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Building Character for Learning: working with intention to transform lives

Date: June 8, 2018
Author: Melanie Meers, Principal, Anson Street School, Orange

I am a proud NSW Public Education Principal working with a group of diverse learners. I have worked nearly all of my life in rural areas and have a strong passion to ensure that students in rural settings have the same opportunities as our city friends. In our large, rural school with 19 classes and over 70 staff, I am privileged to be in a place where we can innovate and have the courage to transform lives with intention.

Our staff are highly skilled and provide an interesting array of subjects and opportunities for the students. We are involved in a NSW state STEM project and a Minecraft trial. This year we have introduced lunch clubs including DRUMBEAT (Discovering Relationships Using Music, Beliefs, Emotions, Attitudes and Thoughts), choir and circus skills.

The new Mindful Art Studio is an exciting initiative, which allows students to use art for therapy, de-stress and show their creativity in a range of expressive forms. Healthy Mind – Healthy Me is a mental health focused program being delivered with a Cognitive Behaviour Therapy approach to develop independence, resilience, a greater understanding of emotions, management and nurturing of positive relationships; and in turn better engagement with the world students live in.

Communication skills are essential in life, so this year we are providing workshops, small group sessions and one-on-one training to students, staff and community to increase and improve our ability to communicate with each other using sign language, prologuo2go and other forms of technology.

The Engine Room is a hub that provides students with a space to learn and practice emotional and sensory regulation. We are fortunate to be working with an occupational therapist, physiotherapist and speech pathologist who support our students and continue to build the capacity of our staff.

Our school has a strong focus on the ABCs but ours is not solely about the three Rs – it is about our whole school community taking on positive education initiatives to combat the ever-increasing challenges mental health disorders present. We work together to show staff, students and families how to intentionally turn their lives around to be the best person you can be. I have been at Anson Street School in Orange NSW for two and a half years and with approximately a third of our students with a diagnosed mental health disorder, I wanted to ensure that our school’s focus was about wellbeing – for staff and students.

Our approach is to teach how to take each difficult moment in time and replace this with either happiness, gratitude, a focus on being mindful, connecting with others, developing a sense of belonging, being curious or fostering hope. We use this approach to disrupt the negative thoughts and actions and replace them with social and emotional regulation. We have put strategies in place to promote awareness of mental health challenges and to build relationships, and found that when staff and students have a common language about emotions, there is greater understanding and empathy.

We are a trauma-informed school with an ABC Mentally Healthy approach. A standing for being Active – physically, socially and cognitively; B for Belonging – to a team, group, or a class by getting involved; and C for Commitment to a task, cause or challenge. We have a responsive staff, who run with different ideas and adapt these ideas to suit their class setting whether kindergarten or Year 12.

It is easy to stay the same – it takes effort to do things differently. I seed ideas and empower people to grow and flourish. Nothing at our school is mandated but everything introduced has a purpose. A significant amount of time is given to training staff and using experts from many fields to come into our school and become part of our community. We have a psychiatric clinic once a month; use a Victorian Health model based on the continuum of partnerships to build networks; collaborate; coordinate; and integrate services, using our school as a hub.

The ability to organise, plan and problem solve are skills we have as educators and we can help students and their families to develop these skills. The role of the school leadership team is to inspire, provide purpose, empower and to enhance wellbeing in the workplace. By adopting a positive leadership approach, we are ensuring the optimal functioning of everyone in our care.  We place emphasis on building student character to promote resilience and to help students develop coping strategies.

Our three strategic directions are:

* Belong and connect: be your best self

* Be curious: explore and cultivate wisdom

* Foster a resilient, growth mindset: be willing to do things differently

Basically, conversations are happening; people are challenged to think and be curious about different ways to solve issues and use evidenced-based research in how they approach their work.

Melanie Meers
DipArts (Music); GradDip (Education); GradCertEd (Pedagogy); MEd (Leadership & Management); GradCertEd (Learning Support); ProfCert (Positive Education)
NSW Secondary Principals Council Reference Group Leader, Student Wellbeing
NSW WayAhead Mental Health Promotion Reference Group Member
Adjunct Lecturer Charles Sturt University 2013-2017

For more information check the Anson Street School website and Facebook page.

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