Adventist schools to invest more in student wellbeing

Chaplain Leighton Heise studying the Bible with Year 9 students from Central Coast Adventist School. (Photo: Wes Tolhurst)

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Challenging findings from surveys and an Avondale academic’s study are encouraging Seventh-day Adventist schools in Australia to invest more in the wellbeing of students.

Adventist Schools Australia has, over the past three years, tracked through its school improvement surveys the wellbeing of staff members and students. “We’re finding that, just like those elsewhere, many of our students are not experiencing a strong sense of wellbeing,” says associate national director Jacques Calais. “So, we’re doing something about it.”

Exacerbated by issues such as family breakdown, globalisation and ubiquitous access to mobile internet, adolescents tend to feel more isolated and more anxious about the future and suffer more from depression and stress, says Dr Peter Beamish, senior lecturer in the Discipline of Education at Avondale College of Higher Education and developer of a wellbeing profiler.

He has received responses to an online survey from about 300 Year 9 students from six Adventist schools in Queensland, Victoria and New South Wales. The findings, which Dr Beamish shared during his keynote at an Adventist Schools Australia-sponsored “Designed to Thrive” wellbeing symposium on Avondale’s Lake Macquarie campus, May 22, show one-third of the students need help managing depression and stress and more than half need help managing anxiety. “Even in Adventist schools, despite the best intention of the schools, our students need more help to maintain high levels of wellbeing,” says Dr Beamish.

Adventist Schools Australia established this past year a Wellbeing Reference Group comprising directors of education at Adventist Church conferences, teachers, counsellors, Dr Beamish and Dr Darren Morton, lead researcher in the Lifestyle Research Centre at Avondale. The group initiated the symposium.

Almost 90 educators attended. The administrators, principals, teachers, chaplains and counsellors listened to keynotes, presented case studies of wellbeing initiatives in schools, discussed implications and implementation and contributed to a plenary during which they recommended a way forward. [pullquote]

“The genesis of the symposium grew from concerns our directors of education had about our students, who were saying more could be done to support their physical and emotional wellbeing,” says Adventist Schools Australia director Dr Daryl Murdoch. “We seek to build strong communities of faith and learning,, but for this to occur, we’ve got to meet three core elements: belonging, believing and becoming. For students to belong, their wellbeing must be front and centre.”

The educators developed a comprehensive list of recommendations including an audit of wellbeing resources available to Adventist schools, an increase in the number of wellbeing units offered as part of Avondale’s Master of Education and the employment of a curriculum officer to develop wellbeing resources.

Consensus seemed to be for a system-wide approach to encourage the sharing of resources such as the Adventist Church in the South Pacific’s Live More Project and a whole-of-school model. Both are urgent, says Benton Craig of Avondale School. A vision for the wellbeing of students and a better understanding of the age appropriateness of wellbeing for students in Preschool to Year 12 will help us “acknowledge we’re taking our students on a journey to a fullness and a joy of life that sustains them through adulthood”. 

As Head of Secondary, Mr Craig has helped introduce changes to improve the wellbeing of students. The school is using Northpine Christian College’s yearlong, gender specific and Bible-based Challenge: The Next Step program to further develop respect, resilience and responsibility in Year 9 students. It pairs the same year advisor with students as they move from Year 7 to 12 and is planning to introduce male and female advisors for each year level. And it has increased time in roll call for more worship and wellbeing activities. He hopes the recommendations “will propel us into a better space and allow us to take the reins a little with wellbeing”. 

The recommendations will move through the Wellbeing Reference Group to the National Education Council in August.

“I looked at those in the room and felt enormously blessed,” says Mr Calais. “The collegiality and the commitment to collaborate to improve student wellbeing is exciting. I’m humbled and proud to be working alongside those in our schools who are dedicated to not only the academic and spiritual needs of students but also the emotional wellbeing of staff members and students.”

“We take seriously the statement Jesus makes: ‘I came so you can have life to the full,’” says Dr Beamish. “We believe that’s what we should be giving our students.”

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