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Thornton, S 2011, 'Supporting children’s mental well-being in primary schools: problem-solving through communication and action', PhD thesis, Southern Cross University, Lismore, NSW.

Copyright S Thornton 2011


Children‟s mental well-being has emerged as a significant priority for education, with increasing numbers of children experiencing family breakdown, anxiety, depression, oppositional disorders and attention difficulties. Australian governments have responded, identifying schools as key sites for intervention. Deficit discourses have gradually been displaced by strengths-based understandings and an emphasis on health promotion. Educational policy has focused on the importance of evidence-based prevention and early intervention in schools, leading to a plethora of programs aimed at preparing children socially and emotionally for the 21st century. Increasingly teachers have been viewed as having an integral role to play in supporting children‟s mental well-being.

This study sought a deeper understanding of teachers‟ attitudes, values and beliefs about children‟s mental well-being and the impact these have on classroom practice. The study also investigated the change processes experienced by teachers as they seek to improve their practice in relation to children‟s social and emotional learning. Participatory action research was undertaken in collaboration with 24 teachers from three primary schools in New South Wales, Australia. Each of the three participating schools implemented a different approach with varying degrees of engagement by teachers. Questionnaires, focus group discussions and interviews were conducted over a 12-month period as teachers implemented initiatives in their classrooms aimed at improving support for children‟s mental well-being. Teachers set their own goals as a way of tracking their professional growth throughout the research process.

The study found that teachers' attitudes, values, beliefs and practices concerning children‟s mental well-being were inextricably linked with their constructions of childhood. As a result, teachers generally expressed concern regarding their role and capacity to effectively support children‟s mental well-being. Communication and dialogue emerged as pivotal for teachers as they applied problem solving strategies to bring about change in their capacity to engage with children‟s mental well-being, improve their relationships with children and negotiate the cultural dimensions of their school community. Sustaining teachers‟ professional learning with regard to children‟s mental well-being required effective leadership that supports ongoing professional dialogue and fosters an environment where teachers can reflect critically on their understandings and practice. Hence, Communicative Action Theory, together with the key tenets of Ecological Theory, were found to be useful in explaining the quite complex personal, social and cultural dynamics at work in understanding, critiquing and developing support for student mental well-being.