A korowai of awhi and wellbeing

Issue: Volume 100, Number 7

Posted: 10 June 2021
Reference #: 1HALhF

Education Gazette talks to Jase Williams, principal at Henry Hill School, about the challenges of 2020 and how doing things differently is achieving better outcomes for ākonga.

Henry Hill School ākonga reacting to a hands-on learning experience.

Henry Hill School ākonga reacting to a hands-on learning experience.

Henry Hill School in Napier faced more than its fair share of challenges in 2020. In addition to dealing with Covid-19, the school experienced flooding in November.

Initial fears that the school would have to stay closed for the rest of the year were short-lived, as support from the community and the Ministry of Education got the school ready to reopen in just a week.

Principal Jase Williams believes his school’s key purpose is to be a welcoming and safe space for ākonga and the community around them.

Jase arrived at Henry Hill School late in 2012. There were pockets of success within the school, but the ERO review was poor; transience among students was an issue, and staff were wanting change.

Jase says Henry Hill School is one of the few in Napier that does not have an enrolment zone. They enrol a large number of students from local schools who leave their school before a stand down or suspension is formally recorded, or are asked to informally try another school.

“Many students who transitioned here were also more impulsive than others and lacked age-appropriate social skills,” he adds.

“I had scope to shake things up and make some changes,” says Jase. “I was a first-time principal with nothing to lose.”

He began by taking time to talk with staff and hear their thoughts on how they could improve things, and then it was about putting that together and creating an action plan.

“ERO had one page of changes to make, but I had eight pages,” says Jase.

“It was a great process. People often view ERO as this scary experience, but we got to do things in conjunction with them – they walked alongside us for a year or so.”

Achieving positive change

Over time Jase and his team used data to inquire into what they could do to make things better for their learners.

The Wellbeing@School survey revealed that almost half of the children felt unsafe in a range of contexts.

That clarified and reinforced the importance of making Henry Hill School a place where ākonga wanted to be.

“We need to make sure this place is awesome,” says Jase.

The school recognised there was a clear link between wellbeing, hauora, learning, behaviour and attendance, so they worked to target those areas directly.

“Although as a staff we felt our school environment was generally safe and calm, we set out to provide a more inclusive and more regulating learning environment – both physically and holistically.”

Using the Inquiry and Knowledge-Building Cycle and one of the four Best Evidence Synthesis Four Levers – productive inquiry and knowledge-building for professional and policy learning – it was identified that they needed to provide their staff with knowledge and confidence, and the contexts in which to connect with students and whānau on a more personal level.

“Our staff needed to understand the reasons for both our personal and student behaviours and dysregulation from a neuroscience perspective. This would help change our practice to applying a social, emotional and trauma-informed lens to each situation or scenario, to better support our students and community,” says Jase.

By 2017, data showed a marked progress in students’ achievement in areas such as reading.

It wasn’t long before they could see other tangible differences in the school and community too. The roll increased, transience went down, and data showed that fewer children were leaving.

“Wellbeing was improving too,” says Jase. “Kids were happy being at school, and there was more of a sense of belonging.”

Taking a moment to self-regulate and working on being present in the moment.

Taking a moment to self-regulate and working on being present in the moment.

Trauma-informed approach

Jase and his team take a trauma-informed approach to how they teach and interact with ākonga. They recognise and understand that trauma affects tamariki and whānau, so focus on promoting wellbeing in everything they do.

They have embedded trauma-informed approaches within the school culture in a way that relates culturally to their community.

“Learning here happens through a trauma-informed lens where social and emotional learning is at the heart of everything we do,” says Jase.

“Relationally, we can regulate and calm kids just by being ourselves,” he says.

Small adjustments to the school day have helped to make their approach practical.

“There are regulatory breaks inserted into the day’s learning, and we also did away with a traditional school bell years ago to reduce anxiety and stress,” explains Jase.

“We still read the roll to start every day. Our kids know they are seen,” he says.

Starting each day with mindfulness exercises led by ākonga in te reo Māori, helps the team to reset and focus on the day ahead, says Jase. “And for our kids, it provides them with an opportunity to be present in the moment and enjoy a calm start to the day, alongside their peers and their teachers.”

Social and emotional skills can be taught and supported. Students need the vocabulary and language to engage in social and emotional learning, so they can identify how they are feeling, in order to develop the strategies to stay calm.

“The ultimate outcome is that these skills and strategies help calm and regulate them across situations and scenarios outside of school too,” says Jase.

Sensory garden

In recent years they have added to their support for students with a sensory garden. Te Āhuru Mōwai – a calm place or safe haven – is one of Henry Hill School’s most significant assets. The garden supports the school’s approach to helping students feel calm and connected with their peers.

According to Jase, it’s a physical environment that aligns with the school’s curriculum.

“We have a hands-on curriculum where kids learn through doing and being immersed in rich experiences, so we wanted to replicate and weave that philosophy into our physical spaces,” he says.

“We wanted to ensure our physical environment provided the same korowai of awhi and wellbeing.

“We already had a quiet, calm garden space where kids would sit and read books, play cards, play guitar or ukelele, or just sit and chat and hang out with their friends.”

However, he says a trip to visit schools in Melbourne inspired him to take this further, and the creation of a dedicated sensory space became part of their strategic planning and annual plan.

“Two of our learning facilitators, Lisa Morton and Sam Johnstone, stepped up to lead this project, in large part due to their love of te ao Māori, environmental sustainability, and the trauma-informed approach to social and emotional learning,” says Jase.

“They both spent countless hours talking together with tamariki, planning, designing, creating and implementing every element within the space.

“All of the sensory elements within Te Āhuru Mōwai are recycled, reused or repurposed, and everyone had a hand in creating the pieces – from hanging bird feeders and wind chimes, through to a bug hotel!

Te Āhuru Mōwai has become a central part of life at the school, and ākonga use the space to self-regulate.

Sensory garden: Repurposed materials create the entrance to the school’s sensory space.

Sensory garden: Repurposed materials create the entrance to the school’s sensory space.

Cultivating community

Jase tells the story of a boy who got into a conflict on the rugby field and needed time to cool off.

“Although nothing outside the school gates is calm and consistent for him, he had a place where he could go to calm himself at school,” says Jase.

“He told me later how he appreciated having somewhere quiet in the school he could hang out in.”

The garden was damaged during the flood in November 2020, but the community pulled together quickly to rebuild.

“We knew that we had to have it up and running for when school reopened the following week,” says Jase.

“The next day, we had close to 200 people helping to put it together again. In a week, we rebuilt something that took 18 months to create in the first place.

“So much of that came from the relationships we’d cultivated with the community.”

Jase says cultivating these relationships starts with presence and familiarity, including being both physically and emotionally available each day during school drop offs and pickups.

“We’re very informal here and this, coupled with lots of casual chats at the school gate, helps to break down any barriers or intergenerational stigma attached with school.”

Jase recalls that the biggest change came four years ago when, after community consultation, they decided to change how they connected with the community with regard to whānau conferences.

“We’d done parent conferences, three-way conferences, and student led conferences, but these still seemed too sterile and there was no real shift in the quality of our relationships with our whānau.

“So, we created a termly ‘Community Day’ where we invited whānau in to learn alongside their kids. These learning experiences were hands-on and involved elements of digital technology and localised curriculum. Through these learning experiences, our whānau got to see how their kids learn, were active participants themselves and we got to share everything else that is important to us like our trauma-informed approach.

“During the Covid-19 lockdown, our community eased into online remote distance learning seamlessly as the style of learning was familiar to them and they were used to working with us.”

He waka eke noa

For Jase, it’s all about being authentic in everything they do. That meant being honest about the challenges of Covid-19 and acknowledging they were in the same boat as everyone else.

“It helps if we are calm and presenting that we’re all in this together,” he says.

Jase and his team are continuing their commitment to meeting the diverse needs of all their learners and the wider community – and this is a focus of their professional learning and development.

“As teachers, we now have the words to talk with our children. We’re developing the intellectual architecture rather than relying on our instincts.”

One thing Jase will continue utilising is the knowledge and support of whānau.

“We’ve got a community that like sharing their background with us,” he says. “Our relationships were already good, but they’re even richer now.”

 

Mindfulness: A relational and regulating start to the school day for tamariki.

Mindfulness: A relational and regulating start to the school day for tamariki.

Trauma-informed practices

Trauma-affected students can often experience emotional dysregulation at school, which can affect their learning and the learning of others.

In a trauma sensitive school, teachers understand the impact and prevalence of trauma, are aware that students and their whānau need to feel safe, welcomed, and included. This understanding leads to reflection, an attitude shift and willingness/knowledge that changes they make, can make a difference.

Trauma-informed practices in schools support environments that reduce stress levels of students and teachers and enable learning and positive social interaction, through consistent environments and relational approaches. They encompass the whole organisational structure of a school, from its vision and values, to its policies and practices sited in multi-tiered systems of support.

Wellbeing@School

The Wellbeing@School Toolkit(external link) (W@S) is a free self-review resource for schools that supports a whole school approach to examining the factors that promote a safe, positive learning climate.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero, reporter@edgazette.govt.nz

Posted: 8:40 AM, 10 June 2021

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