Teacher Staffroom Episode 54: Supporting student welfare – vaping, menstruation and anxiety

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Thanks for tuning in to this episode of Teacher Staffroom, where we catch you up on the latest evidence, insight, and action in education. I'm Dominique Russell.

We know that supporting a student’s welfare is a priority for teachers, leaders, and school staff. But what this looks like can vary based on a school’s needs and context. Recently at Teacher, we’ve been looking at new research into a number of aspects of student welfare – from anxiety, to menstruation, to vaping. In this episode, I’ll get you up to date on this latest research news.

And, like all episodes of Teacher Staffroom, I’ll be sharing some other highlights with you, and I’ll also be posing some questions throughout the podcast, so feel free to pause the audio as you go, gather some colleagues, and discuss together how these stories might be relevant to your school context. Let's jump in.

A highlight piece of content for me since our last episode of Teacher Staffroom is our Q&A with the Deputy President of the New South Wales Primary Principals’ Association, Rob Walker. In response to survey feedback showing school leaders in NSW are concerned about student anxiety, the Association launched The Anxiety Project statewide in 2022.

The project involves training staff and parents to recognise and respond to anxiety in children and supporting children themselves to recognise and manage feelings of anxiety. In the Q&A, Rob shares the details of what these initial survey findings showed, the design of the project and what the initial data from the first stages of the project is showing. This data is what really stood out for me in this Q&A. Here’s what Rob had to say:

The teacher report shows that of our sample of 4,000 students, 20.1% are sitting in the clinical or extreme range of presentation of social anxieties. For the generalised anxieties, 16.8% are either clinical or extreme levels of anxiety. … [Children] were asked, ‘Do fears and worries upset or distress you?’ and about 1 in 5 said quite a lot or a great deal. Then for teacher response, more than half in response to the question ‘How confident are you to recognise child anxiety?’ say they’re not confident or only somewhat confident. They were also asked to rate their current skills and understanding for addressing child anxiety. Nearly three-quarters of the teachers said they don't know what they’re looking for and don’t know what to do when it presents.

So, there’s certainly a lot to unpack here from that data that Rob shared with us in that Q&A. So, here are a couple of questions for you to reflect on in response to all of that. As a primary school teacher, how confident would you say you are in recognising child anxiety? How would you rate your current skills and understanding for addressing child anxiety? And as a school leader, in what ways could you think about implementing further support for your staff on the topic of child anxiety?

In another Q&A recently, we spoke with National Excellence in Teaching Awards winner Amie Roberts. Amie is a Resource Teacher of Learning and Behaviour in New Zealand which, as she describes in the article, means she’s an educator available to work alongside schools to provide learning support where it’s needed.

Currently though her work, she’s helping teachers and schools in New Zealand implement Structured Literacy into their practice. Here’s how Amie describes the approach:

It’s an explicit, systematic, sequential teaching of literacy. Basically, you start at the ground roots of phonological awareness, building up to word level, comprehension, fluency, vocab – all those things. It’s not just phonics, which is what a lot of people think, it’s all those things [above], but it’s taught cumulatively, systematically, diagnostically so we know where the students are at, and we plug those gaps while still stretching them. It’s not assuming they know stuff. We need to know what they do and don’t know, and we teach to that, which is very different to how we’ve taught in the past – the ‘throw paint at the wall and hope it sticks’ approach.

One point I found particularly interesting in the Q&A was where Amie mentioned that with many of the teachers she works with, her approach needs to be to introduce things gradually, bit by bit, because the teachers typically want to hold onto their older teaching techniques, even if they aren’t evidence-based.

So, that brings me to a question for you to think about. As a teacher, how often are you reviewing your own teaching to ensure it follows the evidence and the research? Are you open to change? Does your school support upskilling and personal development? Do you know who you can talk to if you want to learn more about practices and skills that can support your teaching?

Back to Australia now and I’d like to share with you a really interesting 2-part reader submission article we published recently. Teachers from St Joseph’s Primary School in Melbourne, alongside Associate Professor Kathy Smith wrote about their work into understanding how to effectively support each student to be intellectually, behaviourally, emotionally and socially engaged as learners. In the first article, 3 of the teachers detailed how they began to plan, teach and interact with their students in different ways. In the second article, 2 foundation teachers explained how they’ve benefited from examining their own practice throughout this experience.

I encourage you to have a read of the full articles which are freely available at our website, teachermagazine.com. Now though, I’d like to share one quote with you from year 6 teacher Bek, who reflected that asking for student feedback was once a daunting task for her, but now she feels better equipped to respond to and act on this feedback. Here’s what she wrote:

Recently, I met with a student and their parents to explore how the student was feeling about school. In the meeting, the student said, ‘I’m bored’. In the past, this comment would have been a trigger making me feel a mixture of responses. I would have felt uncomfortable, undervalued and deflated. Yet having explored student engagement in our work together as a team, I felt empowered to talk more confidently about this feedback.

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Back to our overarching theme of student welfare now, and I’d like to highlight with you a recent research publication that looks into how teachers are supporting younger students experiencing menstruation, and any barriers they might be facing. This is on the back of the fact that worldwide, the onset age of menstruation is declining, with 12% of girls in Australia having their first period between the ages of 8 and 11. Despite this, formal education on menstruation is not included in the national curriculum until the age of 10 at the earliest.

I spoke with one of the report’s co-authors, Associate Professor Ivanka Prichard from Flinders University, about the study and its findings. The research team were able to identify 3 themes from interviews they conducted with school staff. The themes were: The prevalence of deficit models of early onset of menstruation and children’s capacity to know; gendered gatekeeping of menstruation knowledge; and systemic barriers and inconsistencies in menstruation education.

On that third theme (systemic barriers) Ivanka had some really interesting points to share. Here’s what she had to say:

Some of the current barriers lie around a lack of consistent training for teachers Australia-wide, and that current training is opt-in. Teachers need to be equipped to talk about menstruation in affirming ways at any time, with all students, regardless of age or gender. Some teachers may also feel like younger students may not have the capacity to understand what is going on. But there are ways that we can scaffold information so that if a student does have further questions, they can talk with a trusted teacher.

So, that quote there from Ivanka brings me to a couple of questions for you to reflect on. As a classroom teacher, do you feel equipped to talk about menstruation with all students? And as a school leader, what opportunities are there for staff to be trained in this area? Is the training compulsory or opt-in?

And, one final highlight to share with you on the topic of student welfare. It’s our latest infographic which looks at a new report on vaping. The interesting thing about this report, which is from the Advocate for Children and Young People in New South Wales, is that it asked school-aged children themselves how they would support another young person who is trying to quit vaping. Over half suggested someone to talk to and 26% said provide an alternative activity or substitute. Only 10% said to ban vaping.

So, it’s certainly a really interesting piece of research that could help inform the supports that you offer to students in this area. You can find the infographic by browsing the infographic tab at our website, teachermagazine.com, but I’ll also place a direct link to it in the transcript of this podcast, which is also available at our website on the podcast tab. That’s where you’ll also find the direct links to all the other content I mentioned in today’s episode.

So, that's all for this episode. Thanks for listening. You’re now all caught up on the latest evidence, insight and action. Don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast channel wherever you get your podcasts from, so you can be notified of any new episodes as soon as they land.

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