Schools The caring approach: fostering positive behaviour in school students

Curriculum leader Fiona Froelich with students at Berwick Lodge PS.

Schools across Melbourne’s south-east are focused on fostering positive behaviour among students, with great results for student engagement.

Dealing with difficult behaviours in the classroom can be taxing for even the most experienced educator. But while the focus has traditionally been on punishment as a deterrent, many schools are now taking a more positive approach to discipline – one that seeks to address the causes, not than the symptoms.

Schools in Melbourne’s south-east are no exception, implementing various programs that keep the focus on children’s mental health and overall wellbeing.

Berwick Lodge Primary School is currently trialling several such initiatives, alongside visits from the Life Education van and special days such as Harmony Day. Curriculum leader Fiona Froelich says all of these programs are proving to be very effective.

“We have wellbeing coordinators meeting every fortnight to review them and we try to keep the topics consistent,” Fiona says. “For example, the whole school might have a focus on confidence for a few weeks, followed by a focus on organisation.”

She singles out two programs for particular praise. The first is ‘You Can Do It’, which builds on the psychological capacity of the student, looking at their social and emotional skills, as well as their confidence and organisational skills.

The second, ‘E-smart’, takes a practical approach to dealing with technology and cyber safety – skills that have become increasingly vital due to the amount of time most kids are now spending on devices and social media from an early age.

“If any kids come in after lunch quite worked up, we can give them ten minutes of calming music and deep breathing and they often forget why they were riled.”

Like many schools, Berwick Lodge PS is seeing a growing number of kids with anxiety – an increase that some studies connect to excessive technology use. To balance out this modern affliction, the school has turned to an ancient practice.

“We teach the kids how to calm themselves down using mindfulness techniques. For example, we might do some quiet meditation after lunch, or some mindfulness colouring-in. We focus on the kids knowing what those physical tell-tale signs are when they’re feeling anxious.

“We’ve noticed that if any kids come in after lunch quite worked up, we can give them ten minutes of calming music and deep breathing and they often forget why they were riled. Or, if they haven’t forgotten, they can at least then talk to you calmly and rationally. ”

This has tied in well with the ‘Respectful Relationships’ program used in many schools, which teaches students to be aware of their feelings and encourages them to talk about their emotions.

Narre Warren South PS is a ‘Respectful Relationships’ lead school, where the program’s key lessons have been implemented into the curriculum. 

“We’re always looking at how we can improve student engagement and in turn student outcomes,” says assistant principal Cameron Denham.

The school also runs other programs on an ‘as needs’ basis, sometimes facilitated by external agencies such as Headspace, and holds annual wellbeing days for each year level.

“We have a wellbeing centre of 10 staff who create short programs on a needs-based level to address concerns when required,” says Cameron. “We’re also a ‘Human Rights’ school and have completed the pilot program for this, upskilling all staff.”

“Do we still have behavioural concerns? Yes. But we find that those behaviours are rarely presented when students are engaged in their alternative programs.”

The need to support the successful integration of students from multicultural backgrounds has led to the school’s ‘Social Cohesion’ program. This involves various initiatives such as a homework club for primary-aged students, and a peer support program to better transition students from Years 6 into Year 7 with the help of mentors from Years 9 and 10.

These programs are only possible with the support of various grants, volunteers and applications to access professional knowledge and expertise. “We only apply to participate in programs that reflect our values, and which we believe will see positive change for students,” Cameron says.

The number of children involved in each program – and their behavioural issues – varies. The school’s ‘Learning Hub’ has proven to be among its most successful and motivating initiatives, says Cameron, helping students recognise the basic benefit of being at school and getting a good education. “There have been students who’ve come out of the program completely different people compared to when they started.”

Students’ overall connectedness to the school has increased, with its Student Attitudes to School Survey (ATOSS) data showing the kids are happier. “We believe this is because we address wellbeing needs when they arise and alter the school environment to suit our students’ needs.”

The students feel supported because they know who to connect with, Cameron says. There are safe places and staff they can always rely on.

“Do we still have behavioural concerns? Yes. But we find that those behaviours are rarely presented when students are engaged in their alternative programs.”

Parent and community liaison officer Debbie Dodd with students at Cranbourne West PS.

Cranbourne West Primary School has established a particularly broad range of programs to address the high rates of family violence and financial stress experienced by its school community.

Overseeing these initiatives is the school’s wellbeing team – comprised of the wellbeing officer, parent and community liaison coordinator, one of the assistant principals and a number of teachers and education support staff. This team works together to deal with immediate issues and to identify factors that could adversely affect students and parents, so they can develop strategies.

It’s all about reducing risks and enhancing resilience and wellbeing, says Debbie Dodd, parent and community liaison coordinator. “These issues can lead to high levels of transience, so every week we have new children starting and other children leaving. That makes it especially important for us to provide additional support programs that run at playtimes, which is often when students feel anxious or unsettled.”

These support programs include a breakfast club, brunch club and emergency lunch program, all of which provide a range of healthy and delicious food. To reduce stigma, they are open to any student who chooses to attend, feeding more than 50 children each day.

“Levels of autism spectrum disorder seem to be increasing, so we’ve been developing a lot more programs where children who don’t feel comfortable just playing in an unstructured way in the yard have other activities they can attend at playtime,” says Debbie.

“Students know that we care about each and every one of them and will do whatever it takes to help them to feel comfortable and safe.”

The school also hosts a ‘clubhouse’ every day at recess and lunch, run by adult mentors. Tertiary students studying community services and social work help facilitate a range of activities from playing cards to board games, drawing, colouring-in or just chatting.

“Some children will spend time in my office if they don’t like the noise outside – not as a punishment; these are places they can choose to come to for connection and support,” says Debbie. “The tertiary students also provide individual and small group mentoring and social skills development for any children who need it.”

Children can be referred by their teachers, parents or themselves for additional support. As a result, they have seen improved engagement rates among those students who find it challenging to attend school.

“The mentors provide someone the children can talk to at least once a week about anything that’s on their mind, and this helps them build their self-esteem and give them resilience. The enhanced support programs have been really effective, because they know that we care about each and every one of them and will do whatever it takes to help them to feel comfortable and safe.”

While all of these programs tend to focus on the students, none of them would be as effective without an effort to involve the entirety of the school community. This can mean regular phone calls, emails or school visits.

Back at Berwick Lodge Primary, Fiona uses the school’s Facebook page to maintain constant communication with parents. “We touch base with all our parents as often as possible. For example, I heard that one of my students who gets quite anxious has been away sick for a couple of days, so I sent her mum a message saying that we’re looking forward to seeing her again on Monday.

“We try to make sure that people are feeling very connected and supported, so they’re more likely to tell us if there’s something other than a physical illness keeping them away.”

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