Creating a positive environment at school will promote mental wellbeing among students, says principal and leading educationalist Thea Kilian.
While some mental health issues require professional guidance, for most kids feeling engaged, safe and included is enough to keep them balanced, she says.
Young people’s mental health is an area she’s passionate about and, while she says there’s a lot that’s not fully understood, some simple actions can have enormous impact – like the simple act of being grateful.
“Studies show a correlation between expressing what you’re grateful for and a reduction in depression rates. The reality is that we put a lot of effort into keeping our bodies fit and healthy; we need to be doing the same for our brain and mental health.
“Eating right, getting enough sleep, exercising, making proactive decisions to be kind, engaging in the simple act of conversation, choosing to focus on the positive over the negative - these are all important. But young people need to be aware that good mental health isn’t always automatic, sometimes we have to choose to work at it.”
Keeping students busy and engaged through academia, sports and arts, also prevents them from dwelling on negativity, she says.
“Students need to want to be at school. Provide the right teachers, classroom environment, opportunities and the right students around them and you have an environment in which they can thrive.”
This means caring and inclusiveness are promoted above all else.
“Our highest expectation is for our students to be kind to others but also themselves. Sending our students off to camp at the end of last year, I simply asked them to look out for each other, be kind to everyone and have fun. They did.”
She is quick to point out this doesn’t mean the school lowers its expectations.
“We are not afraid to put realistic pressure on our students to achieve what they’re capable of. We all need expectations and pressure to keep us engaged, motivated and on track. I truly think that part of why students are struggling at school and university after NCEA is that we’ve become nervous of setting the bar high. Expecting a lot shows we care and have faith in their abilities.”
Of course, those expectations must be achievable, well communicated and carefully supported. “If we can strike that balance, we will have great success with our students,” she says.