A group of West Australian university academics and research done at Geelong Grammar School in Victoria, presented at the Positive Schools Conference in Fremantle, WA, showed teachers how to identify risks and address them. 

Dr Helen Street, research Fellow in Education at the University of WA and creator of Positive Schools conferences, described “class cohesion” as the social and emotional “glue” that bound teachers and students together.  

“The amount of connectedness that students feel for a teacher dictates how much they learn,” she said.  

“If you go into a class and feel consistently stressed it’s a sign that you have not got cohesion. 

“Research done on children’s responses shows it’s all about building relationships that I call ‘making glue’ and positive education.  

“Class cohesion can be built by discussing norms and establishing rules as a class. When we take on a social wellbeing program we need to embed it in a learning environment,” Street said. 

Dr Rev. Richard Pengelley, co-host of Positive Schools, used an interactive session with a student, Hannah, from St. Mary’s Anglican Girls School, to model his message of taking students on a journey of self-discovery to inclusive awareness as part of building relationships.  

“What students do at school for most of the time is receive instructional or didactic (communication) followed by interactive work in a very controlled way,” Pengelley said.  

“Full-engagement is about building inter-connectedness so each child knows the best that it can be.”

The question-and-answer process Pengelley used showed how Hannah’s visit with a group to Cambodia enabled her to achieve inclusive self-awareness.  

“I realised how complex people are and, at the end of my visit, I learned the amazing respect they have for elders that we could learn,” Hannah said. 

Justin Robinson, inaugural director for the Institute of Positive Education at Geelong Grammar, Victoria, shared his research on building positive relationships that he said was the “number one skill for effective teaching”. 

Robinson presented his research based on the analysis of numerous letters from students to their teachers that gave a valuable insight into teachers’ capabilities students most valued. 

The most valued qualities were exceeding expectations, making class fun, being approachable, offering emotional guidance and showing creativity. 

“Attachment improves students’ wellbeing and school success. This is true of attachment to parents and teachers,” Robinson added.

“You should know what interests each of your students and use ways of knowing and remembering them. Photographs with name tags, rhymes, what interests them beyond the class and unique pieces of information are important.” 

He said each teacher should ask what strengths their students appreciated about them as it was a lens for the future.   

Dr Karen Marsh, associate professor at the University of Western Australia, conducting research into loneliness and childhood trauma, said that her research showed there was greater likelihood of lonely children committing suicide than more socially capable children.  

“Some of the naughty kids may be lonely but are more adept at getting attention. We need to explore whether it is because of their lack of social skills or another cause if we are to help them,” Marsh said. 

“Some practices that can be detrimental are punishment, shaming and suspension. The WA Ombudsman’s report shows a link between suspension and suicide so we need to think about these practices.” 

“American research shows that girls who are lonely can benefit from peer support as it reduces the need for attention-seeking,” Marsh said.  

She said that lonely children would not admit to loneliness. A survey tool, such as the UCLA Loneliness 20–item scale could be used to measure one’s subjective feelings of loneliness and social isolation. 

Schools could make a difference by using mentors, cooperative games to develop social and problem-solving skills, create opportunities for serving the community or use robotics where those with low sporting ability could interact. 

Community gardens were wonderful for reducing anxiety and depression while buddies enabled older children to teach younger ones compassion and friendship.  

A teacher told me, "they may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel".