The past few years have been difficult for most of us. But younger students have had it especially tough, with many experiencing their first years of schooling in the isolation of their homes, where – despite the best efforts of teachers – they have often lacked vital social interaction. Little surprise that, post-lockdown, we’ve seen a reported increase in school refusal and mental health issues, particularly among primary students.
Teacher Corey Gilmore witnessed the pandemic’s impact on student mental health firsthand during his time at Kangaroo Flat Primary School. “There was an initial fear about coming back,” Corey says. “Kids were tuning into the anxiety in the media, which obviously affected their academic studies, but also their ability to reconnect with their peers and with the school. Some of them struggled to rebuild those really strong friendships and relationships with their teachers.”
Corey’s school was one of 100 in Victoria to take part in the Mental Health in Primary Schools pilot program, a partnership between the Victorian government and Murdoch Children’s Research Institute. It aims to provide more mental health support in primary schools through the employment of a dedicated Mental Health and Wellbeing Coordinator (MHWC). The MHWC is responsible for implementing a whole-of-school approach to mental health and wellbeing, and for helping to build the capability of teaching and ES staff to identify and support students with mental health concerns. The program also helps schools to create clear referral pathways for students who might need further assessment and intervention.
In September, the Victorian Labor government announced that the program will be expanded across the state from next year, with a MHWC to be employed in every government school by 2026.
Principal Shelby Papadopoulos, whose Colac Primary School also took part in the pilot, says that what makes this program so successful is the fact the MHWC is a registered teacher, rather than an external contractor. “Often, our teachers are the best at recognising when there are challenges for our kids,” Shelby says. “In the past, we’ve brought in outside services with no stability to work with our kids, but this program means we’re working with a trusted teacher, employed by us, in the school. That’s really important.”
Like Corey, Shelby sees the wider rollout of the program as especially timely. “The middle to upper primary years have missed out on some key social and emotional learning,” Shelby says. “Many of our students have become distrustful of routine. Even though we’re in Term 4, and we’ve had no interruptions with COVID this year, our children are very anxious.”
Corey says the program has helped give students the tools and language to recognise and discuss that anxiety – before it becomes overwhelming. “It creates another avenue for the kids to talk about the struggles they have within their own lives. We’re increasing that awareness so they can develop strategies around any mental health problems they may be facing. We found that was really beneficial.”
“Our staff got a lot of learning and support to help assist not only our students, but also assist other staff members.”
Getting in early
The Mental Health in Primary Schools (MHPS) program’s preventative approach reflects a growing understanding that early intervention is key to maintaining student wellbeing. Half of all cases of anxiety, mood, impulse control and substance-use disorders are known to manifest by age 14.
One important finding from the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System was that schools play an important role in identifying children with mental health challenges who can then be referred to treatment, care and support if needed.
Shelby says it’s essential that primary schools be more proactive in addressing the problem. “What we’re trying to do at a primary level is educate and support kids before it hits crisis point. By the time you’re hitting those middle years, the mental health approach is reactionary.
“Likewise, when primary kids become highly dysregulated, they can become non-verbal. If we can get them to articulate their mood or behaviour earlier than that, we may be able to intervene more successfully.”
In moving away from relying on outside specialists, the program embeds good mental health practices throughout the entire school. Staff can benefit from its lessons almost as much as the kids.
“While it was really beneficial for our kids, our staff got a lot of learning and support to help assist not only our students, but also other staff members,” Corey says. “There was a strong focus on general wellbeing and some good strategies to solve and identify problems.”
Shelby tells the story of one teacher faced with a difficult class who, through undertaking the program, realised she needed to put in place trauma-informed practice. She says helping teachers to better understand and manage their students has improved staff satisfaction and retention at her school.
The pilot program has also improved social, academic and vocational outcomes, reflecting research showing students with mental health issues have already fallen behind their peers by Grade 3. Shelby believes that getting students to think about their mental health helps them recognise how they best learn, what strategies they can use to tackle tasks, and any behaviours that might get in the way.
“The program meant really working with the kids to understand their anxieties and putting in place the right resources. We’ve dabbled with that stuff in the past, but we’re not experts. It’s great to have someone in a dedicated role who can work with the students and identify what supports a child needs to remain attentive and positive and focused in a classroom. As a result, there’s certainly been more valuable learning time in the classroom as opposed to time spent off-task.”
Of course, as with every other new initiative, there is inevitable concern about adding to already overwhelming staff workloads. Corey says any upskilling was successfully managed within the usual meeting and development sessions at his school. “There may have been times where it impacted a bit on our workload, but we really recognised this was important and needs to be embedded throughout our school, and all schools, well into the future.”
“This program means we’re working with a trusted teacher, employed by us, in the school. That’s really important.”
The MHPS program is a key element in the Andrews government’s strategy for addressing mental health in the wake of the Royal Commission. This year’s budget invested $1.3 billion in mental health – including $600 million for students – building on last year’s investment of $3.8 billion, the largest single investment in mental health in Victoria’s history.
With training provided by the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, the program funds a minimum 0.4 allocation (up to 1.0) for a Mental Health and Wellbeing Coordinator, at the level of a Step 4 classroom teacher, in every school.
Briley Stokes, AEU vice president (primary sector), says the union welcomes the program’s focus on the importance of teachers in effectively managing student wellbeing.
“What makes this program special is that it’s not about bringing in an external specialist who doesn’t know the school, its staff or its students. It’s about building capacity of the staff, led by a colleague in the school who is there all the time.”
She believes that early intervention is key. “We need to get in early, support kids, and make timely referrals if needed. The focus isn’t on a single practitioner, but a whole-school preventative approach.”
Corey says he’s excited to watch the difference it will make in schools across Victoria. “It’ll be great for staff to further educate themselves around mental health, and assist in educating parents and families, as well as their own colleagues.”
Shelby thinks it also marks a broader cultural shift. “It’s created a safe space and a common language for students, parents and teachers. So, we’re not talking in silent whispers and there’s no sense of shame around it. It’s actually brought the need for positive mental health into the light, instead of hiding in the shadows.”