Schools Helping small people manage “big feelings”

Rick Foster (in white) and Andy Parthenopoulos with teacher Jacinta McClean and students at Birralee Primary School.

Surely there’s a German word for the trauma triggered by the memory of COVID-19 lockdowns for those employed in the Victorian education system. However, there were some surprisingly positive outcomes from this tough time, as creative people found new and interesting ways to work together.

When primary school teacher Andy Parthenopoulos heard author Rick Foster mention during a Facebook event that he’d like to do something to help promote student wellbeing in schools, Andy immediately reached out.

In 2019, “just before the world went upside down”, Rick had self-published a picture book, Why Worry Wally? “I wrote the book because I suffered from severe anxiety and wanted to write something that had meaning for me and could help young kids talk about and manage their worries,” he says.

 

“When you’re open with children, they listen, and they’re engaged.”

Andy Parthenopoulos

He had also written an outline of a workshop concept. “But I’m no teacher,” Rick says. “Andy came back with all this amazing feedback on how to tie it into the curriculum, and I asked him if he would like to do this with me. Luckily, he said yes!”

They met in the park during COVID-19 to develop the concept, and it wasn’t long before the pair began running wellbeing incursions in primary schools for Preps to Grade 4.

“It was inspiring to hear Rick’s story and how open he is with his journey,” Andy says. “When you’re open with children, they listen, and they’re engaged.”

In the workshops, there is a big emphasis on mindfulness. Younger students use their voice, share, dance, and do lots of movement and role-play activities. The older children also write things down. “We get them to write down a worry they have, to get those worries out of your brain onto a piece of paper,” Andy says.

Working in pairs, each child randomly picks one of those pieces of paper and shares that worry with the other. They then discuss how they might manage that concern.

Rick Foster (in white) and Andy Parthenopoulos and students at Birralee Primary School. Photo: Meredith O'Shea

“The main message,” says Rick, “is to normalise that we all have worries and it’s important that we all try to talk about them, and there’s that support and understanding and awareness. There are simple ways you can manage those worries.”

Rick and Andy then encourage students to share their strategies with the class. They talk about the importance of reminding yourself of your strengths and how to use them to manage your worries independently. They also emphasise that mistakes are normal and reiterate the importance of learning to accept your efforts.

“You don’t have to be at your absolute very best all the time. Near enough is acceptable,” Andy says. “We’ve found that a lot of kids report feeling needlessly pressured by the weight of expectations, like a missed goal in soccer.”

Rick agrees. “We have found it quite amazing to see, even from the Preps, how aware and articulate they are at that age. We underestimate what they are experiencing and feeling.”

Both are concerned about the data linking screentime with depression and anxiety. “Worries are part of everyone’s fight or flight response for a reason,” Andy says. “If we can provide students with the tools to understand and talk about them early on, our hope is that they’ll be able to handle their emotions in a more sustainable way as their lives become more complicated.”

Rick observes that it’s also been an “incredibly challenging time” for schools and teachers managing student learning through COVID and its ongoing effects. “I’ve come away with so much admiration for what teachers do, and the challenges.”

“I’ve come away with so much admiration for what teachers do, and the challenges.”

Rick Foster

Teacher wellbeing is top of mind for the pair. “I burned out at the start of 2020, and I see it happening everywhere,” Andy says. “It’s really rewarding when we see teachers taking notes during the workshops. These strategies are for them, too – we always emphasise the importance of building an open and supportive classroom culture where teachers as well as students feel they belong.”

The team collects data on the day of the incursion, and creates a tailored report linked to the curriculum. They have been back to several schools for repeat visits. “Often, with wellbeing, the research says a one-off intervention isn’t going to be enough,” says Andy.

“So, a big thing for me was: how do we ensure our incursion leads to positive student outcomes without imposing too many extra tasks on time-poor teachers? Our report therefore suggests evidence-based strategies that can be neatly embedded within regular classroom practice.”

Laura Greene, AEU member and Grade 1/2 classroom teacher is a fan of Andy and Rick’s wellbeing sessions. “Teaching is all about relationships and psychology,” she says. “Trust must be built for children to feel safe to take risks and reach their potential.

“Learning is about your ability to enter the unknown and reflect to grow from failures. For learners to enter this space, they need to feel acknowledged, safe, and respected. They must also be able to move through potentially upsetting and uncomfortable emotions, such as feeling overwhelmed, lost, and hopeless.”

Rick Foster (in white) and Andy Parthenopoulos with teacher Jacinta McClean and students at Birralee Primary School. Photo: Meredith O'Shea

Laura believes that to build this confidence and resilience, young people need to be able to, firstly, identify their emotions and then put strategies into place to manage and regulate those “big feelings”.

“Andy and Rick’s program delivers just that,” she says. “They normalise anxiety and nervousness and teach students strategies to face and work through these big mental health challenges.”

She says children respond to Andy and Rick’s gentle delivery and confidential approach. And teachers can use Rick’s book to have future conversations with students about their difficult feelings and, with the guidance of their peers and teacher, put in place routines and a positive and supportive class culture to persevere through challenging tasks.


Go to whyworrywally.com to purchase the picture book Why Worry Wally? and to inquire about Rick and Andy’s wellbeing incursions.

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