Helping people thrive in rural communities
The Kidman Centre at UTS has developed a preventative mental health training program for teachers working in rural communities that weaves social and emotional skills into student’s day-to-day schooling.
Farmers are facing ruin across large parts of eastern Australia in what some are calling the worst drought in living memory. The toll this takes on families living in these communities is devastating. How do I know this? I spent the first 12 years of my life living in such a community, and what happened during those years was formative in ways that I didn’t anticipate, nor fully comprehend, until some years later.
The primary school I went to was a 5-minute drive from our property on the banks of the Murray, and had a total of 26 students from K through to 6, together in one classroom, taught by one teacher.
How a teacher approaches or manages a child who is behaving in challenging ways can absolutely influence that child's response in the moment...
The Kidman Centre UTS
Picture that for just one moment:
- 26 students between 5 and 12 years of age. Of these, twins and even triplets made up one-third of the student group, my sister and me included. You might say there was something in the water.
- Together in 1 classroom for 6 hours a day, 5 days a week. No dividing walls, no separate break-out area, no library (except for the mobile one that visited once a fortnight), no bathrooms down the hall, and precious-little personal space or time for yourself. In that room there were kids from wealthy farming families sitting next to kids who lived in caravans mounted on stumps by the river. There were city kids who were trialling a stint in the country, kids battling serious health issues, kids with learning difficulties, and kids who excelled at everything. We were a mixed bunch, bunched in together, and together we had one thing in common: Our families were all living with the realities of a drought.
- Our 1 teacher, Mr Whiddon, was responsible for the learning, social and emotional needs of all of the students in his care. A young man with a young family of his own, he was knowledgeable in all areas of the curriculum and beyond, and was technically skilled at passing this onto us. He treated each of us as individuals, and he recognised and helped us to develop our individual talents. He cared about our physical and emotional health, and he took action to resolve issues whenever they arose.
We were lucky. Our teacher was, by all measures, exceptional, but the circumstances he taught in – the challenges he was presented within the classroom on a daily basis – were not unique.
If you're a teacher working in a rural, regional or remote community affected by drought, then you are absolutely working at the frontline in helping your students manage scenes such as that just described.
By default, not design, you are all at once an educator, counsellor, and welfare officer responsible for the learning, emotional and social needs of the children in your care for 6 hours a day.
At the best of times, and wherever we are – bush, suburbia, city – all of us are dealing with something that leads us to behave in ways that might confound or challenge others, and even ourselves.
Add drought to this, and there's a whole other complex layer of emotions to deal with. For kids, these emotions can be particularly confusing and the cause of much stress and, yes, sometimes poor behaviour. This additional stress is well documented by young people themselves in the UNICEF report, In their own words: the hidden impact of prolonged drought on children and young people, released earlier this year.
How a teacher approaches or manages a child who is behaving in challenging ways can absolutely influence that child's response in the moment, their interactions with others who witness that response, and their ability to access the skills to better manage their feelings and behaviour in the future.
Here’s where The Kidman Centre UTS comes in. Its Thrive program delivers the evidence-based tools to teachers so they can help their students to develop these skills. These are important, life-changing (potentially life-saving) tools that schools from all over can benefit from – and especially those in rural and regional communities that would otherwise not be exposed to such approaches. At the centre of this training is an approach called CPS, or Collaborative and Proactive Solutions. CPS calls on the grown-ups to “reframe the behaviour” when faced with a child who is behaving in challenging ways, on the presumption that the child doesn’t actually want to behave “badly”, they just don’t have the skills to behave appropriately.
In the first 6 months of Thrive, our clinical psychologists have conducted workshops in Dubbo, Armidale, Griffith, and Forbes, training educators from more than 100 schools across the region. The feedback we've received from teachers speaks for itself.
One teacher wrote:
"Particularly where we are, we haven't got resources where we can get a psychologist to come in and help us – we're waiting 6 or 12 months for a child to see a doctor let alone anything like that. So I think that's where it [CPS] was also very self-sustainable. Teachers and school staff can take this and go, 'Yep, I can work with that.' That's the beauty of it."
Our goal for Thrive is to train 300 schools, impacting the emotional health and wellbeing of more than 12,000 students. The route has been decided, the schools identified, the plan set out. Now we need the funds to realise these "numbers", which represent real people who are doing it extra tough.
And you can help. We’re looking for an Advancement Manager (Fundraising), The Kidman Centre UTS – someone who connects with the importance of the life-changing work that their involvement would enable, and who is ready to grab this exciting opportunity with both hands.
This is an edited version of an article published on LinkedIn by The Kidman Centre’s strategic communications advisor Vicki Forbes.