Building buoyant students

Helping students to be ‘buoyant’ is a key focus of wellbeing programs in Sydney Catholic schools.

“Buoyancy is the capacity to bob up again when life’s challenges take us down,” says Stephen Said, Head of Student Wellbeing and Pastoral Care at Sydney Catholic Schools (SCS).

“It’s the ability to stay afloat even when we are exhausted from ‘swimming against the tide’.”

Mr Said said stormy weather is an unavoidable part of life and it takes many forms and affects us in different ways at all ages including in Primary school.

“It can be anything from a disappointment at not winning to a friendship issue, the death of a pet or a serious illness in a family. Loss and grief are not downplayed. Students are encouraged to seek support during difficult times and express their feelings rather than be overwhelmed by them.

“They are also encouraged to find the positives in any situation and normalise the challenges rather than go into the victim mode – asking ‘why me?’ or ‘it’s not fair’ or ‘it must be someone else’s fault’,” Mr Said said.

This buoyancy approach is one part of a broader focus on wellbeing in Sydney Catholic schools that aims to foster school communities with cultures of care, support, tolerance and mutual respect. These approaches are supported by the Sydney Catholic Schools Student Wellbeing and Pastoral Care Policy, Sydney Catholic Schools Supporting Students with Complex Social and Emotional Needs Policy, KidsMatter for Primary schools, MindMatters for Secondary schools, Mental Health First Aid, regional school counsellor support, as well as individual school programs.

Mr Said said he and others in SCS charged with giving leadership in the area of student wellbeing were building on the long tradition of pastoral care in Catholic schools.

“The links between that pastoral care and student learning have become increasingly clear. Student wellbeing encompasses both of these.”

Resiliency skills learned while at school can contribute to life-long success and happiness.

– Stephen Said

Mr Said said we are very conscious these days of our physical health counting our steps on our Fitbits and exploring all the new diets, the 5:2, paleo, the Mediterranean and so on.

“We need to place just as much importance on our mental health and take as much care of our brains as our bodies.”

He said in recent years there has been considerable advances in the area of neuro-biology, and as a result we know a lot more about the brain.

“We know that new pathways in our brains can be laid down throughout out life and we can actually strengthen our capacity for a positive view of the world.”

Mr Said recommends Rick Hanson’s YouTube presentation at the Chicago Ideas Week on ‘Taking in the good’. In the presentation, the neuro-psychologist explains how we can overcome the brain’s negativity bias by taking time to absorb positive experiences into our brains.

Mr Said said teaching students how their brains work has been shown to be very useful in helping them to regulate their behaviour.

The MindUp Curriculum – Brain-Focused Strategies for Learning– and Living, for Years 3-5 has been used in some Sydney Catholic Primary schools. It shows students how their brains work, as well as fostering social and emotional awareness. In one of the 15 lessons that make up the curriculum, the students are introduced to some of the key players in the brain – the limbic system which controls emotions and motivation from deep inside the brain, as well as the amygdala and the hippocampus.  They learn how these key parts of the brain respond to stress and how they can create a calm mind-set for thoughtful decision-making.

…new pathways in our brains can be laid down throughout life and we can strengthen our capacity for a positive view of the world.

Liz Douglas, Leader of Learning: Student Wellbeing Coordinator K-12 Inner Western Region, who has recently been involved in training 10 new Sydney Catholic schools in MindUP, said the program empowers the students to think about their own behaviour and feelings.

“They are often told how to behave but the knowledge they gain from MindUP helps them to self-regulate.”

Another focus of wellbeing at Sydney Catholic Schools is addressing mental health issues before they become a crisis. Assisting this approach is the Youth Mental Health First Aid course which involves Primary and Secondary teachers undertaking the 14-hour training to give them the knowledge and skills to identify a student who maybe developing a mental health problem.

Mr Said said it was important to remember that the training was not turning teachers into clinicians but giving them the knowledge to identify issues and help students and their families to get the most appropriate support.

“We are an education system not NSW Health but one of our key priorities in terms of student wellbeing is linking students and parents with outside agencies who can provide the appropriate help.”

Mr Said said it was important to remember that it’s an imperfect world we live in and it’s not healthy to try and protect children from all of life’s bruises.

“We learn a lot of lessons when we aren’t selected for a team or the lead role in the play and it’s an important part of a child’s life to experience setbacks and disappointments.

“We want to help our students have the skills to bounce back from those setbacks and to grow from them. The resiliency skills learned while at school can contribute to life-long success and happiness.”

The backbone of wellbeing in Sydney Catholic schools

  • Sydney Catholic Schools Wellbeing and Pastoral Care Policy has a philosophy of creating safe and supportive learning and teaching communities with strong interconnection between student safety, wellbeing and learning. Underpinning this policy is the National Safe Schools Framework.
  • National Safe Schools Framework is a federal government initiative that provides Australian schools with a vision and a set of guiding principles that assist school communities to develop positive and practical student safety and wellbeing approaches. It offers a range of resources for schools now available at the Student Wellbeing Hub. Note: National Safe Schools Framework should not be confused with the controversial Safe Schools Coalition.
  • Kids Matter provides Primary schools with proven methods, tools and support to nurture happy, balanced kids. Its four main components are: positive school community, social and emotional learning for students, working with parents and carers and helping children with mental health difficulties.
  • Mind Matters is a resource and professional development initiative for Secondary schools that builds school staff understanding of mental health and wellbeing through a range of workshops, face-to-face events, webinars.
  • Youth Mental Health First Aid is a 14-hour course that provides adults with the knowledge and skills to identify and assist a young person who is experiencing a mental health crisis or developing a mental health problem, and to connect them with appropriate outside services as soon as possible.
  • Seasons for Growth is a small-group program of 8 sessions for students between six and 18 experiencing significant loss and change including death, separation and divorce. Led by trained adult ‘Companions’ it aims to strengthen their social and emotional wellbeing by exploring the impact of change and loss in everyday life and learning new ways to respond.
  • School counsellor support and wellbeing staff at Sydney Catholic schools support the many programs and initiatives being implemented by committed school personnel. School counsellors, with their clinical training and experience, make an immense contribution to the wellbeing culture of the schools they support, and help parents access appropriate external supports.



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