Education Social Commentary Wellbeing

**THIS** might just be the biggest challenge facing your school…

Of all the challenges facing Australian schools in the 21st Century, including funding, falling behind Asia, and preparing kids for jobs that don’t yet exist, there is one challenge that is not being afforded the attention it deserves, and in light of the shifting political landscape it might just be the biggest challenge facing schools in the 21st Century; “Do young people feel as though they belong at school?”

In 2015, the NSW Department of Education published a report of the findings of a 2013 pilot survey of 78,600 high schools students in public schools across the state. Using the Tell Them From Me (TTFM) Survey, students were asked to respond to questions about their experiences of school.

This was the standout finding for mine.


It’s referenced against Canada, as this is where the TTFM survey was designed.

These findings suggest that even when belonging is at its “best” – in Year 7 – around 30% of kids feel as though they do not belong at school. I appreciate that this might not represent your school. But what proportion of your students feel as though they don’t belong?

It’s important to recognise that as well as benefits to learning, studies have shown a teenager’s sense of belonging has the strongest link to depression – even more so than attachment to parents (assuming there has been no prior mental illness). This should serve as a prescient warning, given that kids who start school next year will graduate in 2030, the year that the World Health Organisation predicts that depression will become the leading cause of disease in the world.

Interventions that promote school belonging should therefore be a vital part of any approach to enhance student wellbeing, but schools are in an almost impossible situation as they do not operate in isolation. In many ways they reflect the society they serve, and the issue of youth belonging is a hot topic at the moment in light of Immigration Minister Peter Dutton’s suggestion that disaffected Muslim youth’s involvement in terrorism and crime is a result of allowing so many Lebanese Muslims into Australia in the 70s. Dutton is seemingly unaware of the irony that his words only further disaffect those of the Muslim faith.

When you feel you don’t belong where you are, you go looking for someone – anyone – who gives you the impression that you matter. This is the modus operandi of every gang in the world.

And of course, Minister Dutton isn’t alone. This year saw the return of Pauline Hanson to the Senate, riding the crest of a wave of anti-Muslim sentiment, supported by the likes – of all people – Sonia Kruger. Ray Hadley, Alan Jones and Andrew Bolt we expect and we can reassure ourselves that young people aren’t listening to them, even if there parents are. But the host of The Voice??? 

And of course it’s not just Muslim youth who might feel marginalised. Cast your mind back over 2016 and think how some young people might be affected by a national newspaper carrying a cartoon depicting Indigenous fathers as incapable of raising their young.

Or how might adolescents being raised by same-sex parents be impacted by the debate about marriage equality? And just how do schools ensure that these young people don’t feel ostracised, when in 2015, education departments banned schools from showing Gayby Baby, a short film exploring what it’s like growing up with same-sex parents. Yep, banned.

And of course there’s the furore surrounding the Safe Schools Coalition – an intervention to promote school belonging for LGBTIQ kids. An issue brought into sharp focus this week with the death of 13 year old Tyrone Unsworth.

The results of the Brexit and US Election campaigns have highlighted that ignorance, fear and “othering” gets votes whilst for and for media organisations, hits, likes and ratings. But at what cost to our young people and society in general?

I was in the UK a few days after the Brexit vote and saw the impact of the campaign. Leaving aside the fact that some of the more ill-informed thought voting “Leave” actually meant that immigrants had to leave, there were countless examples of minority groups being targeted, either verbally or physically. Many of these groups were young people in schools. I can remember when UKIP was a joke.

And since Trump’s election win, US media are reporting a significant rise in hate crimes including episodes of racist or anti-Semitic, pro-Trump graffiti along with threats or attacks against Muslims, many of which are occurring in schools. I can remember when Trump was a joke.

screen-shot-2016-11-27-at-12-11-10-pmI also remember when the likes of Pauline Hanson and Cory Bernardi were something of a joke in Australia. But given Bernadi’s “dog whistle” tweet on the evening of Trump’s win, featuring a red baseball cap with the slogan “Make Australia Great Again” (which is still “pinned” to his Twitter profile) we would be foolish to dismiss them out of hand.

Whilst many have suggested that Australia’s compulsory voting laws mean that such right-wing rhetoric will never win the top job, that misses the point. Brexit and Trump have given increased legitimacy to such views. We even have terms for it now, “Post Truth” and “Alt Right.” It legitimises bigotry, it trickles down to our young, and whilst Attorney General George Brandis believes this is an inalienable right, I’d suggest we need to recognise the impact it’s having across society, not just in politics.

I know schools are constantly challenged to better prepare students for a world that doesn’t yet exist, particularly as we appear to be outperformed by our Asian neighbours in education league tables. Maybe that’s why we’re seeing an increased emphasis on Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) or it’s sibling STEAM (A is for Arts), whilst also developing their so-called 21st Century Skills of communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking (The 4 Cs).

But if kids don’t feel like they belong when they walk through the gates at school, we’ve got Buckley’s chance of any one of these acronyms or approaches having an impact. And then we’re going to face much bigger social issues than just losing the “Education Race” to Asia, and in my opinion, it won’t be the schools that are to blame.

Even though – of course – they will be by politicians and the media.

Engagement & Motivation Mindset Wellbeing

Could having goals contribute to depression?

We’re told that having goals is important. At school we teach kids the importance of them whilst there wouldn’t be a boardroom in the country that hasn’t hosted a goal-setting workshop.

But what if your goals were making you depressed? Read on…

Last week I ran 10km. It took me just over an hour. Whilst this time isn’t going to be setting any records I was pleased for one reason alone.

It was the furthest I’d run in over 3 years.

My last ‘double-digit’ run was in the 2012 City2Surf from Sydney CBD to Bondi Beach and the three occasions I have completed the 14km City2Surf account for my three longest runs.

In May I plan to run the Sydney Morning Herald Half Marathon, before taking on the full Sydney Marathon in September. You may have read about this on my MarathonMindset blog…

From the outset my goals have been process and progress orientated. By that I mean I haven’t been focused so much on the times I run, rather the improvements I make in between runs.

I look at all manner of things:

  • How do my legs feel at the 5km mark?
  • How has my breathing improved?
  • Am I more relaxed in my upper body?
  • Has my pace (time per km) decreased on similar runs?
  • Am I able to handle hills any better?
  • How many days does it take before I think, “I’m ready for another run?”

Clearly some of my interpretations may be incorrect in the moment, and constantly zeroing in on growth or progress means you sometimes miss the bigger picture.

This is where having milestones is important.

Running 10km was a milestone for me. Again I wasn’t interested in how quickly I ran it, just that I could.

My next milestone is 15km and I aim to do that by the end of April at the very latest.

Some people have said to me that in order to run the half marathon, you only need to get to 15km in your training. I’m not willing to bank on that, I’d like to know I have the kilometres in the legs before then.

I think it’s important to be really clear about what your goals, milestones and crucially your motivating factors are when taking on any challenge that is significantly out of your comfort zone – as running is for me.

Being unclear in any of these can lead to a dip in motivation.

In fact in her book Self Theories, Professor Carol Dweck (of Mindset fame) talks about how goals can contribute to depression.

Whilst her work in the 70’s and 80’s primarily focused on school students’ approaches to learning, you can probably see now how her work resonates across all fields.

In Self Theories she defines two types of goals.

Performance Goals

“This goal is about winning positive judgements of your competence and avoiding negative ones. In other words when students pursue performance goals they are concerned with their level of intelligence.”

Learning Goals

“This goal is about increasing your competence. It reflects a desire to learn new skills, master new tasks or understand new things.”

Dweck says, “It’s important to recognise that both types of goals are entirely normal and pretty much universal. And both can fuel achievement. [In] fact in the best of all possible worlds, students could achieve both goals at the same time.

[But] although I have argued that both types of goals are natural, we have found that an overemphasis on performance goals is a danger signal.”

In my experience I believe it’s possible that an over reliance on Performance Goals can lead individuals to:

  1. Opt for easy Performance Goals so as to guarantee their success, but in doing this they limit their potential for growth;
  2. Attempt and fail to achieve Performance Goals and this then impacts on their self esteem.

Dweck goes on to describe how Benjamin Dykman of Washington State University has shown how peoples’ goals can contribute to self-esteem loss and depression when they encounter negative events.

Dykman (1998) extended on the premise of Performance and Learning Goals by describing them as validation-seeking goals, and growth-seeking goals respectively. He also extended this far beyond the classroom into everyday life including sports, work and family relationships.

He says:

“Validation-seeking individuals are those having a strong motivational need to establish or prove their basic self worth, competence, or likeability. Stemming from this need to prove their basic worth, competence or likeability, validation-seeking individuals show an accompanying tendency to appraise difficult or challenging situations as major tests or measures of their basic worth, competence or likeability. In other words, validation-seeking individuals see their basic worth, competence or likeability as being ‘on the line’ when faced with challenging or difficult situations.

On the other hand…

“Growth-seeking individuals are those who have a strong motivational need to improve or grow as people, develop their capacities and realise their potential. [Growth] seeking individuals are willing to confront challenge or adversity in order to grow, improve and reach their fullest potential. Stemming from these growth needs, growth-seeking individuals show and accompanying tendency to appraise difficult or stressful situations as opportunities for learning, growth and self improvement.”

Validation-seeking individuals who set themselves but fail to achieve Performance Goals are more likely to see that failure as a measure of the self, and over time this can impact on their overall level of wellbeing.

Whereas growth-seeking individuals are less likely to be depressed, to have been depressed in the recent past or to be generally prone to depression.

Next time you set yourself a goal, are mandated by a workshop guru to come up with one, or are tasked with inspiring your colleagues to set goals, try to ensure it’s a learning or growth-seeking goal.

It will most likely be better for you, and those around you.

Education Wellbeing

Are the smartest kids also the saddest?

Late last year, the OECD published the latest of their PISA tables.

Predictably, many went into meltdown, whether it was due to their country’s position on the table, their respective government’s reaction to the results or those who detest standardised testing.

But as this article shows, the tests are not all about numeracy and literacy.

As part of the tests, students were asked to agree or disagree with the statement:

I feel happy at school.

The responses to this statement have been mapped against their test scores in the image below.

test scores v happy kids

From an Australian point of view, should we be more concerned (than it appears we are) that students in our schools are some of the least happy kids in the OECD?

What do we make of the fact that the least happy students also come from countries that top the academic tables – South Korea, Finland, Estonia & Poland?

Admittedly Shanghai (even though I’ve looked at countless maps, and I’m still not convinced it’s a country in its own right) and Singapore are ahead of Australia in both the brains and the smiles, but I’m not really interested in starting a Happiness Race.

Sure we can get into a debate about the true meaning of happiness or whether you feel school should be “fun” or not, but I’m more interested in exploring why it is that so many kids would say they are not happy at school and what the potential knock-on effects of this might be.

Just going off on a tangent here…

Far too many people do not enjoy what they do for a living. They watch the clock, waiting for 5pm, and spend their weekdays wishing for the weekend. Maybe not you, but I guarantee you can think of a friend for whom this applies. It is not an uncommon phenomenon.

Why do we accept this? When it’s pretty much accepted that humans are at the top of the intelligence tree, why do we choose to sacrifice most of our waking hours doing something we don’t enjoy – or worse – actually hate?


When did you or your friend accept this future?

Could it be that as the OECD suggests, kids at school spend most of their day waiting for 3pm, or spend their weekdays wishing for the weekend.

Could it be that kids learn at a very early age that weekdays are just a means to the weekend?

Could it be that schools are actually doing a great job of preparing kids for the world of work that you or your friend experience?

What if, instead of the all-too-predictable response from government highlighting the “need to raise academic standards”, their response to the OECD tables was, “perhaps we should explore how we can make school more enjoyable.”

Yes we can focus on enhancing results in standardised testing – to be honest it’s not that hard.

Introduce rote learning en masse, daily repetition and cull some of the more “holistic” approaches to education and you’ll be on the right track.

But great test scores does not a happy child make.

And an unhappy child can make an even more unhappy adult. The four countries I identified above, South Korea, Finland, Estonia & Poland, have some of the highest suicide rates in the OECD.

Clearly I’m not claiming that there is a direct link between test scores and depression, nor am I saying that school should be all fun and games.

But what I am advocating is that if we focussed on engagement and wellbeing first and foremost in schools, kids would feel happier about being there and as a result achievement would rise.

This is opposed to the current trend that seems to focus on achievement at the expense of engagement & wellbeing of students and teachers.

In Australia, support is available at all times by calling Lifeline on 131 114, Mensline on 1300 789 978, and Kids Helpline 1800 551 800
Education Social Justice Wellbeing Youth

When Freedom of Religion becomes Bullying

This article was originally published here at Online Opinion.

In polite company, I tend to avoid discussing politics or religion, and whilst writing around educational matters, often requires me to comment on the former, I’ve managed to steer clear of the latter. Until now.

In response to the federal government announcement that it intends to consolidate the five separate human rights policies into a single Act, Christian Schools Australia (CSA) argue that they must be able to retain the right to discriminate against Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual or Transgender (GLBT) teachers, or those heterosexual teachers who live with a partner out of wedlock.

To date, the government has granted exemptions for religious schools to discriminate on the basis of religion, sexual orientation and marital status with respect to staff and students. With the government’s announcement, the CSA are worried that its schools stand to lose that right.

The group’s chief executive officer, Stephen O’Doherty, said exemptions relating to sexual orientation and gender identity should remain in place. “We currently have the ability to employ people who have Christian beliefs and whose lifestyles are consistent with those beliefs.”

He goes on, “We are seeking exemptions to be able to employ staff who are Christian and hold certain beliefs. For instance, many Christians believe that being an active homosexual or living with a partner out of wedlock is not part of the Christian faith.”

All this from an association that claims on its website to, “[serve] the diverse needs of a large network of member schools.” (My italics.)

Presumably then, schools in the CSA do not hire women, as Timothy 2:11 states:

“I permit no woman to teach or have authority over men; she is to keep silent.”

Or do they pick and choose which Christian beliefs best suit their argument?

I’m not a scholar of religion. I am not anti-Christian, or anti any belief system.

I’m in favour of people having the right to worship who, what, when or how they like. So long as that in doing so, it does not impinge on anyone else’s rights or wellbeing.

In what is reportedly the first systematic review and analysis of suicidality and depressive symptoms in sexual minority youth, Dr Michael Marshal PhD from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in Pennsylvania conducted an analysis of nineteen studies that included a total of 122,995 participants.

He says, “gay and lesbian individuals experience much more violence, discrimination, and victimization than heterosexual teenagers, which in turn leads to increased stress and feelings of helplessness and hopelessness that can develop into depression and [suicide].” He also argues that gay teens are socially marginalized and ostracized from mainstream social groups and, as a result, they gravitate to “fringe” social groups, where there tends to be more risky behaviour, including drug and alcohol use.

In short, GLBT teens are three times more likely to report a history of suicidality and more than twice as likely to report symptoms of depression than their heterosexual counterparts

And what is the Christian response?

That it’s okay to discriminate against GLBT kids and adults?

And if you’re GLBT, you have no place in our schools or community?

The schoolyard bully takes on an entirely more dangerous form in this instance.

In March of this year, the federal government launched, with great fanfare the Bullying. No Way! website. But should the federal government continue to grant exemptions to these schools then it will be complicit in the institutionalized bullying of GLBT children and adults across Australia.

For this to occur in the name of God is one thing, but surely it can’t be allowed happen in the name of education?

Support is available at all times by calling Lifeline on 131 114, Mensline on 1300 789 978, and Kids Helpline 1800 551 800

Media Social Justice Wellbeing

Impact of the Influential on Mental Illness

Appalled by some of the comments made by BBC personality Jeremy Clarkson last week, I wrote this piece. It has been published on the ABC website, The Drum.

“Imagine in the aftermath of a suicide on a busy rail network, trains don’t wait until body has been removed from tracks. Imagine the remains of the victim are left, while drivers are ordered to get the train back on schedule as quickly as possible. You can’t imagine that. Can you?” Read the full article on The ABC…


Can you help me raise $1000 for Men’s Health?

As you’ll be aware this month is Movember, the global initiative to raise awareness of Men’s Health, with particular emphasis on depression and prostate cancer.

I will be growing a moustache in an attempt to raise $1000.

You may think, “What’s the big deal about you growing a moustache? You’ve had a goatee as long as I’ve known you!”

And here in lies the issue. The rules of Movember stipulate you MUST start the month completely CLEAN SHAVEN.

Now, my facial hair grows at a rate comparable to that of a 12 year old. I grew a goatee at age 18 after not shaving for 4 months.

The  beard component of the goatee serves to disguise my disproportinately large chin.

A chin so large that when I was in Year 7, I was awarded the Jimmy Hill Award for Largest Chin in High School.

In Year 10, I was awarded the Desperate Dan Award for Largest Chin in the County (Open Age Division).

So in order to make my efforts, and the inevitable ridicule worthwhile… Please, please, please, (pretty please with a cherry on top) donate to Movember here… and you can see my mo grow here

And you know what? Even if you can’t donate, at least go home and have a chat with your beloved men folk about their health…

Because to be honest, as blokes, we think we’re too tough to talk about or worry about our health. We won’t get stuff checked out… And sometimes when eventually we do find out there’s a problem… it’s too late.

(By the way Prostate Cancer can now be checked via a simple blood test… no fingers!!!)

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Media Wellbeing Youth

Talking Youth Depression on Channel 10

In case you missed my appearance on Channel 10 discussing youth depression and wellbeing, you can watch the interview here.

Please share it with your staff at your school, friends or family.

We need to keep on talking about it…

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Media Wellbeing Youth

Catch Dr Suzy Green and Me on Channel 10 – Monday 6.30pm


Just a quick note to let you know that last week I recorded an interview for the 6.30 Report with George Negus. It is due to be aired on Monday 15th September at (guess when?) 6.30pm on Channel 10 in Australia.

The subject of the story is youth depression and how education can address student wellbeing in a more proactive way. As well as me, Dr Suzy Green from the Positive Psychology Institute in Sydney also features.

If you can’t manage to see it tomorrow, I’ll post the video of it on my site in the coming days.

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Change Wellbeing

My talk at the Positive Psychology in Education Symposium

On Saturday 16th April, I had the pleasure of attending the Positive Psychology in Education Symposium at Sydney University.

It was a great opportunity to meet with some of the leading educators and psychologists from all over Australia and I’m looking forward to collaborating with some of them in the future…

I was also very fortunate to be invited to be one of the keynote speakers at the Symposium.

For those of you who could not attend the symposium, you can watch my talk here.


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Education Wellbeing

Study Tour | Week 5 Wrap

So five weeks come to an end. It’s been a remarkable time in the UK, USA and Canada. Just this week I’ve had the opportunity to work with Tayyab Rashid in Toronto, and he is doing some very cool stuff with Signature Strengths in education. He works in a wide range of schools from the affluent to the less well off and looks to engage teachers, students and parents in the work. He is also looking to develop more resources that can be used in schools, and we to be able to collaborate in some way with Tayyab on these in the coming months.

Whilst in Toronto, I also had the chance to sit in a Year 10 English Class at Riverdale School (no connection with the Riverdale school I visited in NYC), where positive psychology had been embedded into the curriculum. This was part of a huge curriculum document that the University of Pennsylvania have designed, and it was being implemented by Tayyab’s wife Afrose. Both Tayyab’s and Afrose’s work is part of a significant research project to measure, in a quantifiable manner, the effect it has on the students.

I also met with Therese Joyce (an Aussie who now lives in Canada) who is the director of the EF School in Toronto. She’s done some great staff development training based on positive psychology which the actual effect on staff wellbeing has also been measured by the University of Melbourne. The results of which the EF school are still waiting on.

From temperatures of -11 (yes, minus eleven) celsius I flew to Phoenix, Arizona to meet with Dr Howard Cutler. Dr Cutler wrote the “Art of Happiness” series with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. (The Art of Happiness was on the New York Times best seller list for TWO years!). He is in the process of developing an Art of Happiness educational program, which he plans to pilot in Phoenix. As a psychiatrist, with expertise in Positive Psychology AND years of experience of working with the Dalai Lama, I was hoping for an inspiring and exciting few hours conversation… and I got it! We talked about all manner of things and we challenged each others thinking and agreed on many aspects of our educational philosophy. Again I’m honoured to be able to say that Dr Cutler wants to continue to work with me in the future on in the first instance his Art of Happiness in Education project… very exciting!

To try to sum up what the experience of this tour has been like for me in a few words would prove futile. I believe it will be in the coming months or even years that I truly understand exactly what I’ve gotten from it.

What I can say is that I’ve made partnerships, and dare I say friends that I hope to continue working with in the months and years to come. I’ve had the opportunity to meet and engage with people whose work I have admired for a very long time, and the fact that many of those same people would like to work with me in the future is incredibly exciting and affirming for me.

Thank you to all the people who gave up their time to meet with me and share their work. It was a truly inspirational time.

I’d really like to thank the Anika Foundation who sponsored this trip, and I hope to do them proud with the programs, partnerships and ideas I bring back to Australia.

Where to from here…? To be honest I have so many ideas and projects in mind, that I need to take some time to reflect and prioritise. I know that some of these ideas may well challenge some of the long-held beliefs about education and the role of a teacher, and I know there will be barriers and challenges to overcome.

What I can say is… if you want to come with me… jump on board, the more the merrier!

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