Twenty-six Victorian primary schools will employ a mental health and wellbeing co-ordinator to provide training and be a link between classrooms, families and external support as part of a program that was co-designed by the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute.
The plan is being trialled in state schools, with additional funding from the Ian Potter Centre to respond to a need exposed by the coronavirus pandemic for more sustainable, everyday ways for schools to help their students.
Professor Frank Oberklaid, of the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, said the importance of addressing children’s mental health had long been overlooked before the effects of the pandemic, including lockdown and remote learning, made the problem highly visible.
“Many kids did it hard during COVID-19 lockdown,” he said. “Everyone realised we need to start paying attention to children’s issues.
“There’s such strong relationship between learning and behaviour.”
Professor Oberklaid said the program was designed with teachers to make something practical and effective they could actually use.
“Teachers now see this is a core role for them but they say ‘I need more resources in the school’. They might not have the time or confidence or expertise to do it all themselves,” he said.
Kangaroo Flat Primary School principal Kim Saddlier and students with the school dog Bonnie.
The pilot program ran in 10 primary schools across metropolitan and regional north and south west Victoria last year. If the expanded trial is a similar success then it may be rolled out across all state schools.
Kangaroo Flat Primary School principal Kim Saddlier said having the new role in the school had given teachers new skills and broken down stigma around mental health.
“Often we get these gut feelings about a child but this had given us more tools to work out a pathway forward.”
She said primary schools were the perfect setting to tackle problems early.
“Our teachers not only work on the academic side of their role in terms of teaching and learning; we equally need to be working on social and emotional curriculum with a child.
“If you don’t have students that are happy, healthy and connected, the learning is very hard.”
The program’s growth coincides with the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System handing down its findings. The commission recommended sweeping reforms, including prevention and mental health promotion for infants, children and new parents.
Victorian Principals Association president Andrew Dalgleish said it was an exciting time for change to understanding and resourcing mental health in schools.
“I think it’s almost become a tipping point for identifying it; we’ve been working in that space for a long time but with COVID the spotlight became brighter,” he said.
“Every school community, every child, there will be times when they’ll have challenges and if we can get early intervention going at a primary school level it lays those foundations for that life-long good mental health and wellbeing.”
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