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What schools can do

Schools can have an enormous influence - for good or bad - on the mental health of their students. However, for many reasons, including lack of funding, time and availability of relevant professional development for teachers, the potential that schools have to foster their students` psychological resilience is frequently not reached. The most effective schools at promoting mental wellbeing are those which embed the core principles of resiliency in their everyday practices rather than simply incorporating resiliency training modules into their curriculum. Within this philosophy every teacher-child interaction becomes an opportunity to promote resiliency. This does not mean that teachers need to become experts in psychology or possess advanced counselling skills. Classroom teachers will always need the support of school psychologists and other mental health specialists. However, classroom teachers do need to be aware of the potential their interactions and behaviour have to influence the mental health and resiliency of their students. Skills such as optimistic thinking can be taught explicitly; however social learning theorists would argue that more is learned through social learning (role-modelling and similar processes) than is learned via direct instruction. Resiliency is absorbed by children who learn in an environment that is supportive, challenging and involving, in which the innate potential of each child is believed in and nurtured, and in which the wellbeing of staff as much as students is fostered through a health-promoting environment.

Such schools not only promote resiliency, but they can truly be characterised as `resilient schools`. Not only will their students have better mental health, but their staff will have better job satisfaction, less stress and better capacity to cope with change, and the school`s links with parents and the general community will be healthy and strong. This translates into greater financial resiliency, as well, since schools with strong support from parents and the local community will be able to leverage greater support in times of financial need. Such schools will also have the capacity for resilient response to crises in the school community. Resilience permeates every level of the school`s functioning, from the individual to the organisation as a whole.


Key principles

There are three key principles underpinning the functioning of the resilient school. These are:

  • Caring relationships
  • High expectations and academic standards
  • Opportunities for participation and contribution

Caring relationships

Teachers can be highly significant people in the life of a child, providing positive role modelling, caring and support for their students (Geary, 1988; Benard, 1995). Some aspects of this caring relationship include:

  • Genuine concern for the welfare and progress of every child in their care;
  • Being prepared to listen to students` concerns and provide empathy and understanding;
  • Recognising and believing in each child`s strengths and potential and nurturing these;
  • Providing encouragement and being positive;
  • Challenging negative and defeatist talk and role-modelling problem-solving behaviour;
  • Refraining from negative comments, including thoughtless, `off the cuff` remarks that may be more damaging that the teacher realises;
  • Creating a climate in which bullying and put-downs are not tolerated;
  • Informal avenues of communication between teachers and parents to monitor children`s progress and develop co-operative strategies for addressing issues.

The importance of caring relationships extends beyond the relationship between teachers and students, although clearly this is the critical relationship as far as children are concerned. Schools that care about their staff`s wellbeing, and indeed about the welfare of parents in the school community, also help to foster resiliency by creating a general climate of emotional safety and support. Resilient schools show support for staff through:

  • Opportunities for staff development;
  • Effective, competent and caring management;
  • Good Occupational Health and Safety standards;
  • Recognition of staff for good work and contributions to the school.

High expectations and academic standards

The importance of academic achievement for resiliency is well established (e.g. Howard & Johnson, 1998). Clearly, not all students are equally academically gifted or inclined. However, academic success is not purely a function of intelligence or natural ability. A complex range of other factors are also involved including:

  • Children`s home environment. Children in chaotic, dysfunctional homes may find it very difficult to find the time and space and quiet they need for study
  • Parental attitudes to and support for study
  • Children`s beliefs about their own competence
  • Motivation to succeed
  • Behavioural problems and childhood disorders such as ADHD, which may interfere with the child`s capacity to attend to schoolwork

While schools and teachers cannot necessarily impact on all of these areas, they do have a role in building children`s motivation to do well, as well as promoting their self-confidence through providing experiences of mastery and competence (see resiliency and self-esteem).

Rutter`s (1979) study of schools in economically disadvantaged areas of London found that some schools showed consistently better academic results and lower rates of delinquency and non-attendance. These schools had the following characteristics in common:

  • An academic emphasis
  • Clear expectations and rules
  • High levels of student participation
  • Many varied resources available to students

Masten and Coatsworth (1988) identified some further features of academically successful schools, including:

  • High quality staff
  • Attention to professional development for teachers
  • Careful monitoring of student`s progress

According to Rutter, schools which hold high expectations for all their students, and which provide the support and resources necessary for them to achieve them, have `incredibly high rates of academic success`. In one study in California, students rates of going on to tertiary-level education rose from 50 to 65%. Several students who participated stated that it was the fact that "someone believed I could do it" that was a major factor in their decision to continue their education (cited in Benard, 1991). The critical aspect of such successful programs appears to be the repeated message and expectation that "you can do it", a message that is gradually internalised as a sense of self-esteem and self-efficacy that serves as a powerful source of resiliency.

Embedding high expectations in school practices

How, in concrete terms, do schools and teachers communicate high expectations? The following is a summary of some of the ways in which high expectations are embedded in school practices:

  • Setting goals defined in terms of minimally acceptable standards rather than performance ceilings beyond which students would not be expected to progress.
  • Providing insistent coaching and support to students who are experiencing learning difficulties.
  • Establishing policies which emphasise the importance of academic achievement to students (for example, making participation in certain desirable extra-curricular activities contingent on attaining certain minimum standards of academic achievement).
  • Emphasising the importance of reading. E.g., policies establishing a minimum amount of instructional time devoted to reading daily, providing regular free reading periods, homework which emphasises reading, etc.
  • Having staff who have high expectations of themselves and take responsibility for the performance of their students.
  • Providing a positive learning climate, through both the physical environment and the pervading sense of order and discipline in the school.
  • Protecting instructional time through policies regarding attendance, lateness, interruptions etc.
  • Providing explicit instruction in study skills and learning techniques.

(Cotton, 2001; Howard & Johnson (1998))

In addition to the high expectations which Rutter`s (1979) research found to be effective in promoting the academic success of `at risk` children, Rutter found that successful schools offered many and varied opportunities for meaningful participation, and gave students many opportunities to take on responsibilities. By offering multiple avenues for involvement, children were given the greatest possible opportunity to find something that suited them, which they were good at, and which provided a sense of meaningful participation in the life of the school. This involvement provides the best inoculation against anti-academic attitudes and the sense of alienation that is characteristic of many anti-social youth. (Benard, 1991).

Examples of such opportunities for participation include:

Use of co-operative learning strategies

Co-operative learning strategies require students to rely on each other and collaborate in order to solve set problem and achieve learning goals. Students learn positive interdependence, co-operation and social skills in the process (see http://esol.sbmc.org/esol60/strategies.htm for examples).

Participation of students in setting curriculum

Although there are clearly limits to the extent to which children can set their own curriculum, there are nevertheless ways in which children can be involved in setting their own learning goals and direction. While teachers may have to cover certain bases in terms of what is taught, children`s spontaneous interests can be used to make this learning relevant. So if, for example, a dramatic volcanic eruption has caught children`s interest on the news, this interest might be harnessed to teach a module about geological processes. Children can be rewarded for excellent work or behaviour by being given the opportunity to set a topic for learning for the whole class. Even giving children the opportunity to choose the order in which certain areas of the curriculum will be learned can provide a greater sense of ownership of the educational process.

Convening classroom meetings to solve classroom problems

Rather than the teacher imposing his or her authority to solve conflicts and other problems in the classroom, the teacher can call a classroom meeting, in which children are asked to contribute to solving the problem. This promotes resiliency by helping to develop problem-solving skills, teaching children to listen to one another and contribute their ideas, and sending the message that conflicts and other problems are not `bad`, but can be seen as opportunities for creative problem solving and negotiation. It also helps children to develop a sense of responsibility for everything that happens in their classroom rather than focusing solely on their own concerns.

Involve children in assessment and goal-setting

Rather than simply providing a grade for work, teachers can offer feedback and involve children in setting goals for themselves. Gradually, as children come to understand teachers` criteria for quality, they can learn to honestly evaluate the quality of their work and, guided by their teacher, set goals for themselves.

Involve children in setting classroom rules

Rather than simply imposing a set of rules for classroom behaviour, teachers can foster a greater sense of participation and responsibility by asking them to take part in defining the classroom`s governing rules and consequences for breaches of those rules. By discussing rules and consequences, children no longer feel that they are subject to an arbitrary authority, but come to understand the reason for rules and to take responsibility for them through having contributed to their development. Children who break rules can not complain about the fairness of the system, as the teacher can ask them, "do you remember that we agreed that..."

Give children roles of responsibility

By treating children as responsible people, they will respond accordingly. The actual responsibilities will obviously depend on the age of the children. However, responsibilities can include such as roles as:

  • supervising or mentoring younger children;
  • organising a classroom event;
  • creating a system in which certain children are trained to act as schoolyard monitors, helping to resolve conflicts in the schoolyard;
  • providing leadership in a co-operative learning exercise.

(Bickart & Wolin, 1997)

Targets for change

Schools wishing to develop the  resilience of their students schools can target three areas for change: curriculum, school ethos and policies, and community links.


Resilient schools foster resiliency as much through the way they do things as what they teach. Nevertheless, important skills for resiliency can be taught through explicit instruction. Some programs which schools can offer in order to promote resiliency include:

Social skills

School ethos, policies and environment

key principles (caring relationships, high expectations, and opportunities for participation) outlined above, some ways that schools can assist in promoting student resiliency include:

  • Developing and enforcing clear anti-bullying policies and procedures;
  • Creating a culture in which put-downs, teasing, and discrimination are not tolerated;
  • Recognising and celebrating the achievements of students in academic, sporting, artistic and other arenas;
  • Mediating conflicts using problem-solving methods
  • Avoiding negative labelling of students with difficulties
  • Implementing tracking systems to pick up and monitor students who may be at risk and provide the necessary support, without stigmatisation.
  • Adhering to `Health Promoting Schools` policies

Links with the community

Resilient schools have strong, healthy links with the communities in which they are embedded. This includes:

  • Relationships with counselling, mental health and other support services for children with emotional and psychological difficulties. Schools can develop a database of community agencies, and link families with appropriate services for their needs (Benard, 1997).
  • Many avenues of communication with parents, and opportunities for parents to participate in the life of the school;
  • Links with other community groups, such as sporting clubs and drama groups,  to add to the recreational and other opportunities available to students.

Belief: the precondition for change

As noted above, the development of resiliency depends on teachers harbouring high expectations of their students and conveying the message - through both words and actions - that "you have everything you need to succeed." If teachers have not been operating within a resiliency paradigm, the first barrier may well be teachers` own beliefs. In order to foster  resilience, teachers need to genuinely believe in the potential of each child to succeed and do well, to be `optimistically tuned` to their student`s strengths and hidden possibilities. Research has demonstrated the self-fulfilling nature of teachers` beliefs about their students` abilities (Rosenthal & Jacobson, 1968), and shown that teachers can unwittingly limit students` performance through behaviours based on their expectations of students.

Before change can occur, teachers need to examine their implicit beliefs and assumptions about students, especially looking at differential expectations based on such factors such as:

  • Gender. Girls may be assumed to be worse at mathematical or scientific subjects, boys at English and humanities;
  • Socioeconomic status;
  • Ethnic background;
  • Appearance, way of speaking, messiness or disorganisation, and other superficial attributes;
  • Negative comments made by other teachers;
  • Classification of students as `at risk` or in a remedial or `low` stream;
  • `Halo effects` based on some other obvious behaviour or attribute. e.g., because a student has a stutter or is disruptive in class, they may be assumed to have lower academic ability than other students.

Another factor that may need to be addressed is `burn-out`, or the long-term effects of high stress, overwork and lack of support which can result in teachers depersonalising students and developing a jaded outlook about their work. Teachers affected by burn-out can also negatively impact on other teachers, especially younger, less experienced staff who may pick up negative attitudes, resulting in a culture of negativity which is in direct opposition to the resiliency paradigm. Addressing negative perceptions and burn-out may require extensive professional development and support.

For teachers to foster the resilience of their pupils, they must first develop and tap into their own  resilience. In order to do this they may need to explore their own experiences of dealing with adversity and connect the theory of resilience with their own lived experience. Benard & Marshall (1997) also suggest that teachers wishing to promote resiliency need to explore such philosophical questions as:

Does the system currently operating operate from a belief that all children have the capacity for common sense, mental health, compassion, well-being, learning strength and wisdom?

Do human beings, indeed, have a self-righting tendency?

Can all learners succeed?

Is every child `at promise`?

Early intervention and risk assessment

The best school-based resiliency programs are those that intervene at an early age before problematic outcomes become evident (Nastasi & Bernstein, 1998). Schools need to have systems in place to identify vulnerable children as early as possible and monitor their mental health and academic and social success through a `mental health file`. Both classroom teachers and teachers on playground duty can add any observations about children with problematic social behaviours to the file. Identification and tracking needs to be supported by availability of appropriately tailored intervention programs to support at-risk students. All staff have a role to play in identifying at-risk children and tracking their wellbeing. Indicators of vulnerability include:

  • Difficulty socialising with other peers and failure to achieve social developmental milestones;
  • Aggressive and disruptive behaviours;
  • Learning difficulties;
  • Attentional deficits and hyperactivity;
  • Moody behaviour;
  • Signs of anxiety.

Interventions should be based on the level of risk, according to the pyramidal model illustrated below:

The role of the classroom teacher

Some classroom teachers can become anxious when presented with information about resiliency. There are already immense pressures on the time and resources of teachers, and some teachers feel resistant to the idea of becoming `mental health promoters` as well as teachers, assuming that this will entail their becoming experts in mental health and counselling. In fact, resiliency research does not suggest that teachers need to develop specialist skills beyond those that they already possess, nor does it entail `major, special effort` (Howard & Johnson, 1998). It does, however, suggest possible changes to the way teachers think about and practice their profession. Some of the challenges of implementing resiliency findings for the classroom teacher include:

  • Learning the key principles of resiliency;
  • Challenging negative assumptions about the potential of certain students or groups of students;
  • Learning to recognise opportunities to foster resiliency that arise in the course of everyday classroom life;
  • Learning to identify vulnerable and at-risk children;
  • Eliminating negative types of communication with students.

These challenges will naturally be greater for some teachers than others. However, the rewards for teachers in terms of job satisfaction and improved student performance are more than worth the investment of effort required.

Health Promoting Schools

Ultimately, mental health and  resilience cannot be divorced from health and wellbeing as a whole. The Health Promoting Schools (HPS) concept, developed by the World Health Organisation (WHO), provides a broad framework for the establishment of health-promoting promoting policies across all levels of a school`s functioning. Schools that meet HPS criteria have been shown to produce more resilient students (Stewart et.al., 2004). The WHO has defined a Health Promoting School as one in which:

... all members of the school community work together to provide pupils with integrated and positive experiences and structures, which promote and protect their health. This includes both the formal and informal curriculum in health, the creation of a safe and healthy school environment, the provision of appropriate health services and the involvement of the family and wider community in efforts to promote health.

Health promoting policies encompass a range of areas including:

  • Health policy - the implementation of health policies within the school;
  • Physical environment - the improvement and maintenance of the school`s physical environment;
  • Social environment - promotion of a positive and supportive social environment;
  • School-community relations - promoting and enhancing relationships between the school and the wider community;
  • Personal skills building - implementing skill-building strategies;
  • Access to health services;
  • Participation of students, staff, parents and the community in schools planning and development.