Year 12.

She says that, against the backdrop of anxiety and unpredictability, there is an even greater need for schools to be places where students can develop their social and emotional skills and discover coping strategies.

“What the kids have dealt with is a major social disruption – it has an emotional effect, but it also has a social effect. Teachers are telling us that some kids are now struggling to get along with each other; there is evidence of more aggressive behaviour in the playground and the classroom.”

No boundaries

Winter at Taroona High School in Tasmania’s affluent southeast was tough for many students and demand for the school’s social workers reached a peak, says school psychologist Russ Ebert.

“I think resilience is down. Our students continue to face the same sorts of issues, but they are coming up with greater intensity. Some family issues have been heightened with parents working from home, too,” says Ebert.

Tasmanian students had one term of online learning in Term 2 of 2020 says Ebert, but it has had flow-on effects into this year. More students at the school of 1300 have been at risk of disengaging, social disruption has increased and some students now prefer to learn from home.

“We do a lot of anxiety work. There is a strong trend to psychoeducation that begins by talking to students about what anxiety is, so that when they are experiencing the sick tummy or the tight chest, they understand the physical sensations. We talk about ways of managing them and ways of managing the mental symptoms, whilst also promoting the basics of healthy living such as exercise, diet and sleep.”

A legacy of restoration

A strong trauma-informed practice at Aldinga Beach Primary School, 45 kilometres southwest of Adelaide, has sustained staff and students in times of crisis, says Kirsten Ifould, a foundation to Year 7 teacher.

“We did a solid two years of training through whole-school professional development. Our principal passed away suddenly during the last school holidays – and this is her legacy. It was apparent in the way we supported students and staff after we lost her.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has seen a change in behaviour and an increase in negative behaviours. Kids hear a lot of what is going on in the world and it worries them. The Black Lives Matter campaign really affected them as well.”

The school of 160 has 75 Indigenous students in its “culture mob”. Students face domestic violence, family mental health issues, high loss of family members, and many are in foster care or kinship care.

“We have learned about brain structures and how they are impacted by trauma and how working with students with trauma can cause problems for educators,” Ifould says.

“We did the Berry Street training and that gave us ready-to-learn plans. We do circle-learning, and we teach the kids to take brain breaks. Restorative practice is our underlying discipline, and we have a reconnect room. We use the Flip Your Lid model and meditation is practised across the school.”

The cycle of loss

Mandy Dempsey who is the Director of the Port Augusta Children’s Centre about 320 kilometres north of Adelaide, says death and dealing with loss are the biggest traumas facing her largely Indigenous community.

“Sometimes there is no time for an Aboriginal community to get over one death before the next person dies. It can be dealt with through drinking and drugs, which might lead to violence in the home, and it becomes a cycle. Children are impacted by this, and schools don’t fit into that – kids have to wake up in the morning, have clean clothes and get on the bus to school.

“We try to train our staff from the families in our communities; we use playgroups as an inroad and then build these groups into parenting programs. The kids don’t need someone to feel sorry for them, they need us to provide strategies for them to deal with trauma now, and in the long term.

“One of the best things to support kids with trauma is routine. If we can provide consistency and kids know what they are coming back to every time they return to learning, it gives them control over their environment, empowers them and helps them to learn.”

Working together

Cahill says it is important to acknowledge the intersection between student wellbeing and teacher wellbeing. “Teacher wellbeing is also hugely affected by their role as often unacknowledged and uncelebrated frontline workers in the community,” she says.

Ifould agrees. “If there was one positive thing that came out of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was that a lot of people across the country suddenly realised that teachers are pretty awesome.”

Cahill likens social and emotional learning, for both students and teachers, to playing sport: “You don’t improve by hitting a ball against a wall, you get better by practising with others. Social and emotional learning is built through interaction in the same way – group dynamics, self-regulation and behaviour modification.”

Leanne Tolra

This article was originally published in The Australian Educator, Spring 2021