Skills for life: Study calls for greater focus on resilience training in school

MELBOURNE, Australia — School is supposed to help children and adolescents develop into healthy, well-rounded, resilient individuals equipped with the knowledge they need to navigate adult life. But, do modern curriculums and available extra-curricular activities fully achieve that goal? According to new research from the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI), the answer to that question is largely no.

Researchers call for schools to place much more time and resources on providing resilience training to students. Life is unpredictable, often uncertain, and often unfair. Cultivating a little bit of resilience early in life is never a bad idea. Moreover, a wider array of extra-curricular activities should be offered to modern students as well.

Why are such changes so badly needed? Mental health conditions in young children have never been more prevalent, with numbers continuing to rise. It’s becoming more clear that modern times represent new challenges to the mental wellness of today’s children, and educational systems must adapt to these changing times.

It isn’t just this study’s authors that are calling for serious change. Researchers report that many clinicians and doctors are echoing the very same sentiments. To start, teachers need to be better prepared to tackle mental health prevention, identification, and early intervention within their classrooms. In other words, teachers should be educated more thoroughly on how to identify and act on signs predicting mental illness in a child. School psychologists should also be given more robust support, both financially and culturally.

Bringing resilience into the classroom can improve mental health

A total 143 Victorian and South Australian clinicians took part in this study. Each participant was asked how educational systems can better serve the mental health of children. Participating clinicians included a wide variety of doctors, including pediatricians, psychologists, GPs, and psychiatrists. Across the board, virtually all subjects echoed the same sentiments: schools should be playing a much bigger role in making sure students are OK mentally.

If a child is getting straight As on all their assignments, but absolutely overcome by anxiety and loneliness most days between bells, is that school really doing right by the child? In 2022, the answer is a resounding no. Good grades, bad grades, or average grades, all students need a support system.

When it comes to tackling and fixing some of these issues, study authors suggest that teachers work to identify particularly at-risk children, take advantage of prevention and early intervention strategies, and implement additional coping and social skills programs whenever possible.

MCRI researcher Kate Paton takes this notion a step further, suggesting that schools are ideally suited to identify and help children on the verge of significant mental health issues. “Schools as buildings act as a trusted physical space where mental health clinicians could offer services that are otherwise challenging to access,” she explains in a media release. Clinicians believed teachers can offer prevention by supporting children through school wide psychoeducation, sport and social skills and coping programs.

“Whilst educators have identified many challenges to providing this support, including perceived stigma, lack of resources and an overcrowded curriculum, understanding clinicians’ views on the role of educators and schools and how they could work together to achieve good mental health outcomes are important questions,” she continues. “It’s important to understand whether different perspectives may exist between educators and mental health clinicians which need to be bridged if these professionals are to work successfully together to achieve both good education and mental health outcomes.”

It’s worth noting that improving a student’s mental health will also almost certainly help with their academic performance as well. Mental health issues are some of the most common reasons cited by students regarding what holds them back academically.

“With about 50 per cent of mental health disorders beginning before the age of 14 years, prevention and early intervention are paramount if we want to reduce lifetime prevalence of mental health disorders and allow children to live their best possible lives,” concludes MCRI Professor Harriet Hiscock. “Improving mental health for children and adolescents has therefore become an international priority.”

The study is published in PLoS ONE.

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